The Graduation Gift Guide: For High School and College Graduates

Fifth Third Bank


When the final diploma has been handed out and the last strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” fade at high school and college graduation ceremonies across the country, it’s time for family parties, cake, and, of course, gifts. What will your contribution to the pile be? A generic picture frame? A personalized beach towel? Or something that carries a little more meaning and emotional weight?

If it’s the latter, you’ll have to skip the mall engraving store and spend a little time figuring out what matters to your graduate at this stage in their life—and what type of gift can help them lead a financially healthy and independent lifestyle. Consider his or her post-graduation plans, where they live, and whether they will be supporting themselves or relying on parents or student loans. And, most importantly, taking all of this into account, think about how can you come up with a creative gift idea that will honor their uniqueness and help them achieve their goals.

Here are several ideas to get you started.

Off-to-Work Gifts

If your graduate is heading off to a first job, gifts that acknowledge the momentousness of the transition from school to work and help ease it will likely be appreciated. For instance:

  • A personalized folio or briefcase to replace that old threadbare backpack.
  • Gift cards for gas or public transit for soon-to-be-commuters accustomed to walking to classes.
  • A planner to keep track of all the appointments, meetings and happy hours that swirl around a brand new employee.

Off-on-the-Right-Foot Gifts

The knowledge, friendships, and experiences you gained at college may be priceless, but it sure doesn’t come cheap. Why not look for ways to set your graduate on the most solid financial footing possible after they complete their high school or college experience?

  • Though it may seem a bit unromantic, cash can make a real difference in the lives of students heading off to college or leaving college with student loans. Large bills are always appreciated, but there are creative ways to give cash as well—say, rolls of quarters for the new college student who will be using a Laundromat for the first time.
  • Prefer not to give cash? You have plenty of other options—think gift cards for grocery stores or restaurants for coveted nights out on the town.
  • Create a homemade “coupon book” with pages dedicated to specific needs such as a certain number of student loan payments, job search help, or tax planning for that first tax filing year.

Gifts that Keep on Giving

Most graduation gifts are one-time niceties, but if you want to remain involved in the new graduate’s life, explore ways to give gifts that will have a lasting impact:

  • Matching or recurring deposits to the high school grad’s college fund or the college grad’s retirement account are a gift that will continue to pay dividends for years to come.
  • Make a contribution to a charitable organization of the graduate’s choice. Not only will the graduate appreciate the thought, but you’ll both find satisfaction in knowing that your gift is making a difference for others.
  • Open an investment account in the name of the graduate. If you launch the account with a robo-advisor or target date fund, the funds will continue to grow and be reinvested in vehicles appropriate for the graduate’s age. By the time he or she is ready to retire, your gift will likely have increased many times over.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Splurge

For a truly unique gift consider pulling together the resources to fund a potentially life-changing, unforgettable experience. The possibilities are, of course, virtually endless and should be tailored to individual personality, but here are a couple examples to help you brainstorm:

  • Send him or her on a trip “around the world in 24 days,” led by Smithsonian Journeys.
  • Leave the options open for your graduate to visit a destination of choice by gifting an airline voucher—or all your frequent flier miles.

Graduation season is an exhilarating and transforming moment in your loved one’s life. Be sure your gift shows them that you revere their achievements and share their excitement. The extra time and consideration it requires will be well-worth the look in their eyes when the wrapping paper or card envelope is torn away and your genuine love and devotion is plain to see.