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15 grad gifts, from sunk-cost to splendid

Make yours a gift that makes a difference, in the short term or the long run.

By Donna_Freedman Jun 12, 2012 11:51AM
Image: College graduates (© Ariel Skelley / Blend Images/Getty Images)A childhood friend's kid just graduated from high school. I don't know him very well but I do wish him luck and thus decided to send a small check.

Then I realized that the amount I could afford to give would pay for maybe half a tank of gas for the family van. What good would it do him?

I changed my mind about the check.

Instead of money I'm giving a copy of Zac Bissonnette's new book, "How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents." Its 23-year-old author might be able to get through to this 18-year-old grad, whose parents have had money problems ever since he can remember.

What are you doing for the grad(s) on your list? I've come up with 15 ideas, from sunk-cost to splendid. No matter where you are financially, you can make a difference in a new grad's life.

Sunk-cost, free or nearly free

1. Free gift cards.
Cash in from a credit card rewards program or a program like MyPoints or Swagbucks. Focus on a retailer that sells everyday items (drugstore, discount department store) -- if your new grad is about to strike out on his own, he'll need to buy his own toothpaste and toilet paper. (Post continues after video.) Personal finance book.

2. Books about personal finance.
Yes, I'm repeating myself. But a PF book can be mighty handy when real-world money issues come knocking after graduation. Check your bookshelf for titles you've already read, or pay for it with gift cards as noted above. Allow me to suggest a few other titles: "Living Large in Lean Times: 250+ Ways to Buy Smarter, Spend Smarter, and Save Money," by Clark Howard; "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy," by MSN Money columnist Liz Weston; and "10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget," by the staff at the Wise Bread blog. 


3. Kitchen 101. This one's for the grad who's setting up housekeeping. "Shop" your own cupboards for basic food items, filling in if necessary at ethnic markets, drugstores (where spices, canned fruits, pasta and other staples regularly go on sale) or the restaurant supply store. Next: Create a cookbook of favorite recipes, with step-by-step instructions in case your recipient has yet to learn to cook.

4. Laundry 101. Another gift for someone leaving the nest. Get a laundry basket or bag from the dollar store and fill it with whatever you can spare from your stash of detergent, bleach, fabric softener and stain remover. (Extra frugal credit if you got these things cheaply with coupons and/or rebates.)

5. Homemade gift certificates.
Create coupons good for whatever you're able to offer. Examples: "Bring your laundry over twice a month and stay for dinner," "minor mending upon request," "stop by and wash your car any time," or a handful of coupons good for casseroles, lasagnas or any other signature dish.

Frugal/on a limited budget

6. Discounted gift card
. Don't have any free gift card options? Buy one on the secondary market, again for a practical purpose (e.g., supermarket, drugstore or gas station). Expect to get 3% to 12% off, sometimes more; use the aggregator site Gift Card Granny to compare deals.

7. Laundry cash.
If the machines in the grad's building are coin-op, give two or three (or more) rolls of quarters.

8. Weekly transit pass.
Or a monthly one, if you can afford it. The new commuter will thank you.

9. Warehouse club membership.
That is, if you think the grad will use it. If he drives a lot, the gasoline discount will be a big help.

10. Auto care.
If you're handy, offer your services for the next 12 months by changing oil, putting on the snow tires, replacing burned-out bulbs, etc.

Generous patron

11. Utilities.
Pay a few months' worth.

12. Rent.
Spot the new grad a month or more of rent payments.

13. Student loans.
If you're really flush, offer to make half a year's worth of payments. Lucky grad!

14. Gift card.
Yep, I keep coming back to that. But I can't imagine a young person not wanting, say, $500 worth of gasoline or groceries. Buy a number of cards in smaller amounts, though; it would be depressing if a $500 card were lost. Get them on the secondary market --  why not save if you can?

15. Home delivery.
Sign the recipient up for a year’s worth of regular deliveries of certain household essentials like paper products, laundry soap and pet items.

Got any great ideas for grad gifts? Please share them in the comments section.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.