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This time of year envelopes containing graduation invitations and announcements start showing up in mailboxes — but ideas for what constitutes a good gift may not be so plentiful.

While every graduate — high school or college — would almost certainly welcome a gift of cash, the giver might prefer some assurance that the gift is being used to help the new grad get off on the right foot in the next phase of his or her life. And whether you’re spending a little or a lot, you can give a gift with the potential to make a difference.

1. Gift Cards

Particularly for high school students, a check could disappear quickly — and it might not fund what you intended, says consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. A better gift for the same price is a gift card to the campus bookstore or to a nearby used textbook store, to the grocery store or to the drugstore. (Be aware that some chains are regional, so if your new grad is going on to college, you’ll want to be sure the cards can be used near the college.) If you don’t like the idea of cards, you can give consumable products — a laundry basket filled with towels, detergent and bathroom cleaning essentials or a caddy with shampoo, body wash, lotion and other items that would otherwise have to be purchased by the recipient.

(Bonus idea: Buy the cards from a discounter. GiftCardGranny, for example, offers other people’s unwanted cards at a discount. You could get an odd amount, but that also gives you an opportunity to explain how to stretch dollars — something new grads would do well to learn. And learning to get more value for their money is a lesson that can save them money for a lifetime.)

2. Subscriptions

Another possibility is subscriptions to publications relating to money or personal finance. They may get only a cursory glance, but they begin to bring financial issues into consciousness. There are personal finance books geared toward the young and inexperienced, and those may be very useful (look for those with short chapters and simple explanations.) Three that Woroch recommends:

  • Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance In Your Twenties and Thirties by Beth Kobliner
  • The Broke and Beautiful Life by Stefanie O’Connell (perfect for anyone pursuing an artistic career like acting or dancing as the author chronicles her adventures of pursuing the dream on a budget while teaching meaningful personal finance tips)
  • Complete Guide to Personal Finance: For Teenagers (for high school grads heading off to college)

3. A Credit Card

If you are a parent, adding your new grad as an authorized user on a credit card (or establishing a new one for that purpose) can be valuable. One piece of advice, Woroch says, is to keep the credit limit low. That way, if the new grad stumbles on the path to becoming a creditworthy adult, the parent can limit the damage with a low limit. Learning to use a card responsibly now can save a young person from much costlier mistakes later. There are credit cards specifically for users who want to build credit. A secured card can also be a great place to start. Here are some of the best secured credit cards in America.

4. A Roth IRA

If the high school grad has income, he or she can have a Roth IRA. Help your grad set up the account. The contributions cannot exceed earned income for the year, but it is a good way to show the grad you believe that starting to save early is crucial — time is an asset. (And this gift can also work for college grads — you could make it a substantial sum if the student is income-qualified and several people want to give a joint gift.)

Gifts for College Grads

If the graduate is walking off the stage with a college degree, the money gifts can be geared toward helping to prepare for professional life or to help to avoid unnecessary spending. Examples include:

1. A Budgeting Course

Most new grads need it, but don’t count on them to buy it for themselves. “One of the biggest hurdles any college grad will face upon entering the ‘real world’ is managing living expenses with social activities and savings,” Woroch says. “Learning how to create a budget that fits your needs and goals is crucial and something that people don’t do until well into their 30s if even then. There are lots of budgeting courses you can register your college grad for.”

2. Small Appliances, Cookware & Cookbooks

It’s time to learn to prepare at least some meals at home. A fast-food habit can be bad for both a budget and health. But it can be a real temptation if you think cooking is too hard, too time-consuming, and you aren’t even sure what you should be buying at the grocery store. There are cookbooks for absolute beginners as well as simple menu ideas for one or two.

3. A Tool Kit

The new grad can look online to learn how to make any number of simple household repairs — but tools are typically required. A very basic tool kit can come in handy — and save a phone call to a repair service.

4. A Smartphone

If the new grad is going to to be exiting the family cellphone plan or has no smartphone, a prepaid smartphone is a great gift. You could, for example, buy six months of service, says Woroch. That phone will function as a navigator to get the grad to job interviews, and it keeps grads connected via LinkedIn, which can be critical to landing a job. Woroch said it might also eliminate the need to pay for Internet service.

5. Help Presenting a Professional Image

Whether the grad needs some wardrobe basics, some time with a “branding” expert or a professional photo for LinkedIn, you can give a gift designed to give grads a boost into reaching their professional goals.

6. An Online Brokerage Account

“Start your college grad off with a few stocks that he or she can manage at eTrade, Sharebuilder or one of the many other online brokerages,” suggests Woroch, adding that coupon codes online can reduce the cost of setting up a new account. You or the new grad can also go online to find discounts on trades and find free online courses  on how to manage those accounts.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: iStock

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  • http://www.zazzle.com/sweet_sticky_rainbow sweetstickyrainbow

    A Roth IRA as a grad gift is certainly unique. I guess it beats rainbow swirly squiggles.

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