I think buying gifts for college students and recent graduates is one of the toughest things to do. They are old enough where kids gifts don't work, but most don't need adult gifts.
It's a weird time where getting a gift can also be especially helpful - giving them that item that they might not have been able to afford on their own.
Here's our gift guide for college students and recent grads.
This is also known as a Swiss army knife or a Leatherman. This is available at different levels of complexity and price points, though I like this $50 Leatherman as a combination of being affordable and useful without being overwhelming.
This is useful for all kinds of little tasks and it is small enough to carry everywhere. Just remind them not to try to fly with it in their pockets — the knife will get confiscated!
If your college student is starting to get a little worried about just how many plastic forks she throws out every week, this bamboo spoon/fork/knife/chopsticks set is sturdy, comes in an attractive pouch (several colors are available), and should just ride around in everyone's backpack/purse/whatever.
I have two myself and I love them.
Foldable or Collapsible Suitcase/Duffel
College students do a lot of traveling — whether it's across the country or just home for the weekend to do the laundry — and they also usually don't have a lot of storage space.
A high-quality collapsible bag lets them haul a lot of clothing but easily put the bag away under the bed or behind the dresser when it's not needed.
You should consider if your student needs a sturdier bag he or she can check on an airplane, or a lighter-weight duffel. There are a lot of options out there but this article rounds up a variety of different suggestions.
While some college students live at home, many others are away from their hometowns for the first time. Buy them a one-year subscription to their hometown newspaper and they can keep up with what's happening in town.
You cannot go wrong with Brooklinen, whose twin XL core set (flat, fitted, and two pillowcases) is $109 and will not only last their entire college career, but will probably be available for younger siblings or friends who need to match that weird size they'll never use again.
Cold Weather Gear
If your college student has just moved from California to Massachusetts, odds are he's suffering from serious climate shock. Women might like fleece-lined leggings, while both men and women would probably appreciate fleece- or cashmere-lined gloves, fleece hats, warm scarves, or heavy socks.
(Everyone swears by Smartwool socks for good reason; they're really warm, not scratchy, and last a long time. Women would probably love these fun "popcorn" knit socks, and here's their selection for men.)
Or just get them an L.L.Bean, Moosejaw, or REI gift certificate and let them pick out solid gear for themselves. Duluth Trading Company is another good option — especially for extended sizes.
I also like L.L.Bean's scuffs and clogs, many of which are fleece-lined but also have a sole on them so you can take a quick trip outside (or to the bathroom). Here's their women's collection and here's the one for men.
Again, your college student is probably wandering around the dorm a lot, going from bedroom to bathroom and back. There are a zillion options out there; here's the website Bare Necessities' current lineup.
Good options for college students are going to be long (ankle- instead of knee-length) and not too bulky; I'd avoid classic terrycloth in favor of a lightweight cotton kimono for warm climates, or a sweatshirt knit for colder climates.
This is selected because eventually they won't be on their parents' insurance plans anymore, and do you know how expensive it is to have major dental work?
This Oral-B model is highly recommended and comes with an extra head. It even has a timer to let you know when the fabled two minutes of brushing have elapsed.
Eventually, college students really are going to have to do laundry. Probably. (Don't ask me about the guy who lived across from me sophomore year.)
Dropps offers eco-friendly pods compatible with every kind of washer (HE, standard, front- or top-loading) in two sizes: regular and mini. They're highly portable; you can send your student a recyclable box, or buy a box for your house and just give your student a bagful of them. Try doing that with standard giant plastic jugs!
To fill out the gift, you could add a few mesh bags for washing delicates (also available from Dropps).
Zojirushi is a Japanese brand whose coffee mugs have recently taken the world by storm — and they are really that good. I brought one home a few months ago and not only do I love it, but my friends keep asking me about it because it just looks that great.
The coffee stays hot for at least six hours in my experience and it comes in a range of pretty colors — powdered stainless finishes from light pink to black.
Dimmable Desk Lamp
If your college student likes working at 2:00 a.m. while her roommate wants to be dead to the world, this lamp could be $29.99 well spent. It has seven brightness settings and five color modes, so your student can choose something easy on the eyes and appropriate to the time of day.
Plus, she can charge her phone using the USB port.
College students need a basically infinite supply of earbuds: to go to the gym, to block out roommates and dorm noise, to replace the ones they lost in class, to replace the ones that got ruined at the beach, and so forth.
Panasonic Ergofit earbuds are dirt cheap (less than $10!) and have perfectly reasonable sound quality, plus you really can have an infinite supply.
Higher-end, but not extreme, is this set of earbuds from Klipsch. They come with replaceable rubber tips that are available in several different sizes and can be swapped out if they get gross over time.
Journal or Planner
Know your college student, but if he or she would benefit from keeping a paper record of what's coming up in terms of exams, papers, work, or just plain hanging out, there's something you can get. It might not ring alarm bells the way a phone app will, but nothing really beats a paper calendar or planner for giving a bird's-eye view of the semester.
If your student would rather mix journaling and planning, try a free-form notebook with dotted paper that will let her set up a "Bullet Journal" or otherwise create her own design; get something in basic black or go for slightly more expensive but super fun colored covers.
External Hard Drive
When their laptop fails (and it will, considering how much they're going to put it through hauling it all over campus and dropping their backpacks frequently!) they'll be glad to have a recent backup of all their work.
This Western Digital model holds two terabytes, which ought to be enough for anyone but the most data-hungry, and will work for either a PC or a Mac.
A Long, Long, Long, Long, Long Charging Cable
This is selected because who wants to sit on the floor next to the outlet when they could be lounging in bed, instead?
It's true story time. When I was in college, I lost my dorm room key. It was going to cost $25 to replace, so I didn't replace it — I got by for two months asking people to let me into the building and then just leaving my room unlocked.
I finally gave up and went and paid the money for a new key, only to find the original deep in my bathrobe pocket the very next day. Sigh.
But this could all have been avoided with this set of tiles; if you stick them to the things you lose most often, like your keys or phone, you can find them using an app or a button on your key ring.
Fire- and Water-Proof Safe
It's on the expensive side, but it could save a lot of time and money in the long run (and it will be easily portable into their post-college lives). This safe that measures 1.3 cubic feet will keep electronics, passports, money, and other important items safe from theft, fire, and flooding.
Study Abroad Kit
If your college student is headed out of the country for a semester, put together a box.
It might include a travel journal; a universal plug adaptor; an international SIM card, phone card, or anything else that will let them easily call home from whatever country they're going to (some research required); a portable charger; and toiletries like sunblock, tampons, their favorite shampoo and toothpaste, hand sanitizer, ibuprofen, and other items that might be hard to find; a deck of cards; and a mini dictionary small enough to carry literally everywhere (bigger phrase guides are much less likely to get used).
Emergency Kits for the Car and Dorm Room
Nobody ever wants to think about this, though everyone kind of knows they should have one. Buy an all-in-one kit like this for their car. It includes a flashlight and batteries, jumper cables, a screwdriver, duct tape, a poncho, a first aid kit, cable ties, and more.
Meanwhile, in theory, dorm hallways all have stocked-up medical kits. In practice, stuff's always missing, and it can take a while to track down a resident assistant to help out.
Get your college student a first aid kit and he'll be covered immediately for small needs. This one probably meets most immediate needs, and includes a mini bag to take hiking or traveling.
Now this is a unique gift! If your student is headed to the beach over spring break, send this locking cooler along with her and not only will her food and drink stay much safer, but also her other valuables as well. It includes a cable that lets her attach it to a stationary object, and would also be useful for tailgating.
Subscription Shaving Gear
If you know a young man that is aghast at the price of razors, help him out with a subscription to Harry's — it comes with a razor, several replacement blades, and shave gel, and restocks regularly on different schedules depending on how often the giftee shaves.
Cash and Cash-Like Options
And last but not least . . . You might have heard somewhere that cash is king, and we are not here to dispute that. No college student is ever going to be anything but grateful for $20 slipped into a card.
However, if you want to get a little fancier, there are almost infinite "cash-like" gifts that you can give. One option would be to help them set up an IRA and deposit some cash in it; this is going to be a gift that keeps on giving, because they will be much likelier to keep saving for retirement if they already know how to do it!
Here are some other good cash-like options for college students:
- Offer to buy a textbook or three for next semester.
- Offer to pay their "student activities fee."
- Offer to fill up their car with gas if they're commuters.
- If you're feeling especially generous, pay to have the car looked at professionally and have anything that's needed fixed up. If they're like most college students, they probably have some deferred maintenance going on!
- Here's another car-related gift: a AAA membership to make sure they're taken care of if their vehicle breaks down.
- Lottery tickets. Can't hurt!
- Look for local activities in the college's town or city that the student might enjoy — museums, house tours, climbing gyms, sports teams — and buy a pass or ticket.
- A gift certificate to local restaurant in the college town/city (if you do this, include enough money for two people to have dinner).
- A subscription to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime (if they don't already have one!).
And if you're feeling crafty, there are always these instructions on making a bouquet of cash flowers!
Robert Farrington is America’s Millennial Money Expert® and America’s Student Loan Debt Expert™, and the founder of The College Investor, a personal finance site dedicated to helping millennials escape student loan debt to start investing and building wealth for the future. You can learn more about him on the About Page, or on his personal site RobertFarrington.com.
He regularly writes about investing, student loan debt, and general personal finance topics geared towards anyone wanting to earn more, get out of debt, and start building wealth for the future.
He has been quoted in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, ABC, NBC, and more. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes.