Let’s face it. When it comes to graduation gifts, most students would probably prefer cold, hard cash. Or maybe a plane ticket for a European backpacking trip or a Mexican beach vacation.
But as student loan debt has leaped higher than a souped-up SAT score, it may be wise to think twice about what makes a good graduation gift.
In the past seven years, student loan debt for borrowers younger than 30 has catapulted, hitting $322 billion in December 2012, a 124 percent increase from 2005, according to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York study.
To get graduates off on a financially balanced footing, here are some money-savvy gift ideas.
“Obviously, cash is king,” said personal finance blogger Joseph Audette, a personal finance writer/blogger for NerdWallet. But students, especially high school graduates juggling their finances for the first time, can quickly blow through a lot of cash, he notes. Instead?
“Get a gift card from the university’s student bookstore. It’s a little more thought than writing a check and lets them use the funds for things they’ll really need in school.”
Give a book
Too often, friends and family feel pressure to spend lavishly on a graduation gift, said the 30-year-old financial blogger, who says $25 to $50 or even a money-minded book can be more than adequate. For the latter, he recommends:
• “The Millionaire Next Door”: “An easy read that puts young people in the right mindset” for managing their spending and savings.
• “A Random Walk Down Wall Street”: “A classic provides great background for young graduates interested in investing.”
• “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss: “A children’s book that never gets old … and makes a surprisingly thoughtful graduation present.”
In their young lifetimes, many graduates today have likely never seen one: a paper U.S. savings bond. They became extinct Jan. 1, 2012, and can be purchased only in digital form. (The only exception: Paper savings bonds can be purchased using your IRS tax refund.)
To give a student a Series EE or I electronic savings bond – in amounts starting at $25 – go to the U.S. Treasury website, TreasuryDirect.gov. It also offers free graduation gift cards that you can personalize and print out to include with your gift.
To introduce a young graduate to the benefits of long-term investing, try a mutual fund, said Lon Burford, a partner with wealth management firm Genovese Burford & Brothers in Sacramento, Calif. A fund like the Vanguard S&P 500, he said, is “a great teaching opportunity financially as graduates begin getting closer to when they’ll stand on their own two feet.
“With one gift, you’re helping them own Apple, Microsoft and Google – companies they’re interested in,” said Burford, as well as stock stalwarts like Chevron and Procter & Gamble.
And with a mutual fund, he notes, students will get an annual report where they can track the performance of the dozens of companies they own.
Give a share
If you prefer, individual shares of stock – say, in a student’s favorite company – also can be a gift that keeps on growing. Obviously, a $450 share of Apple is beyond most budgets, but plenty of other companies are affordable.
Low-cost online stock-buying sites, like Capital One’s ShareBuilder, let a graduate get started. Its “Gift of Stock” promotion – with a $50 bonus for new accounts – is tied to graduates.
There also are personalized stocks from sites like OneShare.com in San Francisco, where you can buy a single share of a favorite stock, such as Nike or Disney. They can be framed with customized inscription.
For graduates heading into the work world, consider these: a new jacket or updated skirt/shirt for interviews; a resume- or blog-writing class; a laptop, if one is needed; or a membership in a college alumni organization, which can help with job connections.
Buy an experience
Some young graduates heading off to four years of college studies or that first 9-to-5 job deserve a once-in-a-lifetime experience, said NerdWallet’s Audette, such as a gift certificate for skydiving or funds to fuel a cross-country road trip.
Splurge a little
For graduates who wind up with lots of cash from family and friends, financial experts say it’s certainly OK to splurge, at least a little.
A good rule of thumb: Spend 10 percent to 20 percent of your cash stash on whatever you want. For instance, if you receive $500, spend $50 to $100 on something fun.
“It’s the same advice we give adults: Reaching that goal deserves a reward. Celebrate with some of that money,” said Patricia Seaman of the National Endowment for Financial Education in Denver. “But if there are expenses that need to be covered – college tuition, textbooks or room/board – set that aside first.”
Seaman’s daughter, now a 19-year-old sophomore at a University of Wisconsin campus, dropped all her graduation gift money into her savings account, then used it for college extras her parents didn’t cover: social life, meals out, etc.
It’s the thought
Regardless of how much you spend, try to make it personal to what the graduate truly wants or needs, said Pam Krueger, executive producer of “MoneyTrack,” the PBS financial series.
For her hard-working niece, who graduated from college in May and starts a master’s education program in Boston next fall, Krueger bought a gift she knows is both wanted and needed: a smartphone. It’s replacing her niece’s “old school” flip phone that’s so ancient it doesn’t have texting, Internet or GPS.
Lastly, the best gift may be the simplest: a personal, inspiring message.
“Graduation is such a milestone moment,” said Krueger. “I still have a card from my dad that had five little words that I’ve carried with me ever since: ‘I have faith in you.’ ”