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Graduation Gift Etiquette: What to Spend & How to Choose an Amazing Gift


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Deciding on an appropriate gift to commemorate this milestone event can actually be stressful. And what is graduation gift etiquette these days anyway?

With the season of pomp and circumstance almost upon us it’s time to start filling the calendar with graduation parties, end of year school events, and more. 

But don’t fret, I’ve got you covered with a complete guide to gift-giving for all types of grads. We’ll cover when to give gifts, how much to spend and even when you don’t need to give a gift. And if you’re looking for ideas, be sure to check out our favorite gifts for high school graduates.

Graduation caps & tassels with Graduation Gift Etiquette text overlay.

Your Guide to Graduation Gift Etiquette

The best practices for giving graduation presents has honestly gotten a little muddy over the years. In a day and age where parents celebrate every childhood milestone, graduation season can feel utterly overwhelming

Don’t get me wrong, these important milestones are worth celebrating, but when it comes to finding an appropriate graduation gift, it’s all about understanding your relationship to the grad, and which milestone they are celebrating.

Do you need a gift for a preschool grad? No, a card or an in-person meeting (if possible) will likely suffice. But for high school and college grads, the celebration is a little different. 

Is a Graduation Gift Required?

The first rule about etiquette for giving graduation gifts is if you should even purchase one in the first place. The short answer? It depends.

First, did you receive an invitation to the actual commencement ceremony or to the party? If you did, and the grad is headed to high school or beyond, then you’ll want to find an appropriate present. 

If you received an announcement (but not an invitation), don’t feel obligated to give a gift. At the very least, it’s always a good idea to send a heartfelt card or give the grad a phone call if you live far away. 

Some families don’t do much to celebrate commencements. So if you simply get an announcement, but you live out of town and you’re close with the grad, a small gift is certainly appropriate. Use your judgment based on your relationship with the grad and their family.

In general, gifts for preschoolers, kindergartners, elementary and even middle school graduates aren’t really necessary (but are appreciated). Although these are significant milestones for younger students, it’s also important to understand that the grad still has a lot of growing to do and still lives at home. 

Consider the milestone being celebrated. Giving gifts to high school seniors and college graduates is appreciated since they are likely entering the next phase of life on a limited budget. A thoughtful gift can go a long way to helping him or her on a new life path away from parents. 

Wrapped present with silver bow with Graduation Gift Etiquette text overlay.

The Timing of Your Gift

Timing is everything. Ideally, presents should be given close to the ceremony date—either at a party celebrating the event or sent directly to the graduate shortly before or after the event.

If you’re attending the commencement ceremony in person, bringing the gift with you is a nice touch, though not mandatory. And for those moments when life gets ahead of you, a belated gift with a heartfelt note explaining the delay will be warmly received.

How Much Do I Spend on a Graduation Gift?

This is yet another subjective question that depends on many factors. First, think about your budget. There’s no need to drop hundreds of dollars on a middle schooler’s graduation gift. Or anyone if your budget is tight. 

There aren’t many hard and fast rules for graduation present guidelines when it comes to budget. Consider a meaningful gift selection based on your relationship with the grad, what achievement they reached and most importantly, your budget.

For siblings, distant relatives, and friends, spending between $15 to $50 is totally appropriate. If you’re celebrating college and higher-education graduates, you may want to spend a little bit more since their achievement is much harder. But again, don’t feel obligated to go outside of your budget.

Aunts, uncles, grandparents, and godparents may want to spend between $50 and $100 for their grads. Close friends, relatives, and mentors may be compelled to spend more, and that’s okay too. 

My best advice – choose a budget you are comfortable with and stick to it.

Can I Give a Cash Gift?

Monetary gifts for grads are always appreciated. High school, college, and higher education graduates will appreciate receiving cash as it allows them to purchase much needed items for a dorm room or first home. Pair it with a personalized card for a heartfelt touch. 

I don’t recommend cash gifts for middle schoolers or younger graduates. Most younger children don’t have the same need for money the way high schoolers and college graduates do. In this case, a good option is to offer a little keepsake but in some cases, gifting traditions don’t require a gift at all.

How Much to Give for a High School Graduation?

High school grads are embarking on the next stage of life in their wonderful journey towards adulthood. Many of them are leaving their homes for college or are staying at home, but will now have more financial responsibility. 

Monetary graduation gifts should be in an amount that feels comfortable to you. You can give based on the amounts suggested previously.

Consider offering gift certificates as an alternative to cash. Select gift cards to useful stores like Ikea, Target, and others so recent grads can use the money towards dorm room items and school supplies. Or purchase cards to restaurants near the grad’s home so they can enjoy a meal out on occasion.

Graduate holding cap in the air with Graduation Gift Etiquette text overlay.

What is an Appropriate Graduation Money Gift for a College Grad?

The same rules applies for college grads – simply give what feels appropriate. If your grad is graduating with a master’s degree or Ph.D. a larger sum is certainly appropriate if you can afford it. 

These high-level degrees take years to achieve and are much more difficult than a bachelor’s degree or high school diploma. Therefore, it isn’t unheard of to give slightly more for these monumental achievements. 

What Are Some Great Graduation Gift Ideas?

Finding the perfect graduation gift can be challenging. The key is to focus on items that will be useful for the recent grad, whether they are attending college, entering the workforce or taking a gap year. 

For high school graduates who are leaving the house, the ideas are endless. But for other graduates, finding the perfect gift is a bit tougher.

Great Graduation Gifts for 8th Graders

Eighth graders will appreciate the essentials to help them transition into high school. A few thoughtful gifts include:

  • cool bag, power bank, or academic planner.
  • Gift certificates to their favorite clothing store so they can feel stylish going into high school.
  • Something from their favorite sports store if they enjoy sports. 

The Perfect Graduation Gifts for High Schoolers

There are plenty of great gift ideas for high school graduates. Focus on fun, yet useful items that will help the high schooler transition to living on their own. A few ideas include:

  • Money or prepaid cards to budget-friendly home stores, gas cards, restaurants, or if they are moving, local businesses nearby.
  • Technology to help them relax like headphones, Roku, power banks, and Bluetooth speakers.
  • Easy-to-use home appliances such as an electric kettle, mini-fridge, or a small coffee maker.
  • Useful items like a travel bag, toolset, or a planner.

Awesome Gifts for College Grads

College and higher education grads certainly need more practical items. If they already have the basics from living on campus, then cash is a great way to go. Otherwise, think about these great gift-giving ideas:

  • Gift cards to places to print business cards and resumes, local coffee shops, home stores, Amazon and others.
  • Thoughtful home items such as an Instapot, air fryer, plates/cups/etc, home entertainment, and others.
  • If they are moving, choose cozy items for their new home like blankets, throw pillows, candles, and other items. 

This year, give graduation gifts with confidence. Simply choose a budget you’re comfortable with and pick a gift that best fits the wonderful grad in your life. 

There’s no need to over-think the appropriate graduation presents – just go with what feels right in your heart!

More Gift Guides You May Enjoy:

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Originally published 4/18/20 and updated 4/23/24.

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