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4 Smart Gift Ideas for Students

Christine DiGangi

The cost of education goes beyond the hefty price tags on tuition and books, but paying for those essentials can leave students little to spend on other things that impact success and happiness, like healthy meals and presentable clothing. That’s where a thoughtful gift can make a difference.

There may not be a lot of time left to buy holiday gifts, but there are plenty of easy-to-get options that will make any student on your list happy. Here are a few categories to focus on, with some great gift ideas for each to get you started.

1. Life Skills

While you can’t actually gift someone a life skill, you can make it easier for them to acquire one. Trae Bodge, senior editor of RetailMeNot’s Real Deal blog, suggests a crash course in simple cooking: Kitchenability 101: The College Student’s Guide to Easy, Healthy, and Delicious Food by Nisa Burns ($14.23 from Amazon).

“[It] is geared specifically to new-ish cooks who have limited prep space,” Bodge said. She personally reviews the products she recommends. “The recipes are easy to follow and healthy – a great alternative to crappy cafeteria food or take out.”

One of my favorites is College Vegetarian Cooking by Megan Carle and Jill Carle ($14.53 from Amazon). The recipes don’t involve a ton of ingredients — which college students probably couldn’t store and wouldn’t buy — the instructions are simple, some dishes can be cooked in the microwave and there’s a whole section on cheap eats.

Books are pretty fantastic and educational, but college students don’t have a lot of time to read them. Still, there are a lot of skills people use every day that they may not learn in school. Personal finance is one of those things. Ideally, financial education starts at a young age, but considering the fact that roughly two-thirds of Americans recently told Gallup that they don’t have a written or computerized budget, giving the gift of financial guidance can’t hurt.

Bodge recommends Money Starts Here! Your Practical Guide to Survive and Thrive in Any Economy by Denise Winston ($14.95 from Amazon). Credit.com contributor Mitchell Weiss’ Life Happens is also a helpful guide for students who are trying to get a grasp on the fundamentals of personal finance.

Maybe they won’t be itching to read a how-to-budget book, but the rest of their lives will be full of personal finance questions, and such a gift could really be helpful.

2. A Professional Wardrobe

It doesn’t matter if the person is a freshman in college or a 30-something finishing up an advanced degree — he or she needs business attire for interviews, internships and, eventually, a job.

What constitutes professional clothing? That really depends on the student’s career path. Gift cards to a favorite retailer (one that sells work clothes) are a good bet, because it’s tricky to select clothing for someone else. If you decide to pick out pieces on your own, please, for the love of God, get a gift receipt. Even when they’re the right style and size, work clothes can be no fun to wear. Don’t forget about shoe stores, either. Everyone needs shoes.

Students probably have a bag for carting around their school stuff, but they may want to upgrade when it comes time for an internship or job. Bodge selected some versatile laptop bags from Ogio: the Covert Shoulder Bag ($69.99/$79.99 at Ebags) and the more feminine Hampton’s Tote ($69.99 from Zappos). Again, bag styles depend on the person, how the bag will be used and where it will be worn.

3. Gadgets & Replacements

Try to take stock of the student’s current possessions and see if anything needs replacing. By the time I graduated college, I went through five cellphones and even more cases, two laptop batteries, a campus bike, at least three bookbags, two laptop chargers, who knows how many USB drives and so much coffee. I spent hundreds of dollars on coffee.

Over the course of an education, electronics wear out and caffeine supplies must be replenished. The holiday break is a fantastic time to restock.

Perhaps a laptop battery isn’t your idea of a fantastic gift. There are other gifts of technology a student may find useful. As someone who slept through a midterm my freshman year, I can say I would have benefited from something better than the old cellphone alarm clock. Bodge has a fancy one for those who detest being ripped from sleep by annoying, incessant beeping:

“The Verilux Rise & Shine Serenity Sleep System ($99.95 from Verilux) uses progressively brightening light that mimics the rising sun so they’ll wake calmly without being shocked into wakefulness by an alarm,” Bodge says. “The Rise & Shine can also slowly dim like the sunset encouraging sleep to come along peacefully.”

Many students probably fall asleep quickly as a result of exhaustion, but this peaceful slumber concept sounds nice, too.

4. Cash

Then there are the core costs of education: tuition, fees, room and board, books. Students will finish their holiday celebrations and have to start preparing for the coming term, and nothing kills winter break happiness like buying hundreds of dollars’ worth of books.

Let’s not forget that about 70% of the undergraduate class of 2012 finished their degrees in debt, and the average borrower had $29,400 in student loans by graduation. Some platforms have popped up for crowdfunding loan payments — I’ve previously written about Piglt and Tuition.io — but if those options aren’t appealing, don’t worry. It’s unlikely you’ll meet a student who won’t accept cash or checks. As for books: Some school bookstores are affiliated with larger retailers and accept gift cards, and many students purchase course materials through Amazon (again, gift cards).

A lot of students find they need a new computer at the end of their studies, but you’re probably not going to buy someone a new laptop. That doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to or start their new computer fund — once again, cash and check are acceptable everywhere.

It may seem odd or impersonal to give a student cash for Christmas, but it’s not. It’s wonderful. It’s true there’s no guarantee they’ll use it responsibly, but I suppose that’s a judgment call you’ll have to make based on the recipient. Useful gifts are the way to go, especially for someone who doesn’t have the disposable income to buy things for themselves.

Note: It’s important to remember that prices for various products can change. As a result, the prices for products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current prices directly.

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