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Last-Minute Holiday Gifts That Help Pay for College

Katy Hopkins

Still don't know what to get that financially strapped student in your life for the holidays? Here are three last-minute minute gift ideas that will help to pay for college.

1. College gift cards: Textbooks have become so expensive that it's a common surprise for parents of college students.

Help your current college student chip away at upcoming textbook bills with gift cards to their campus bookstore. Available at schools such as the University of Puget Sound in Washington and the University of Utah, the cards can typically be bought online and put toward other bookstore items as well, including school supplies and college gear.

At Virginia's Lynchburg College, card funds can even pay for food in the school's dining facilities, making it a versatile gift for a hungry bookworm.

2. Contributions to 529 plans: Particularly for younger students, donations to a 529 plan can pay off in dividends.

The college savings vehicles are one smart way to save for college, but are typically best opened when a child is young, giving the investment time to grow. Family and friends can quickly donate to individual accounts online through websites such as Gradsave.com and Instagrad.com, where recipients can track donations.

"We're not looking to necessarily replace the gifts under the tree, but we definitely think that we can be the responsible gift of the season," says Marcos Cardero, known as the Chief Gradsaver at Gradsave.com. If a student doesn't already have an account, Gradsave.com lets givers purchase gift cards that can be used when an account is eventually opened, Cardero notes.

[Find out how to ask for contributions to 529 plan accounts.]

Though it won't be much of a gift to open from under the tree, a donation to a 529 plan can be presented to young children as an investment in their future, he notes.

"For kids ... it's, 'Hey, this is what you're going to use to fulfill your dreams and be that engineer, that lawyer, that doctor," Cardero says.

3. Clothes, dorm supplies, and more: For those who want to give physical gifts, shopping with a Upromise account is a way to buy items while accruing money for college. The service, offered through loan provider Sallie Mae, gives at least 5 percent of a user's purchase back to put in a 529 plan account or toward certain student loans. Users can also request checks from Upromise to be put directly toward education expenses.

[Learn more about paying for college.]

Eligible purchases include online shopping at retailers such as Under Armour, Best Buy, Home Depot, Walmart, and more, says John Ward, senior vice president of Upromise by Sallie Mae.

"You shouldn't just go to a site and buy something when you can get 5 to 20 percent off, and especially when it can ... be used to pay loans and to use for other things," Ward says.

It's free to open an account and family members can link theirs together, so relatives can have their purchases credited to a student's fund.

"Having people who are going to shop anyway participate and link [accounts]--we find it to be huge for college students to be able to change their [financial] situation," Ward says.

Still searching for the right holiday present? Consider these holiday gift ideas for college students.

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