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How to Save on Graduation Gifts

Jon Lal

Summer is quickly approaching, and while the season's bridal showers and weddings have a reputation for expensive gifts, there's another occasion this time of year that can cost a pretty penny. Whether for high school, college or an advanced degree, graduations of your loved ones and friends can quickly go from an exciting event to a panic-inducing moment when you start adding up the costs.

Appropriate gifts and spending vary for each situation. Here are a few important factors to consider:

What is your relationship to the graduate?

Consider how close you are with the student before you decide on an amount to spend. Are they a relative or a godchild? Are they a close family friend -- or the child of a colleague at work? Then, develop a quick cheat sheet for you to use this year and in the years to come that will take out the guesswork. This will also maintain continuity across your giving and give you to budget earlier next year.

Create a cheat sheet

In three columns, list Family and Close Friends, Friends and Acquaintances. Next, decide on a spending bracket for each column. This depends on your own budget and what you are comfortable spending. Try not to let the pressure of others' spending habits or income be a factor here; in the end, it's about your own comfort level, and any gift will be appreciated. An example might be $10 to $25 for acquaintances, $25 to $50 for friends and $50 and up for family and close friends.

Gift or cash

Your next question will likely be whether to give money or a gift to the graduating student. One important factor to consider is whether or not there is a graduation party planned. If not, it's very acceptable to mail a card with a monetary gift enclosed. If you have a close relationship with the recipient and want to add a personal touch, consider a gift card to their favorite store. A gift card to a future college's bookstore would also be appreciated, as books can be quite expensive.

If there is a party scheduled, you might consider instead purchasing a gift. This is a smart alternative if your spending limit is smaller. Instead of extra money, put extra thought and time into a budget-friendly gift and they will appreciate it all the more. A framed photo collage of family and friends to take away to school or work makes a great gift. You can also check in with a parent or friend to see what might be on the student's wish list. Consider assembling a gift basket full of smaller items they will need. For a high school graduate headed to college, this could be dorm necessities or school supplies; for a college grad starting a new job, put together a gift of coordinated desk accessories.

Lastly, you could always collaborate with a few other people you know are attending the party and go in on a gift together. With a few people contributing, this could result in a meaningful, sizeable gift that will leave a lasting impression on the recipient, but not on your wallet.

A few other suggestions

Once you decide how much to spend and what to buy, there are a still a few ways to save money. Use cash back when making online purchases and search for printable coupons or coupon codes for stores where you know you want to shop. Buy gifts with a credit card that accumulates points, cash back or airline miles to make the most of your spending. If you decide on a gift card, search for discounted gift cards online. When buying gift cards in bulk, they are often available at a discounted price; you could potentially have your shopping done all at once.

Remember, every situation is different and each year your financial health can change. At the beginning of the year, think about the students you know that will graduate that year. Then consult your cheat sheet and add an approximate spending amount into your yearly budget. When May comes around, there won't be any sticker shock and you can spend less time stressing and more time celebrating the graduates.

Jon Lal is the founder of coupons and cash back website BeFrugal.com, which saves shoppers an average of $27 per order thanks to coupons plus an average of 7 percent cash back at more than 3,000 stores.

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