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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 leapt higher than a souped-up SAT score, it may be wise to think twice about what makes a good graduation gift. To get graduates off on a financially balanced footing, here are some money-savvy gift ideas.

Cash alternatives

“Obviously, cash is king,” said personal-finance blogger Joseph Audette for NerdWallet.

But students 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.”

Give a book

Too often, friends and family feel pressure to spend lavishly on a graduation gift, said Audette, 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 (that) provides great background for young graduates interested in investing.”

Old-school bonds

To give a student an EE or I electronic savings bond — in amounts starting at $25 — go to the U.S. Treasury website, It also offers free graduation-gift cards that you can personalize and print out to include with your gift.

Long-term gifting

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.”

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, where you can buy a single share of a favorite stock, such as Nike or Disney. They can be framed with customized inscription.

Job-hunting help

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.