Gifts idea - 18 year old HS senior headed to college

I’m struggling to come up with a unique gift idea for my 18 year old son who is likely headed to college next year. He is a t-shirt and jeans kind of kid and doesn’t go to concerts. He had a good phone and a laptop.

I’m considering giving him $500 and an appointment with an investment counselor. I realize it isn’t much, but I figured it would give him an opportunity to learn how to plan for the future and get him introduced into saving or maybe investing.


I don’t like the idea of $500 and the investment counselor. He won’t have any money to invest for a long time. Definitely discuss the long term problems with student debt and about getting a degree with earning potential versus something that is fun and interesting: i.e. mechanical engineering versus art history.

Depending on the appliances where he’ll be staying, a small fridge and microwave are a great practical gift. If driving a car, a pre-paid gasoline card.

A sturdy canvas laundry bag with a good strap.

A backpack or a messenger bag.

[li]A good sweatshirt, for example from American Giant or Under Armour.[/li][li]A good pair of sunglasses.[/li][li]A portable power bank.[/li][li]A printer (boring, I know).[/li][li]A messenger bag or backpack.[/li][li]A Keurig–if he doesn’t drink coffee, he’s going to start.[/li][/ul]

I would stay away from the investment counselor–It’d be a bad investment (no pun intended) on multiple levels. For one, it’s not worth spending a couple hundred in fees on only $500 in principle, and you’ll have trouble finding someone good who will be willing to sit down with you. In addition, an 18 year old has less need for personalized financial advice than anyone else, since he hopefully won’t be touching the money for decades. I don’t know your son, but generically, it’s also likely to go under appreciated as well.


With $500, the only investment counselor he needs right now is you, his parents. If he needs to learn how to plan for the future, he doesn’t need a stranger in a suit showing him complicated graphs of compound interest and asset appreciation, using meaningless (to him) vague concepts, such as thinking decades into the future. He’s 18.
He may need to be shown how to write out a monthly budget, based on his actual lifestyle. You should use real numbers, and concepts that apply directly to his lifestyle–such setting aside savings for two month’s worth of rent, or cell phone payments for his current data plan, and upgrading to a different plan.

Instead of the investment advisor, set him up with an account on It can be used eventually for tracking savings and investments, but for now, he’s mostly a spender. So I think it would be helpful for him to track where and on what he spends his money. If he keeps it up and records everything, then when his summer savings run out early, you and he can see where it all went.

Gift certificates to restaurants in his college town. Mostly pizza places that deliver, but also one or two for nice restaurants, emphasizing that these are in case he meets someone special and wants to treat them.

Instead of the $500 you were planning to give him, you might offer to match whatever he earns in a job, to the extent that he contributes his earnings to a Roth IRA or other tax-deferred account. It would be helpful long term to start saving for retirement, but only earned income can be used for that. So if he earns $5,000 after tax, he can put the whole amount in a Roth IRA but of course he would rather spend the money. So if you can afford it, offer to replace whatever he invests with a matching gift.

Get him a trunk, it will come in very handy, repeatedly, over the next few years. His attachment to it will grow and he’ll likely keep it forever. Who doesn’t need a trunk? It’s a coffee table, extra seating, makes a great tv stand, storage, shipping, moving - the list is endless really. It will get used!

College is, after all the first, of hopefully many, adventures!

Plus you could fill it with something cool, if you wanted. Or get an antique trunk maybe? There’s lots of possibilities, I think.

As long as “doesn’t go to concerts” doesn’t mean “doesn’t like music”, get him an electric guitar, and a copy of Rocksmith.

I don’t know if he’s living in the dorms, but looking back on my first year in college the most practical gift would have been rolls of quarters for the laundry. It sounds stupid, but I never had enough of them. I also like the idea of a prepaid gas card or gift cards for restaurants.

I don’t know if dorms come with mini-fridges now, but if not, a small refrigerator would be a wonderful present.

Maybe a tablet? Apps can take the place of quite a few items needed for college (scientific calculator/notes/etc). Something in between a laptop and phone.

A crock pot is nice to have. Set up food before morning classes and it is all cooked after classes.

A bike/skateboard to get around campus.

Some type of internet connection other than the college network (some tend to be slow).

Some type of room organizer for clothes and/or books. Hygiene kit that he can take to and from the bathroom when showering (if he is sharing a dorm room).

Video game system because kids have to have down time.

Paid subscription to some type of online resource for what he is studying.

Lifetime (of 4 year) supply of condoms. Not all surprises from college are good.

I don’t think these are very good ideas. I can’t think of anything worse than someone having their mom (or dad) buy them condoms, for example. Since he’s a “t-shirt and jeans kind of kid” I really doubt he needs a clothing organizer. And internet speeds are blazingly fast at most colleges nowadays. I second the crock pot and bathroom organizer, though.

the more I read “T-shirt and jeans kind of guy” the more I think he probably needs a good suit. Whatever the occasion, it will come up, and at his age the best dressed often goes to the top of the list, whether it be for a job or an assistanceship* or a date.

*OK, yeah, not a word. What IS the word for that?!?


Does he know where he is going to college?

My sixteen year old is impossible to buy for. But gift certificates to Chipotle, Subway, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, etc. are really popular. If he’s going to college, he’ll need to eat - and probably a lot.

Mine doesn’t have a license yet - but gas cards are going to be really useful for him as well.

Also, if he’s moving into a dorm, you could do an Ikea run and see if anything jumps out at you.

The best present I ever got was a very nice travel backpack with an excellent warranty. 15 years and a 25 countries later, it’s still in regular use.

I can’t imagine there are many coin-operated laundry rooms in colleges these days. They probably have retina scanners and charge the extra dryer time directly to your student lender.

If you have $500 to spend, I suggest a black light, a velour poster, and a very complicated bong.