Graduation Etiquette for All of Us: A Must-Read Guide

Do you give cash? Gifts? And if the latter — what kind? When you're flooded with announcements, here's what to do

Graduations can be expensive.

No one knows this better than Jon Barber, a well-known optometrist in Gainesville, Florida. Living in a college town, he receives more than his fair share of graduation announcements each year, even from students he doesn’t know — including his patients’ children.

“Choosing the right gift used to be difficult for me, but I’ve learned that gift cards to restaurants or electronic stores make the best gifts,” he told LifeZette. “Most grads love food as well as the latest and greatest gadgets.”

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Gift-giving can also get expensive, especially if you receive a multitude of invitations in any given year.

A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that the average person plans to spend $102.51 on graduation gifts this year — for a total of $5.2 billion in 2018.

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A recent Hallmark study also found that $25 is the average amount for a close friend (or child of a close friend). Sixty-seven percent believe that $50 is more appropriate for a close relative.

Let’s face it — cash is king. It never goes out of style and is never returned. Besides, most graduates prefer the almighty dollar to the proverbial pen and pencil set that many of us, of a certain age, used to receive back in the day.

But give only what your budget will allow, of course. And you don’t have give a gift to everyone who sends you an announcement.

Ben Starling of Singer Island, Florida, receives countless announcements, mostly from the children of college friends. “I’ve never met many of these kids and I don’t think it’s appropriate to send an announcement to everyone in the phone book!”

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Annie Scholl of North Carolina lives by this philosophy: “If I’m involved in the grad’s life, I often send a card with money. If I get an invite out of the blue, where it feels like I’m being invited only for a gift, I just send a card.”

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What’s most important to note is this: A graduation announcement is not the same thing as a graduation invitation. If you receive an announcement, you are not obligated to send a gift, although you may choose to do so.

However, a card or a note of congratulations is always appreciated and appropriate.

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On the other hand, if you receive an invitation, consider yourself one of the chosen few, as most graduation ceremonies limit the number of attendees. In this case, it’s appropriate to gift a gift. But you shouldn’t feel obligated to give money. Here are some other popular options:

  • Handmade quilt for the dorm or new apartment
  • Books or journal
  • Leather passport holder
  • Luggage or backpack
  • Towel set or canvas laundry bag embroidered with grad’s name or initials
  • Tablet or e-reader
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Office chair or desk
  • Engraved stationery or business cards
  • Customized graduation bracelet adorned with gemstones in school colors, with a card explaining the properties of the stones and their symbolism in life and work

Christine Martinello of Braselton, Georgia, takes a completely different approach. She gives the grad’s parents a gift that helps the entire family grow closer together. “I give mom and dad an Original Love Box, so they can write love notes to their son or daughter from time to time. The goal is to encourage the family to write love notes to each other, and then read them aloud to each other. It’s an incredible bonding experience.”

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If you plan to give a gift, here are some etiquette dos and don’ts to keep in mind:

1.) If you give flowers, it’s best to present them to the graduate after the ceremony. Boutonnières and corsages are given before the ceremony. If you can’t be present for the party or ceremony, send flowers to the graduate’s home in advance. If you bring flowers to a party, make sure they are in a vase and not cellophane.

2.) Personalize the gift whenever possible. For example, a set of monogrammed note cards is more impressive than standard note cards.

3.) If you give a gift card, make sure it is from a store that the grad is most likely to visit. For example, most grads need items for their dorm or apartment; therefore, a gift card to a home store is your best bet.

4.) If you receive a graduation invitation, be courteous and respond within 24 to 48 hours, as the graduate has been given a limited number of seats and can invite someone else if you’re not available.

5.) If you plan to attend the ceremony, it’s best to send a gift in advance. It might get lost in the pomp and circumstance if you bring it to the event. Always include a card with the gift so the graduate knows whom to thank after the event is over.

Speaking of thank-you’s, it’s always polite to send a thank-you note when you receive a gift of any kind. Set your children up for success at an early age — teach them to be grateful, regardless of what they receive and from whom.

Jacqueline Whitmore is an international etiquette expert, a bestselling author, and the founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. This article originally appeared in LifeZette last year and has been updated. 

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