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College students can be a gift buying challenge. No sooner have we spent a fortune on fitting out their dorms or apartments than we are sending off a care package full of some of their favorites.

So when the holidays roll around, it is easy to feel out of ideas and out of cash. With this in mind, we offer a list of very can’t-miss holiday gift ideas that won’t break the bank. We have tried to focus on durable items that will get real lasting use.


courtesy of All Bird

We have bought these insanely comfortable and trendy shoes for our parents, kids, friends, and ourselves. Fashioned from soft merino wool, the Allbirds “runners” are an everyday shoe that can be worn with or without socks, are amazingly lightweight and can be thrown into the washing machine. If you are unsure of size or color, Allbirds offers gift cards. We are just hoping they bring the orange runner back in time for summer.

French press for coffee

courtesy of Le Creuset

French presses are a great way to make coffee. With nothing more than water and coffee grounds, you can easily produce a cup of coffee worthy of any Parisian cafe. But until now there have been two big drawbacks: A traditional French Press does not keep coffee warm and the glass carafe is all too easily shattered. Enter the double-wall aluminum French press, which solves both of these problems. This one from SterlingPro is very reasonably priced on Amazon Prime, or we liked the Bodum Columbia in a variety of sizes including a single cup version that makes coffee right in a travel mug. Le Creuset offers a ceramic version (shown) in full array of stunning colors.


Leather cord wraps

courtesy of Saddleback Leather

Power cords may be very modern, but these leather wraps are a throwback to a much earlier era. Combining what our kids love, tech and the big trend towards natural materials, this set of wraps will keep cords from traveling in a large tangled mess. Given that our kids carry their laptops, phones, tablets, and the necessary array of cords everywhere they go, these will be used every day.


Personal humidifier

Winter means dry air and all the discomfort that brings. This tiny personal humidifier sits on a desk or next to a bed and is as easy to use as filling a glass of water. The USB powered device shuts off automatically when the water level gets low.


Lamicall phone stand

Phones were once just phones, but now they are so much more. This inexpensive and handy stand is helpful when our kids are using their phones as clock/alarm clock, calculator, cookbook, television, or even a book.

Moscow Mule mugs

courtesy of Williams-Sonoma

Vintage is all the rage with college students, and what is a bigger throwback than sipping from a copper mug? While these mugs are associated with the eponymous cocktail, they are perfect for any cold drink and, unlike glassware, are virtually indestructible. And they’re available from dozens of retailers, many with a monogram option. Another throwback popular with college students are Mason jar glasses. Either an actual set of Ball Mason Jars (the most inexpensive set of glasses you will ever buy) or these that have been modified with handles.


courtesy of Brooklinen

Our kids started college life with some very cheap and soon-to-be very worn x-long twin sheets. When it is time to move on from these starter linens there are some great new options aimed at millennials. We loved these high-quality classics from Brooklinen, and they even come in twin XL

Grownup stationery

Emails just don’t always cut it. Thank-you notes, condolence letters, and even some follow-ups to job interviews still need to be penned by hand, and many of our kids have nothing to write them on. Sure your kid can run to the store every time he or she needs to write a note, but if there’s a nice box of stationery on hand, the chances are much better that the note will actually get written. Moo offers beautiful letterhead that can be personalized on high-quality paper stock. The designs are far from traditional and the paper is safe for laser printers. Paperless Post offers personalized paper stationery in a seemingly endless array of designs.

Bike accessories

On many college campuses bicycles are the mode of transportation, and helpful accessories are a welcome gift. Vibrelli had a great phone mount that allows for hands-free talking and navigation without the risk of dropping your phone. A rechargeable bike light from Light and Motion makes a nice addition to the gift and helps increase safe biking at night.

Windowsill herb garden

courtesy of Back to the Roots

Cooking with fresh herbs makes all the difference, if you can remember to buy them and use them before they spoil. With Back to the Roots Garden-in-a-Can, houseplants become food and basil, cilantro, dill, and sage are never further than the windowsill. Everything needed to grow and maintain the plants (except water) with no mess and no transplanting is in the can.

Flannel-lined chinos or jeans

courtesy of Bonobos

In many parts of the country, the first weeks back after the December holidays can be brutally cold. Flannel-lined pants from either Bonobos or Eddie Bauer will quickly become a go-to item on nippy mornings. They are available in a huge range of colors and styles with contrasting patterns around the cuffs.

Cashmere or faux fur throws

courtesy of Pottery Barn

Whether your kid is saving money by turning down the heat or surviving in a drafty dorm room, one of these throws is great for wrapping up while studying or watching TV or layering on a bed at night. Faux fur is very popular, but no one ever went wrong with cashmere. Pottery Barn has a great selection at under $50 as do many other retailers, and the monogram option is also available.

Amazon Echo Dot

courtesy of Amazon

When the Amazon Echo made its debut, it seemed like a great idea. But the large, expensive gadget was not a great fit for college students. At $49.99 (Amazon Prime) and the size of a small clock radio, the Echo Dot is a much better buy. With voice activation, the Echo Dot can order an Uber, wake you up, get sports scores or the weather, answer your factual questions, and read you an audiobook or podcast. Not surprisingly, it can order anything from Amazon Prime. For college kids feeling particularly lazy, the Dot can do conversions and answer simple math questions shouted from across the room.

Spikeball or KanJam

courtesy of Kan Jam

Spikeball has hit college campuses hard, but if your collegian does not have a set, this is a fun, inexpensive, active game to take back to campus. With four players (2 vs. 2), one net, and one tennis-size ball, the game can be played in any small patch of grass and stores easily under a bed. Kid already has Spikeball? Try KanJam for the same four players but this time substitute a Frisbee for a ball and a can for a net.

Bed lounger

courtesy of Yogibo

Here is help and back support for students who read and study on their beds. Yogibo makes a line of high-grade beanbags that function as pillows, chairs, couches, and beds, but their support pillow is lightweight and perfect for reading a book or using a laptop in bed.

Down vest

courtesy of Canada Goose

Worn at night in California or under another coat in Massachusetts, a down vest is the clothing item your college kid can wear every day this winter. Available at every price point from Canada Goose (shown) to L.L. Bean to Patagonia to Uniqlo. They are a flexible wardrobe item that will work for years to come.

Organizer boxes

courtesy of Umbra

We live in hope of our kids becoming more organized, and here is help for their bedroom, bathroom, or desk. Umbra makes a line of reasonably priced all-wood organizers that work equally well for jewelry, makeup brushes, or writing supplies. Available in both dark and light wood, these are timeless gifts.

Grownup backpack

courtesy of Leftfield

If your college kid is heading to a job next fall or an internship this summer, it might be time to ditch the filthy college backpack and substitute one of these more professional-looking bags. We love these from Leftfield as they are young enough for a college kid to feel comfortable with but sophisticated enough for on-the-job use.

Other ideas

Keith Srakocic—AP

Still haven’t found what you are looking for? Campus bookstores have a huge array of college-branded items that can be ordered online, many at the very last minute. College kids love gift cards to local restaurants that are above their pay grade or to the neighborhood pizza joint so that they can treat a gang of friends. Ditto with gift cards to yoga, spin, and barre classes. Here are some great wallets for young men and a hoodie for anyone headed to a career in tech. Patagonia beanies come in every cozy warm style and color and we love the cable stitch ones for women.

Finally, tech staples that kids always seem to love, and need, include external battery chargers, wireless ear buds for working out or tuning out roommates, and phone cases that provide extra charge, a place to put credit cards, or just protection from yet another broken screen.

Happy Holidays to all!

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Heffernan are co-authors of Grown and Flown, where they write about all aspects of parenting kids 15-25 years old. Heffernan is also the author of three books, including the New York Times best seller Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success (Simon and Schuster, 2000).


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