Happy graduation! Here’s a toilet brush.

Know a college senior who’s moving into his own place post-diploma? Want to give a gift even though you’re on a budget? Forget the $20 bill or the iTunes card. Instead, buy some dishtowels, a laundry basket or a johnny mop.

Your preparing-to-launch student may have saved up the first and last month’s security on an apartment. But does he have a can opener?

Amanda over at My Dollar Plan addressed this syndrome in a post called “The secret costs of moving out on your own.” People who’ve never lived on their own might not think about the necessities of daily living, she notes – that is, until they need to do laundry, clean the bathroom or take a frozen pizza out of the oven. (Potholders? Who thinks about those?)

Best-case scenario: You go in with some other friends or family members, each one providing one or two (or more) items. This can be done as a series of frugal hacks. Here’s how.

Hit the discount shops

Stores like Target, Rite Aid and Walgreens frequently put basics like salt, baking soda (as good as Ajax), spices, dish soap, sponges and rubber gloves on sale as cheaply as two for $1. Watch for specials: When I moved into my apartment in 2005, I got a toilet brush free after rebate from Walgreens.

Dollar stores have their critics, and sometimes the disdain is justified. (Tainted toothpaste, anyone?) But really: How much do you want to pay for a mop bucket? Dollar emporia can yield brooms, scrub brushes, dish towels, shelf liners and tons of kitchen tools.

Of course, I’ve also found such items at yard sales. The first place to start is the “free” box, if there is one. Among the gratis goodies I’ve obtained: a small saucepan, Tupperware, a spoon rest, an apron, spatulas, utensils and my beloved cast-iron frying pan.

Rummage sales and thrift stores are good places to shop, too. I bought silverware (a couple dozen pieces for 50 cents) and cloth napkins (six for a quarter) at a church sale, and paid 35 cents for a toothbrush holder at a charity thrift shop.

Hot coffee and laundry money

I think a slow cooker is a terrific thing to have. Include a list of websites specializing in crock-pot cuisine.

Target and Walgreens, among others, put small appliances on sale fairly regularly. Unless your young grad is a java snob – and can he really afford to be, with student loans looming? – then a $6.99 coffeemaker will work just fine.

A toaster oven beats a toaster because you can use it to roast or broil a couple of chops or a chicken breast. Since counter space is usually tight in starter apartments, pass on the electric can opener in favor of a good-quality manual variety.

Other possibilities:

  • Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, plastic bags. (Reusable containers save money over the long haul, though.)
  • Paper towels, toilet paper.
  • A flashlight and some batteries, preferably rechargeable.
  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen, some bandages, antiseptic ointment. Watch for rebates.
  • If you’re really flush, a roll of quarters for laundry. If not: A piggy bank (or jar) with a few bucks’ worth of seed money.
  • Basic foodstuffs like canned tomatoes, spaghetti, rice, baking mix, pasta sauce, canned or dried fruit, crackers, beans, tuna, soups, peanut butter.

Presentation is all

If you’re going in with a group of people, place the items into a big laundry basket. You could put cleaning supplies in a bucket, group kitchen items inside a large pot, or fill a reusable shopping bag with pantry staples.

Oh, and before you go shopping? Check your own cupboards. You might be able to put together an apartment starter kit from things you already have.

Don’t worry about not spending “enough.” Nobody will know what it cost unless you blurt it out – and why would you?

Getting the best deal can mean that you’re able to give more than you thought. If you’re on a super-tight budget, it could mean being able to give anything at all.

Here’s a tip, though: Don’t give ramen. Really. That’s just cruel.

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  1. Yeah, it’s pretty shocking when you find out just how much aluminum foil and plastic baggies cost. So the person might not thank you right away, but you’ll get a call, I guarantee it…

    Also good to remember that places like Target and Walmart sell perfectly nice looking dish sets for about $20 when you catch them on sale.

    Alternately — because how many of us actually use saucers? — you could go to the dollar store and pick up just some plates and bowls. It’s hard to find good, deep bowls for cereal and soup, so I’m grateful for the two dollar store bowls and the two Big Lots bowls (also $1 each).

    • Donna Freedman

      That reminds me: You frequently see coffee mugs in the “free” boxes at yard sales. Everyone has too many of those — but for someone just starting out, it’s a great find. And yeah, who needs saucers?
      Also, the bigger mugs can be used or to microwave oatmeal, or to heat up soup or leftovers — that is, until you find bowls in the next “free” box.

  2. I read the title and bust out. I thought this was going to be a post about getting a job after getting your degree. My little brother(is 24 little?) got out of college and couldn’t get a job and then went into golf school(who does that?) and still can’t find anything and he is PGA certified. I think I should get him a toilet brush so he can start his own business. Hey wait, I’m making fun of myself now.
    I’m putting together a list of everything Anna is going to need for college. I better get my butt in gear if I want to get everything cheap. The good news is, we are going to get a 3 week test run when DJ goes to Northwestern for summer school. He is going to take all of the stuff and test it out. Anna isn’t complaining but I bet she will when she gets it back and it stinks like boy!

    • Donna Freedman

      SonyaAnn: With the economy in the toilet, as it were, cleaning the PGA clubhouse might be the closest he’d ever get. I hope that’s not the case, though.

  3. Hilarious title. I once gave a gift similar to your suggestions, and I never did find out if the recipients just thought I was an odd gift-giver or “got” just why I did it. Paper goods and other miscellaneous household goods are pricey!

    • Donna Freedman

      You’d think they would “get” it once they started paying for that stuff themselves.

  4. priskill

    Oh, yay — you have a blog! I am always trying to find your articles at MSN and am thrilled that you have a “regular gig.” In fact, your reminder to put out some food out for my mail carrier encouraged me to do the same. And I also included a brownie mix ’cause, ya know, somebody somewhere needs a treat. Will be looking forward to reading your blog . . .

  5. Love this idea, but I’d even take it a step further. Since most new grads are clueless about what it takes to run a household or apartment, I’d give a Target gift card and an official shopping list, including all of the essentials you mentioned above. It will give the grad the much-needed help he or she needs to launch, plus a bite of the reality sandwich. No one will be buying aluminum foil and Scrubbing Bubbles for Johhny Grad in the future, so might as well let him dive right in.

  6. I’m a student who actually enjoys a manual can opener MORE than my former electronic one (which I had while living at home). A manual can opener requires no counter space. Though you could go through the trouble of plugging up an electronic can opener, plugging it up, unplugging it and finding a spare spot for it in your cabinets, I find the simplicity of storing a manual can opener in a drawer, pulling it out and putting it back in much more convenient.


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