5 smart ideas for your high school graduation checks

Pink piggy bank in mortarboard

If you graduated from high school this year, you might have received hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in gifts from family and friends who are proud of you and your achievements.

Now, you need to be smart about how you spend it.

That's especially true if you're about to embark on four (or more) very expensive years as a full-time student without a full-time income. Trust us. You'll regret blowing that graduation windfall on a trip to the beach or clothes that won't even fit after you gain the Freshman 15.

"Don't do anything for a few days. Just sit on it," says Carmen Wong Ulrich, CNBC contributor and author of Gener@tion Debt. "Really, sit down and think about what kind of bills you're going to have in six months."

Then put that money to work.

Smart move 1. Don't spend it all in one place.

Divide your graduation gifts into thirds and allocate each portion to a specific goal.

Go ahead and spend one part on a special treat for yourself. You've earned it.

But using the rest to start your life as a college student -- and an adult -- can be hugely rewarding. You'll feel wise beyond your years.

Smart move 2. Reserve a share for your textbooks.

They're notoriously expensive -- usually several hundred dollars a semester -- and you've got to buy them shortly after arriving on campus.

If you don't have the cash set aside and ready to use, what will you do? Charge 'em on a credit card, right? Maybe the credit card you signed up for at freshman orientation.

But that would get your college career off on the wrong foot.

Credit card companies prey on university students because they're notoriously short of cash. Your mailbox will be full of credit card offers once you become a college student.

"Food, clothing, books -- those expenses are huge, and that's what usually goes on the credit card," Wong Ulrich says.

Yet, that debt is the most expensive kind you can have, and your goal should be to have as little credit card debt as you can possibly have when you graduate from college.

Smart move 3. Decorate your dorm room.

The typical dorm room can be a little drab and depressing.

But some smart shopping and a share of your graduation money can make your first home away from home more cozy and personal. College life can be stressful, and you need a retreat from demanding classes and crazy friends.

Start with a mini fridge for storing cold drinks. A carpet remnant is a lot comfier to walk on than a cold tile floor. Lamps, plants, posters and bedding will finish the job of making this space your own.

If you've been assigned a roommate, be sure to contact him or her over the summer to coordinate your tastes and arrange who will buy what. That way, you'll avoid unnecessary expenses.

Smart move 4. Invest in a good laptop.

An up-to-date computer is essential for anyone heading off to college.

Make sure it has built-in WiFi and the Microsoft Office suite -- you'll need it for all the papers you're going to write and presentations you're going to create. You'll need a sturdy carrying case or backpack, too.

Don't be tempted to get a desktop. A laptop gives you the option of working at the library or student union and of taking notes in class.

Smart move 5. Save or invest some of the cash.

Not all of it. Not even half of it. Just a little bit.

Personal finance expert Marc Woolf says you're never too young to "establish a pattern of savings" in your life.

Indeed, few things will contribute more to a happy, successful future more than that.

If you've got $1,500 in gift money, consider putting $500 into a Roth Individual Retirement Account.

You're not locking that money up for the next 40 years. You can withdraw whatever you've contributed anytime you need it. Yet you've taken the first step toward building real wealth and financial independence from your parents.

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