How to Give Back and Be Charitable on a Budget

charity donation boxThe financial fallout of the last several years has left many Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Government assistance programs have provided some relief, but millions of individuals and families have found themselves turning to charitable organizations for additional help.

Fortunately, Americans have continued to make donations to charity, despite the economy’s slow recovery. According to a June 2012 report from the Giving USA Foundation, Americans gave nearly $300 billion to charitable organizations in 2011.

When your finances are tight, it can be hard to fit giving into your budget. However, it’s important to remember that giving back to your community doesn’t always mean giving money. There are plenty of ways to support causes that are near and dear to your heart but don’t involve laying out large amounts of cash.

Ways to Be Charitable on a Tight Budget

1. Give Your Time

While charitable organizations need money to stay up and running, they also need people who are willing to pitch in and help with day-to-day operations. Your budget might not allow you to write a check to your favorite charity, but it won’t cost you any money to give your time for a good cause. Volunteer opportunities are virtually everywhere, including food pantries, hospitals, schools, senior centers, libraries, and religious institutions. Websites like VolunteerMatch are an excellent resource for finding volunteer opportunities in your area.

If you’re not sure where you want to volunteer, make a list of the issues and causes that most interest you. When you’re considering offering your services to a particular organization, ask yourself what skills you have to offer. Figuring out where you can be the most useful can ensure that your time as a volunteer is well spent.

But you don’t have to align with an organization to make a positive difference. You can look for opportunities to help others right in your own neighborhood. For example, if you have an elderly neighbor who has trouble getting around, you could volunteer to do their grocery shopping or help with simple household chores. If you have a specific skill or talent, you might consider offering a free class to share what you know. The gift of your time and attention could end up being more valuable than any amount of money you can give.

charity nursing home hospital

2. Turn Your Clutter Into Donations

Take a look around your house – what do you see that you can do without? Cleaning up your attic, basement, or even the hall closet can yield a wealth of items that you can donate to someone in need. While gathering things to donate, take the time to make sure each item is in relatively good condition. Check clothing for stains and tears, and test electronics and appliances to make sure they work properly. If you’re donating children’s toys or games, make sure you have all the pieces or parts. If you’re planning to donate items from your pantry to a local food bank, make sure that the expiration dates haven’t passed.

There are a number of places that will accept donations of used items. Goodwill and the Salvation Army are two of the most well-known places to donate used clothing, toys, furniture, computers and electronics, and household appliances, but there are other options if you don’t live near one of these organizations. For example, women’s shelters always need donations of clothing and personal hygiene items. Books and magazines can be donated to your local library or neighborhood school. You can also give away items by posting them on a site like Freecycle, which is essentially a virtual community swap meet.

When donating items to charity, be sure to get a receipt listing each item with its estimated value. You should also get a receipt for any cash donations you make. When tax time rolls around, you may end up getting a tax deduction for your charitable donations, but you need receipts or other documents to prove your claim. In some cases, the deduction for donated goods could end up being worth more than you could get if you’d sold the item.

volunteer donation box

3. Make a Medical Donation

Just because you don’t have any spare cash or used goods to donate doesn’t mean you have nothing to give. The Red Cross is the largest blood collection agency in the country, and one of the organization’s primary functions is to supply blood to hospitals around the world. According to Red Cross statistics, someone needs a blood transfusion every two seconds in the United States. If you’re in good health, giving blood is a great way to help others without spending a dime. Donating plasma is also an option, although the process is a bit more time-consuming. On the plus side, many plasma donation centers pay donors for their time, so you could end up earning a few extra dollars for your good deed.

If you don’t like needles, you have other options for giving a piece of your self. For example, nursing moms can donate breast milk to the National Milk Bank, which provides milk to babies who are premature or critically ill. You can also help sick kids by donating your hair to the Florida-based charity Locks of Love. Locks of Love uses donated hair to make custom wigs for children who have lost their hair because of a medical condition, such as alopecia, or as a result of cancer treatment. Hairpieces can cost as much as $6,000 but Locks of Love offers them to needy children at no cost.

charity donating blood

Final Word

Giving back can be extremely rewarding, for both the giver and the recipient. Even if you don’t think you have the financial resources to give, there’s still plenty you can do if you’re willing to take a creative approach. Whether it’s your time, your extra stuff, or yourself, there is a way for you to give a lot without spending a lot.

Do you have any tips and tricks for giving back while staying within a budget?

  • Donna

    It is tough to fit giving in right now. What I do is this:
    1) Regularly go through my clothes and possessions to give to various charities that follow my personal beliefs.
    2) Refrain from buying some things in order to have a few dollars to give.
    3) Donate from extra funds I receive through occasional music gigs (clarinet).
    4) I will occasionally pick up articles at garage sales to give to charity.
    5) Bake items for fundraisers.

    These are just some ideas. I cannot wait to see what ideas other readers have.
    God Bless.

    • Winston C

      Since I am a college student, I don’t have a lot of money to spare. So the way I manage to squeeze some money to donate is to refrain myself from buying certain stuff such as snacks and then give those money that I save to charities. And another benefit of such doing is that I live healthier.

  • gina

    This story is very inspiring. It can be overwhelming if you believe that you need millions of dollars to make a difference in the lives of others. Really, it is the small things that you can do that can make a difference. Recently I have been couponing, and I have found that there are TONS of freebies (or quality items at very low cost) out there, as long as you pay attention! This has allowed me to donate so many items to people in need.

  • Tabatha

    With so many people in need now I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and have decided that I should give enough that it does hurt a little bit. We are naturally self-interested, so to be generous I need to step outside of what I can easily and thoughtlessly give and stretch myself to give a little more. I’m sure Grace understood this better than anyone.

  • Emily D.

    I think giving is an integral part of a healthy financial life. I find giving keeps me from holding too tightly to my money both physically and emotionally. Of course, the amount will change, but there are few financial situations where you truly can’t give anything at all. If you can’t give when you are on a more restrained budget, you won’t give on a big budget either.

  • Chris

    We have been giving away baby clothes that our son has grown out of, as well as items we no longer wear. We also make it a point to donate at least $100 each year to a charity – usually my work provides a dollar for dollar company match with donations, as long as we give to their charitable foundation. We can then invest the match into any charity we want. This effectively doubles the contribution we planned to give, which is great.

    One tip that can benefit you as well as make you feel good is to donate stock; particularly stock that you are planning to sell, but have capital gains. By donating stock, you can then claim the total amount on your taxes, and not have to pay the capital gains on your stock. Therefore you keep the money you were planning to donate in lieu of the stock, and avoid the capital gains you were going to pay when you sold the stock.

  • David/Yourfinances101

    I think you’ve got to take care of yourself first.

    After that, since there are about a million places to give your money to, you have to choose a few that you feel passionate about, and direct your resources there.

  • Mac

    It is tough to give in this economy, but with the recession, that means that more people than ever are in need of help. I don’t have much to give as we’re just making it ourselves, but I try to help out where I can. Usually that entails a lot of clothing, furniture, old electronics to several local charities. Donating our time to help out non-profit organizations is also something we’re continuing to do.

  • Winston C

    While the story is very inspiring, I find it a bit sad about Grace Groner’s life. To me, she lived her life too frugally when she had that much wealth on her hands. She could have at least enjoyed her life a little bit more. Travel the world a couple times maybe. Although some might find this a bit exaggerated, the image that I had in my head after I read her story was Mother Teresa.

  • Elizabeth I

    I think people forget about giving their time. Isn’t time so precious? I have been so grateful for people who have volunteered their time to help me with some special therapy for one of my children. Also, I have been very grateful for hospital volunteers who have spent time with my son when he was in the hospital.

  • Kollin

    “Charity” is one of the fixed amounts included in my budget. It includes my weekly donation to the collection at church, and a donation to another organization. Right now that usually comes out to a $40 donation each month to some organization. I’d love to be able to increase that a bit. There are a handful of non-profits that I support that are particularly important to me, and this works better on my conscience than giving larger amounts to only one or two organizations. Even when I was a student I used this strategy, only back then I donated $10-15 to each of the organizations on my list. I figure every little bit counts!