If you’re spring cleaning or moving, chances are you’ve come across some stuff you don’t need or want. And as long as it’s in good condition, plenty of others can use it — and it beats tossing it in the trash. You may be able to resell your clutter for cash, but if not, you can still financially benefit if you itemize the donation on your taxes.
However, it’s not as simple as merely dropping your unwanted items off at a drop box or donation center. Several best practices and helpful hints ensure the donation process goes as smoothly as possible for both donors and charitable organizations.
Tips for Donating Your Unwanted Items
No matter where you donate your used stuff, you’ll get the most from your donation efforts by investigating your options and properly prepping your items. You’ll get more money back at tax time for goods for which the condition influences its value or sale price, as in the case of a vehicle. And it also ensures a charity or nonprofit can actually use what you donate, so your used stuff can do the most good.
1. Do Your Research
All charities do good with the things you donate, but they all use them in different ways. Some, like your local Goodwill, resell your donations in thrift stores and use the profit to fund their programs. Others, like Operation Paperback, redistribute your goods directly to those in need. If you care how a charity uses your secondhand stuff, research various charities’ methods upfront.
Regardless of the method, what matters most is that the charity helps those in need. So the next characteristic to look for in a charity is that it makes effective use of the donated merchandise and raised funds by checking a charity watchdog site like Charity Navigator.
Finally, while plenty of nonprofit organizations support causes you care about, like the homelessness crisis or animal welfare, some may do it in ways you disapprove of. For example, a charity may have methods you disagree with, such as giving or not giving money directly to needy individuals over fears of spending it on drugs and alcohol. Or a local animal shelter may be either a no-kill or a traditional shelter, which euthanizes animals they can’t find families for.
So if donating to particular charities is about more than just unloading unwanted stuff, take some time to examine their websites to make sure you’re on board with their causes, methods, and missions.
2. Know What’s Worth Donating
There’s a reason almost every organization specifies on their donation pages that items must be in good condition. Most charities sell donated goods in thrift stores. Others donate them directly to those in need.
Few can use things that are broken, torn, or stained. Sometimes, used stuff really is garbage. So look at your potential donations with a critical eye before giving them to a charity.
But it’s easy enough to ensure your donated goods meet these standards:
- Clothes. Donated clothing must be clean and free from holes, tears, and stains. Some charities, like Dress for Success, also request that your donations be ready to wear — meaning unwrinkled. One exception to these guidelines is Planet Aid, which accepts clothing in any condition.
- Linens and Bedding. In general, linens and bedding must be clean and free from holes, tears, and stains. However, if you’re donating to an animal shelter, they typically accept clean linens with some wear and tear as long as they don’t have extra fill, such as down comforters.
- Household Goods. Any household items, such as kitchenware, home decor, bins and baskets, picture frames, lamps, curtain rods, and knickknacks, must have all their parts and be free from damage.
- Books. All donated books must be free of mildew, mold, excessive dust or dirt, and excessive spine damage. And they must have all their pages and their covers.
- Furniture. Furniture can have some light wear and tear. But it must be free of broken parts, and the upholstery must be free of rips and stains. Additionally, furniture must be free of anything that could injure someone, such as having nails, screws, or springs poking out.
- Electronics. Typically, all electronics should be in working condition. However, if you’re donating a computer or cellphone to a charity that specializes in electronics — like the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence or Cellphones for Soldiers — you may be able to donate nonworking computers, tablets, and phones. These charities recycle nonworking electronics and use the profit from the sale of their parts to fund their programs. That said, the same may be true of traditional charities, such as Goodwill’s partnership with Dell.
- Appliances. Appliances must be in working condition and have all their parts.
- Vehicles. Check with the charity on this one. Many charities that accept donated vehicles — like the National Kidney Foundation and Volunteers of America — take cars that don’t run. They can resell undrivable vehicles for their scrap metal and parts.
3. Investigate Options for Pickup
While you may live near a donation center drop-off or a conveniently located donation bin, dropping off your donations isn’t always convenient. That’s especially true if you have multiple items to donate, have large donations like furniture, or don’t have easy access to transportation. In that case, check out a service that will pick up your donation for free. A few to try include:
- Donation Town. Donation Town connects you with local charities that can pick up your donations. Enter your zip code and get matched with a list of charities that offer free pickup. Choose your charity from the list and contact them directly to schedule a pickup at a time convenient for you.
- PickUp Please. PickUp Please is a program run by the Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit that serves all U.S. veterans despite the name. It’s currently available in 13 states. You can schedule a pickup through their website, and within 24 hours, a truck will arrive for your donation of household goods, clothing, toys, electronics, and smaller furniture.
- Furniture Bank Network. The Furniture Bank Network picks up donations of furniture and vehicles and is available in 34 states. Your donation directly helps those who can’t afford furniture to set up their homes, including formerly homeless people, the unemployed, the working poor, battered women and children in retreat, immigrants, and natural disaster survivors. Visit their website to find a location near you. Then call to schedule a free pickup.
Many larger charities, like Goodwill, The Salvation Army, AMVETS, and Habitat for Humanity, also have their own free pickup services. Contact one near you to discover if they offer pickup service in your area.
4. Prep Your Donations
Most charities have guidelines for preparing your donations. In addition to informing you of the requested condition, these guidelines include specifications like packaging guidelines. Even if they don’t mention anything, it’s still best to ensure all your donated goods are clean and safely wrapped for transport.
- Clothes. While you generally need to toss torn clothing (unless you have a Planet Aid donation bin in your neighborhood), you can salvage anything ripped at the seam. The Spruce Crafts has a seam repair guide. If clothes are dirty (not stained), toss them in the wash. And if your charity requests ready-to-wear clothes, ensure someone could put them on straight off the hanger and walk into a job interview.
- Linens and Bedding. Toss all dirty (not stained) linens and bedding in the wash. Then fold them and bag or box them for donation.
- Stuffed Animals. The charity Stuffed Animals for Emergencies, which donates stuffed toys to children who’ve experienced a traumatic or emotional situation, has cleaning guidelines for preparing stuffed animals. You can use them when donating stuffed animals to any charity. They include things like sewing up any tears in the seams and washing the stuffed animal on the gentle cycle in the washing machine.
- Books. Leaf through your books to ensure there isn’t any identifying information or scraps of paper tucked in the pages.
- Furniture. Wipe hard surfaces clean of dust, and vacuum upholstered surfaces of any pet hair or crumbs. If pet hair is difficult to remove, use a squeegee or rubber glove. Hair sticks to the rubber.
- Electronics. Always remove all personal information from cellphones and wipe the hard drive of computers before donating them. While many donation and recycling centers do this for you, it’s safer not to rely on them when our devices contain such sensitive information. If you’re not sure how, follow Wirecutter’s instructions.
- Appliances. All donated appliances should be clean since charities typically resell them in thrift stores. For tips on how to clean common kitchen appliances, visit Better Homes & Gardens. And for how to clean a washing machine, visit HGTV.
- Vehicles. Since many vehicle donation charities accept them in any condition, you don’t need to do much prep work to an inoperable car. But clean ones that do run inside and out. Remember, you’re trying to get the highest sale price since it means a bigger tax write-off. And check to make sure you haven’t left any papers or receipts with any identifying information in the glove compartment, the trunk, or under the seats.
In addition to these best practices, always check the charity’s specific guidelines, as it may have additional requirements.
5. Recycle What You Can’t Donate
Fortunately, for some items — like vehicles — some charities take them in any condition. So you never have to worry about how to dispose of an inoperable car. But other things — like clothes and bedding — are tougher to dispose of without resorting to the trash.
Fortunately, there are retailers and recycling programs that will pay you to recycle your old stuff in exchange for coupons, store credit, or even cash. For example:
- Clothing Retailers. Drop your clothes off at the nearest H&M or North Face for a discount on your next purchase. Both retailers accept clothing from any brand in any condition for recycling. Note that H&M’s program has been paused during the COVID-19 pandemic but will relaunch soon.
- Electronics Retailers. You can trade in used electronics in exchange for cash with Gazelle — either online or at a store kiosk — or visit your nearest Best Buy or Microsoft store to recycle your electronics for a percentage off toward a new purchase.
- BoxCycle. If you get a lot of deliveries or recently moved, recycle your boxes. BoxCycle allows you to sell your extra lightly used cardboard boxes online, so they can take on a second life with someone else who’s moving. And it even recycles items like wood pallets, mailers, and packing supplies.
- Recyclebank. Recyclebank advertises itself as a frequent flyer program for recycling. Any time you recycle anything, you get rewarded with local discounts and deals.
- Energy Providers. Many local energy suppliers offer recycling programs for refrigerators and freezers that no longer work in exchange for cash. Search your regional supplier to discover whether they offer a program like this or check Energy Star’s list of recycling partners. They’ll pick up your defunct appliance and leave you with some extra cash in hand.
- Recycling Centers and Metal Yards. In many states, you can make money recycling your bottles and cans — anywhere from $0.02 to $0.15. To find a recycling center near you, search online at Earth911. Additionally, all nonferrous (doesn’t contain iron) scrap metal, like aluminum, copper, bronze, or brass, is valuable — fetching anywhere from $0.80 to $3 per pound. Take it to your nearest scrap yard, which you can find using iScrap App.
If you don’t have access to money-making recycling options, you can still recycle to save the planet. For clothing, visit Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles, an online platform that helps people find nearby textile recycling outlets.
And plenty of crafters can use your stuff for art projects. Even if it’s broken, glass, ceramic, and pottery are useful for mosaics. Broken wood furniture is also sought-after by crafters, artisans, woodworkers, and cabinetmakers. So post it up for grabs on a site like Freecycle or Nextdoor or in a Facebook group. Even if you can’t make some cash from your stuff, giving it away can spare you any disposal fees.
6. Deduct Your Donation
If you itemize your deductions, you can take a deduction for charitable donations. Usually, it isn’t worthwhile to itemize unless your combined deductions are greater than the standard deduction.
Fortunately, starting with 2020 tax returns, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allows for an additional above-the-line deduction (an amount subtracted from your gross income to arrive at your adjusted gross income) for cash contributions of up to $300. So even if you don’t itemize on your 2020 tax return, you can claim your charitable giving this year.
If you do itemize, fill out Schedule A and follow the instructions. If the total value of noncash donations exceeds $500, you must fill out Form 8283 with specifics about what you donated to which organizations and how much the items were worth. For more information, see our article on tax deductions for charitable contributions.
And don’t forget to save your donation receipt. The IRS requires proof of your charitable donation, so this receipt is what allows you to take the deduction when you file your taxes. Some charities provide one for you. For example, vehicle donation charities send you a receipt after they sell your car.
For others, you must fill out a form listing your noncash donations and their fair market value. The value isn’t what you paid for it. It’s the amount the charity can sell it for.
Before donating your goods, set them all out and make a list of every item. To calculate their value, you can visit a thrift store and see what comparable products are selling for. Or use a tool like Goodwill’s online valuation guide or The Salvation Army’s donation value guide to get general guidelines on prices. And the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a valuation list for many common cellphone models.
After you’ve dropped off your donation, get one of the charity’s preprinted receipts with the name and address of the charity. A representative can sign and date it for you. This official document proves your donation if the IRS ever audits you.
While it’s certainly easier to toss everything in a bag and drop it off at the nearest donation center, taking the time to properly prepare your donations ensures the charity can make the most of everything you give them.
If that seems like a lot of work for that much time investment, you can sell your clutter for cash instead, especially if it’s in good condition. Look into resale sites like ThredUp or Poshmark or consignment shops if you have clothes to sell, especially for designer brands. Check out eBay or Amazon for reselling collectibles, home goods, and electronics. And try local resale sites like Craigslist and OfferUp or garage sales and yard sales for reselling furniture.
And if selling it doesn’t work out, you can always shift gears back to donation. Before you do, check out our article on the best places to donate your used stuff.