In the past nine months I've found $12.89 in singles and specie. The cash has shown up in a number of places, but most of it is from coins I picked up.
As usual, I'll squirrel away the found funds until Thanksgiving, at which time I'll write a check to a food bank. I've been doing this for a couple of decades, including a span of several years during which I had neither a vessel into which to urinate nor a casement through which to dispose of it.
This was a painless way to help others at a time when I worried nonstop about my own ability to stay afloat. Giving to others got me out of my own head, reminding me that plenty of people lived with considerably fewer resources (financial, emotional, practical) than I had.
It also reminded me that despite my fears I actually did have enough to get by. In fact, I had so much enough that I could afford to share a little with others. What richness!
Maybe you're in a tight spot of your own, or maybe your paycheck covers the basics without much left over. But writing a check isn't the only way to give. Our time, our talents and even our frugal hacks can make a difference in the world.
The Ultimate Social Network
Why give? Because there's need — and because it's as good for you as it is for the people to whom you contribute.
Helping others connects us with the bigger picture, i.e., life outside our own little circles of circumstance. Giving is the ultimate social network, because it connects us with the wider world vs. the virtual one.
Suppose you spent an hour driving a veteran to the doctor and back. For you it would be an hour you could spare. For the vet you drove, it would be a lifeline.
The following tips are not one-size-fits-all. For example, maybe you:
- Live in a high-rise and don't know your neighbors.
- Aren't the kind of person who would ever pick up recyclables.
- Can't donate blood for medical reasons.
But surely one of these suggestions will resonate. And if not? Share your own ideas in the comment section.
“Used,” but still useful
- Charity thrift shops. Goodwill and others can use clothing, housewares, books and maybe even furniture. However, keep in mind that the stuff you think “still has some use left in it” might not be saleable. Get a receipt in case this is the year you itemize; see “Getting the most from your charitable deductions” for specifics.
- The Freecycle Network. Not all chapters are created equal, but I've had tremendous success with people coming to get stuff I no longer need.
- Got books? This American Library Association fact sheet offers information on libraries that accept donated materials.
- Got children's books? Ask if you can leave your kids' outgrown titles in the waiting room at a public health clinic or social service agency.
- Periodical sharing. When you finish with magazines, ask if it's OK to leave them at laundromats, job-source organizations or other places adults tend to sit and wait. Cut the mailing label off the front of the mag; it doesn't hurt to be wary even though identity theft is generally more high-tech than that.
- Rags that rock. Before tossing worn-out towels or blankets, see if pet rescue groups could use them.
- Holidays for kids. This doesn't have to cost a bundle. Shop the Black Friday or pre-Black Friday sales, or the loss leaders during the holiday season. If experience has shown you which stores have the best stuff, shave off a few more bucks by paying with a discounted gift card.
- Holidays for adults. Social service agencies or places of worship will likely let you know who's in need. Shop the same sales as noted in “gifts for kids,” above, and also watch daily deal sites like My Bargain Buddy and Dealnews.com.
- Clothing drives. Got a second coat, a like-new hat, an extra scarf? If you're in a cold climate a collection box is waiting somewhere. When I lived in Alaska I carried extra hats, scarves and mittens in the trunk of my car, in case I met a homeless person who needed them. (And I did.)
- Pro bono es bueno. Lawyers and doctors aren't the only ones who donate their time, incidentally. Whether it's social media savvy or landscape architecture, your skills might be needed by a town landmark, a group home, an elementary school.
- Helping hands. Not everyone has an in-demand skill, but just about any of us can stuff envelopes or help clean up after a PTA meeting.
- Teach a class. Take stock of what you know well — web design, cake decorating, Excel spreadsheets? — and offer that knowledge to others through a club, afterschool program, fraternal organization or place of worship.
- Be a youth-group leader. This is a huge time commitment, and some people (including me) aren't nuts about certain organizations' policies on gays and lesbians. But if you can find a match — scouting, 4-H, youth sports, Sunday school — your help is needed.
- Mentoring. Big Brothers/Big Sisters is the group people most often choose, but other options exist. Maybe your place of worship has a way to match kids in need with caring adults. Perhaps a professional organization arranges job-shadows for teens interested in your industry. A recent college graduate in your field might need advice and/or networking.
- Yard work. Got an elderly or chronically ill neighbor who can't manage snow, leaves or lawn? Step up.
- Give blood. If the bloodmobile comes to the workplace, well, score: You get a break from the job plus juice and cookies! If not, look for blood drives. Donation doesn't take very long and it's a literal lifesaver.
- Use your coupon powers for good. By combining sale prices, coupons and instant store rebates, you can pay nothing or next to nothing for toiletries, cleaning products and food items. I've donated numerous bags of these things to a shelter and a couple of emergency pantries.
- Coupon powers, part 2. Michael's and Jo-Ann's have dollar sections and they run “50% off any non-clearance item” coupons in their Sunday ads. Thus I pay 50 cents for knitted gloves that aren't good to 30 below but do keep out the chill. Shelters can use these.
- Clearance tables rule! Speaking of gloves: I found them priced at two pairs for 33 cents a couple of late-winters ago. (I bought 100 pairs to give away.) Clearance tables can also yield gifts for next year's holiday donations.
- Recycle for credit. Trade in spent ink cartridges for store credit at Office Max, Office Depot and Staples, then buy school supplies to donate. Deliver office supplies to your favorite local nonprofit. Drop off teabags or coffee filters at the senior center. (Cartridge trade-in policies vary, so be clear on the rules before you do this.)
- Recycle for cash. If you walk for exercise, carry a bag and pick up cans and bottles along the way. Give the money you earn to your favorite cause.
- Plant a little extra. If you have one zucchini plant you have enough; if you have two, you have enough to share. Seriously: Put a few extra seeds in the ground and donate extra produce to food bank or soup kitchen.
- Calendar creep. Do charities send you calendars, greeting cards and notepads? Offer calendars to teachers (animal-themed ones are a big hit with younger kids), group homes, senior centers or nonprofits, or bundle up the cards and notepads and donate them to charity thrift shops.
- A non-pay phone. Got a plan with unlimited minutes? Maybe someone in a veterans' or long-term-care home wants to call family or friends but can't afford it. Ask a social worker if you can temporarily donate your phone on a weekend afternoon.
- House-caring hack. Next time someone offers you $50 to pick up the mail and feed the cat for a week, make a counter-offer: You'll do those chores if he or she will make a donation to the charity of your choice. If you're a cynic, just accept the money and donate it yourself.
Readers: How do you give on a budget — or for free?
Author: Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman is an award-winning journalist who writes the Frugal Cool daily blog for MSN Money and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com .
Donna has lived the frugal life. She has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.
While getting divorced she went back to school and helped to support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs.
Donna has freelanced for numerous magazines and newspapers. Her work has won awards from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Association for Women in Communications and the Society of American Travel Writers. A resident of Seattle, she is the mother of
one daughter, Abigail Perry â€“ whoâ€™s also a writer. Go figure.