9 Ways to Give — Even When Times Are Tough

This post is part of the “The Spectrum of Personal Finance”. In this one-day event, comic-book nerd Brian from My Next Buck, will discuss eight different emotions (taken from the Green Lantern comics) and relate them to personal finance. Here at GRS, Brian looks at Compassion.

One of the most rewarding parts of personal finance is being able to give back. Giving is powerful, and it's contagious. But maybe this year times are too tight for you to give in ways you've done before. That doesn't mean you should disregard the needy this year. Let's talk about some alternative ways to give.

Here are some ways to give back without having to dig deep in your wallet:

  • Donate clothing. Goodwill is a great place to make donations, but also look for local clothing drives that give items directly to the homeless. Don't forget things like hats, scarves, and gloves; it is nearly winter after all.
  • Keep small bills in your pocket. If you live in a city, you likely pass by homeless people on your commute to work each day. Carry ten $1 bills, and pass them out until they're gone.
  • Host others for Thanksgiving. Have a neighbor who is out of work? Open your door to share Thanksgiving with her family. This is the sort of act of kindness you usually only see in movies, but it's easy to do.
  • Clean out your cupboards. Sort through all of those canned goods that haven't been eaten for months, or that your children decided they didn't like after one sitting. Donate them to a food bank.
  • Make room in your budget to donate $25 or $50 to charity this season. Then, when you're asked to donate an extra $1 for a cause at the grocery store, or asked by girl scouts to buy cookies, you can say yes.

Even when times are tight, there are always opportunities to give back that don't cost you a cent. Here are some free ways to help you give to those in need this holiday season:

  • Volunteer at a local soup kitchen. There are scores of ways to volunteer, but soup kitchens always need a lot of help, especially during the holidays. I volunteered at a soup kitchen with my family one Thanksgiving; it's probably the most memorable turkey day I have had.
  • Become a Big Brother or Big Sister. I've wanted to do this for a while now, but my life just doesn't allow for it yet. It'd be awesome to be able to mentor (and hang out with) a little buddy, and to help them grow.
  • Start a food or clothing drive. Maybe you don't have spare food or extra clothing to donate. Others might. Maybe they just need an easy outlet to donate them through. Starting a food or clothing drive at your church, synagogue, or local school can be easy and rewarding.
  • Donate your body. Donate blood, bone marrow stem cells, and plasma. This type of giving can make a huge difference in people's lives and costs you nothing that can't be replenished.

Are you still giving despite the down economy? What other ways do you contribute to charity or community that make an impact without draining your budget?

For further reading of the Spectrum of Personal Finance Event, please see:

  • Fear at Bargaineering
  • Hope at Budgets are Sexy
  • Avarice at Consumerism Commentary
  • Willpower at Debt-Free Adventure
  • Death at Free Money Finance
  • Compassion at Get Rich Slowly
  • Love at Mrs. Micah
  • Rage at Poorer Than You

To view a recap of the event, check out the Spectrum Roundup at My Next Buck.

More about...Frugality, Giving

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Sam
Sam

I’m not a big fan of handing out money to people on the street, having worked in mental health I know that most of that money goes for drugs or alcohol. I’d rather give to an agency that feeds the homeless. We give of time, I’m on the board of directors for a small charity. We also give money and agree that it is something we budget for in our yearly spending plan. I also space out our giving by setting up an automatic payment each month just like I do with the rest of my “bills.” So we gift… Read more »

Karen
Karen

I also think it’s a bad idea to pass out cash to homeless people on the streets. Too many of them have substance abuse issues. Just think–what if you end up funding a fatal OD?

Contribute instead to a reputable charity or food bank where your dollar will do some good.

Jeff
Jeff

Good list
I like the frugal ways to give. I just put an extra jacket in my car this morning to drop off to Goodwill on my home today.
It’s not much but I give clothes and food as much as I can.
I hope to be able to give more in the future once my debt is gone.

ArandomPerson
ArandomPerson

If you have spare used books that you no longer read (or have not read in years) that are cluttering up your space; you can donate them to others:

See this page for various organizations that accept used books from individuals:

http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/library/libraryfactsheet/alalibraryfactsheet12.cfm

Morah Mary
Morah Mary

I knit scarves. The scarves are offered to men and women who are homeless and shelted by local religious congregations during the winter months. I use quality (but machine-washable!) yarns in a variety of colors and use different patterns. Everyone should have something new once a year. It’s not a big thing, but I think to think it helps.

I also am treasurer for a non-profit which allocates donated funds to small organizations with low overhead which address critical needs in communities. Every little bit helps.

Great post!

Ben
Ben

My creative solution has purchasing the free with rebate items at CVS, Rite Aid, etc. and donating those items.

Alexandra
Alexandra

I live in the downtown core of a big city and pass by the same homeless people every day. Your dollar will end up going to a bottle of alcohol or their next drug score. If you want to help, your local drug and addiction center or homeless shelter is a much better way to spend your money. Also, I don’t know what the tax laws are like in the States, but here in Canada, you get a percentage of your registered charitable donations back at tax time if you donate more than $20 at a time. I would not… Read more »

Alexandra
Alexandra

One of my best charitable acts was to donate my wedding dress to a local charity. It was worn by several women at their wedding who could not afford to buy a wedding gown.

John DeFlumeri Jr
John DeFlumeri Jr

Thank you for bringing this sensitive subject up.
I think people want to give to others, but they are worried about the expense. You explained how to do it affordably and easily.

John DeFlumeri Jr.

SF_UK
SF_UK

Your time is one of the most valuable things you can give (and doesn’t cost you a penny). It’s also the most rewarding. Think about the skills you have that a charity could use – you needn’t be on the “front line” if you don’t want to be – there is always a need for people answering emails, doing accounts, writing letters, and other “back room” activities.

Jenny
Jenny

We’re the beneficiary of one your suggestions this year. A friend invited us to join her family for Thanksgiving (since we can’t afford to travel and join ours this year). We’re very much looking forward to it (and bringing along a couple of dishes to share, with her permission).

I’ve also begun volunteering this year since our financial position doesn’t allow us to donate cash – instead we’re giving of our time.

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity

I do a lot of my volunteering through my church or my workplace–I find it easier to get started if I already know some of the people involved, and of course it’s a good way to meet new people, too.

Charitable giving is in my monthly budget, over and above the amount I give through payroll deduction at work, and this month I plan to do it on Thanksgiving. I find that giving makes me feel better off, and it’s a good antidote to holiday loneliness.

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage

While we give money to charity, I feel like our biggest impact comes when we spend time personally helping others. And this is obviously free, other than the opportunity cost. I have become active in the Knights of Columbus, and charity is now simply part of who I am. I regularly give time in service to the community. On December 12th, we are sponsoring a needy child shopping day at the local Wal-Mart. Using money our members have given, I’ll be one of 15-20 guys (along with my wife) that takes a needy child around the store to shop for… Read more »

Jen C
Jen C

I have to agree with the “don’t pass out money to the people on the street” contingent. A homeless shelter can do a lot more with that $1 than a single person will do – even if they do spend it on food and not drugs or drink. I, too, plan my giving to get the most out of every dollar. My company has a matching program for food kitchens, but only during the holiday season – so I budget my charitable giving all year but wait to make the actual donation until my company will match. In addition, my… Read more »

Little House
Little House

This is a great list of kind things to do. I Especially like the idea of volunteering in a Soup Kitchen, this is inexpensive and really helpful to others.

thanks for the post!

Matt
Matt

I take issue with giving homeless people money. Even a buck. The problem is, at least in our area, most (certainly not all) of the homeless population *that you see* are homeless because they choose to be. Most of the money they get from well-wishing passers by is used for booze or drugs. Instead, consider giving them your boxed leftovers from the lunch or dinner you just had, or something like a gift card to a grocery store or fast food restaurant. In Denver, there’s an organization called “Step 13” (step13.org) that prints coupon books, for a donation. You hand… Read more »

Kate
Kate

If you don’t feel comfortable giving money to folks on the street, you could offer to buy them a cup of coffee. I love Morah Mary’s idea of making something handmade as a gift. I’ve done that in the past with knitted hats for cancer patients undergoing chemo. My plan for this season is to “adopt” a few older gentlemen that live nearby in a retirement home and don’t have family nearby or at all. I see the same three men each afternoon on the park bench when I walk my dog. They seem to really perk up when I… Read more »

Amy
Amy

Forgive my unabashed enthusiasm here, but holy cow this is a GREAT POST! Thank you for bringing up this topic and showing that there are so many ways to give outside of the traditional fork over cash method. So many are debating the pros and cons of giving to the homeless, but that misses the mark in my mind. The point is to have compassion on others. Go with your gut and give accordingly. I personally have a small budget for giving to several charities and I also volunteer at a local place that helps families grieve the loss of… Read more »

tg
tg

Great inclusion of blood and marrow donation! Keep in mind that the Red Cross is not always the local provider of blood; in many areas other non-profit blood centers are the local provider. You can find the local provider for your area in the US and Canada here: http://www.americasblood.org/

Kat
Kat

Like the others here, I strongly disagree with handing out cash to people on the street without knowing their background etc. I do recall some cities/agencies have cards you can pass out that list various soup kitchens and shelters and their locations.

I have recently begun clipping coupons and doing the Grocery Game/Coupon Mom shopping. I always buy items every week that charities will take – I set them aside to stockpile and donate quarterly. It’s nice to use frugality skills to feed my family AND support charitable giving.

KC
KC

I don’t hand out money to “bums” or homeless people. The money oftentimes goes to drugs or alcohol. I will however give them my lunch or a pack of crackers or water if I have it on me or in my car. If I see a homeless person with dog and I can run home I’ll get the dog a ziploc full of dog food. When I lived in Memphis the local news did several stories on the “bums” and “homeless”. Money usually went for alcohol or drugs. In one angering case the guy panhandled fr one hour making over… Read more »

Brigid
Brigid

Again weighting in on giving cash to the homeless. I highly discourage this practice. When you give them cash directly, you are encouraging them to NOT go to the homeless shelters and charities that are available to help them. Their problem is not that they don’t have money, it’s that they can’t handle reality. They need serious help far beyond what a few stray dollar bills will give them.

Karen
Karen

Donating your professional services to a non-profit or charitable organization is another way to give. I do several pro-bono jobs per year for small non-profits that I believe in that need the service I can provide. I keep track of the time I put into each job, and make sure that I send a receipt to the organization. That way I can get credit for a gift-in-kind for my donated professional services for tax purposes.

David/yourfinances101.com/blog
David/yourfinances101.com/blog

The best ways I’ve found to continue to give in these tough economic times is to donate all unwanted items of mine, including clothing, and to donate my TIME.

Obviously, donating your time is free, and can be done in a vairety of useful ways.

Homeless shelters, churches, etc are always looking for people with time to give.

Rachael
Rachael

I know of some people who carry a stash of $5 McDonald’s gift cards in their wallet to give to homeless people on the streets. That way you know what your money is going to be used for. Or you can give out business cards listing area shelters and agencies where homeless people can get help.

I live in a metropolitan area and our newspaper did a story a few months ago about how much money people standing at intersections make. Sometimes it’s more than what we would make in a day.

Laura
Laura

Also, please don’t forget that service opportunities exist all year round, not just at the holiday times when most people are more willing to volunteer. Sometimes, nonprofits need the most help in the summer when no one is thinking of having a food drive!

janet
janet

Hi JD!

I’m sure that you can find an hour a week to give to Big Brothers Big Sisters. Once you start, it’s easy to find the time!

My goal with my little sister is to have a good time without spending any money. It’s pretty easy to do too. We go to the public library, play board games and work on homework together.

Sam
Sam

Just want to chime in on BB/BS, I was a big sister for years. It was a great experience, I know my local BB/BS also matches couples to a little, so if both you and your wife wanted to participate you can and you can share the commitment and share time together with the little.

Josh Wheeler
Josh Wheeler

Some great ideas here! One of the crazy things is how much stuff some people have, that they want to get rid of… (nice condition stuff) and how far that can go as a donation. Makes a great incentive to clean the house when you realize simplifying your life can be bettering someone else’s.

Brian
Brian

I am glad to hear a couple people mention that they participated in BB/BS. That may be something i try to do before i hit 30. In the regards to giving money directly to the homeless, i understand the debate. Who is to say who is really needy vs. someone looking to score cash for drugs, etc.? In my area, the homeless tend to be veterans, and those are the ones that make me hurt to see in their condition. I like the idea of carrying around mcdonald’s gift cards to give to homeless people, as well as using “free… Read more »

E
E

I made a conscious effort to increase giving this year. The easiest thing was contributing to causes my co-workers supported throughout the year. They were all good causes in which my co-workers were personally involved, and in some cases there was a company match. Next, I put on my calendar a weekly volunteer opportunity that I’ve been wanting to do but rarely manage. Having it there reminds me every week, so when I finally have some free time on that day I can go, even at the last minute. (I went this weekend and helped disassemble old bikes for re-use… Read more »

Craig
Craig

Sometimes it’s difficult to give money when you lack funds yourself, but I know every bit helps. Maybe giving more in donations like old clothes is something I will try to do this year.

Sandy L
Sandy L

Agree on the panhandlers, NEVER GIVE CASH. I did give them some of my wedding favors and have given a handful of berries fresh from my mom’s garden.

Even though most have substance abuse problems, they are still people. You can’t tell me it wasn’t joyful to get a handful of chocolates from a bride on her wedding day. I’m sure it made them feel a little more human…and maybe for a second it made them think of something other than their addiction.

Elgin Tan
Elgin Tan

Thanks for this list. Yes, sparing a thought for the less fortunate is something lacking in today’s society. Keep up the good work.

Elsie
Elsie

How about taking stuff to consignment stores and give the money you make to charities….

La BellaDonna
La BellaDonna

When I haven’t had money, I’ve given away my DINNER to the homeless. You know what? Turned out the people who were begging for FOOD really wanted MONEY – turned out my dinner wasn’t good enough for them. OK, it wasn’t much – but it was what I had. And when one of the beggars was someone I’d run into before, he was quick to turn down what I had to offer. That’s pretty much taken care of my donations to people on the street – if I have food I can offer (wrapped, untouched), and it’s gratefully received, I’m… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne

@ Alexandra – donating a wedding dress – what a great idea! Women love to hold onto them but they just sit in a box in the attic. I give back by working with families of the mentally ill. It is one of the greatest things I do and I get more out of it than I put into it. At the holidays, I spend a great deal of time thinking about what each person would really appreciate. When a gift comes from the heart and truly fits the other person’s passions, the dollar value really isn’t important. For instance,… Read more »

Libby
Libby

I lived in Chicago for a while – and I had a friend that had some work that needed to be done (something easy for just about anyone to do – I can’t remember what it was exactly) and he went and told a “homeless” person that he would pay them $15 an hour to come help him for 3-4 hours. The homeless person refused because “it was during the lunch hour rush” and they could make more money getting it from people walking by. I stopped giving money to people on the street. If they really need help, they… Read more »

MichaelM
MichaelM

Our Church has a monthly fast. You are supposed to skip two meals, and donate the money you would have spent on food.

Two meals won’t kill you, and might help you appreciate how hungry the poor might be every day.

At church the donated money is used to run a food pantry, provide shelter and other welfare services — you could donate to whatever/whoever you wanted of course.

Pros: Almost anyone who buys food can skip a meal or two and donate their money.
Cons: You get hungry. Not an option if you’re pregnant/nursing/diabetic/etc.

Brenda
Brenda

Great post! But I do echo what others have said: In this day and age, giving money to beggars on the street is a bad idea. Sadly, many of them are scammers, and many others have severe drug and alcohol addictions, and like one person pointed out, you may just be funding their Death. Best thing to do is offer to buy them a hot meal. You’ll know pretty quickly if they’re really homeless or not.. the scammers will usually turn the meal down. A sad story: A person in one of the online communities I belong to relayed this… Read more »

JAK
JAK

A word of caution: This year a lot of food items donated to our church Thanksgiving drive was expired. Just be certain to check that the dates on the items from your cupboards are not expired.

Instead of giving money I used to keep a box of granola bars (or something similar) in my car and give those out to people who “walk the intersection” when there is a red light. Haven’t been turned down yet. Thanks for the reminder as I need to start doing this again.

elisabeth
elisabeth

The NYTimes “City Critic” tried to find a “soup kitchen” or similar place that would let her volunteer and found that there weren’t a lot (any) openings [it’s in the Nov 20th edition of the paper and there’s also a video posted on line] for new volunteers. Between students looking for resume lines, the unemployed looking for a free way to be charitable, and the regular goodness of people, there seems to be an overabundance of those kind of holiday volunteers, at least in that city — but other skills are really needed, so it probably is a good idea… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah

From someone who used to work at a food pantry, I’d add this: Make a donation of time or money to your favorite organization– and then do it again in January. Don’t let this get lost in the holiday chaos. Really try out volunteering– don’t just try and find a place to help for Thanksgiving or Christmas. And whatever you do, do NOT call a place this week about volunteering for Thanksgiving. Nonprofits plan their holiday activities weeks and months in advance– they are not waiting for people to call on the day or week of. So if you want… Read more »

Jesse
Jesse

I choose to give food to the homeless vs cash. I bought a few tacos at Dell Taco the other day and passed a homeless man and passed hima few out the window. It may not have been a full meal, but it cost me less than $1 and gave the guy a little something to eat.

LynB
LynB

I love the ideas of granola bars and McD’s gift cards! Will stock up on them. We donate time/meals to a local shelter every month. One of the items they especially ask for this time of year is tube socks. The old fashioned kind without heels knit it. Not only are they used for socks, but also for gloves – and a few other creative uses. Tubes socks are cheap and I’m sure would be gratefully accepted by the ‘crosswalk walkers’ as well.

Karen
Karen

In addition to Big Brothers/Sisters, the YMCA runs a program called “Y-mentors” that has similar goals of providing a adult mentor for an at-risk youth.

In my town, the YMCA works with local government social workers to identify the children in need and to monitor the mentor situation.

You can also donate to the program so the mentor can get some help taking their mentee to the movies, out for ice cream, etc.

Beth
Beth

I think donating clothes, books, etc. is a great point. It’s nice to see a contrast to the “sell everything you possibly can” advice on many PF blogs.

@ Suzanne and Alexandra — Thanks for the nudge to get rid of the bridesmaid’s dress I have hanging in the closet. I felt fantastic wearing it, but now it’s time to share the feeling!

Storch Money
Storch Money

@ Karen #23

If you’re a lawyer in the U.S., your pro bono professional services are not deductible as a charitable donation. I just did a quick Google search to confirm and there are many sources. I do lots of pro bono work every year as well and would love to get a deduction, but the tax laws don’t allow it. Expenses and mileage incurred as part of pro bono work can be deducted, however.

Kathy F
Kathy F

Yes, be carefule who you give to. One organization in New York who solicited money on sidewalks, The United Homeless Organization, was supposedly a nonprofit group set up to help feed and house the homeless, but actially was actually an elaborate fraud. NY Times has an article about them and a complaint filed by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/homeless-organization-called-fraud/?hp I stopped giving to street people years ago because some of them had belligerent and obnoxious behavior, like blocking your path, saying nasty things. In DC where I am, many of them are mentally ill and interactions with them are not… Read more »

Jane
Jane

“This year a lot of food items donated to our church Thanksgiving drive was expired.” I guess my question is – how expired? There’s a big difference between mac and cheese that is one month expired and canned chef boyardee that is a year expired. I would eat the former but not the latter. I was wondering what grocery stores do with expired non-perishables. I hope they donate recently expired cans or otherwise to a food pantry. Really, does it automatically go bad right after the expiration? I highly doubt it. I wonder if there is a legal issue that… Read more »

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