Giving makes us happier, but what if you don’t have much to give?

Maybe it's because I'm getting older, or maybe it's that I'm in a better financial place than I was just a few years ago, but lately, I've been thinking a lot more about giving back.

In recent years, it's becoming more important to me to be socially conscious and charitable. I'm secure, I'm healthy, and I'm free. That contentment seems to urge me to check in on the rest of the world.

Or, maybe it's coming from a more selfish place.

According to a new research paper from Harvard Business School, spending money on others makes us happy.

Giving Makes Us Happier

The paper, titled, “Prosocial Spending and Happiness,” was published this year in Current Directions in Psychological Science. In it, psychologists write:

“Although a great deal of research has shown that people with more money are somewhat happier than are people with less money, our research demonstrates that how people spend their money also matters for their happiness. In particular… people who spend money on others report more happiness.”

The researchers cite a 2008 study they conducted. Subjects were given $5 or $20 to spend by the end of the day. Half of the participants were told to buy themselves something nice. The other half were instructed to use the money to help somebody in need.

Results found that the givers reported greater happiness:

“That evening, people who had been assigned to spend the money on someone else reported happier moods over the course of the day than did those people assigned to spend the money on themselves.”

Other research seems to suggest that feeling happiness after giving is an innate trait. In 2012, one of the researchers, Lara Aknin, conducted a study that involved toddlers under the age of 2. Aknin found that when toddlers gave away crackers to a puppet, they “exhibited more happiness” than when they kept the crackers for themselves.

Of course, it's not that simple. Conflicting studies have found that giving back ;doesn't always increase happiness. For example, a 2010 study found that people only felt happier about giving money away when they had a choice of how much to give.

Overall, the paper suggested that organizations can appeal to possible donors by maximizing “the emotional benefits of giving.” Basically, make people feel happy about giving.

But whether it makes us happy or not, giving is important. I have to admit, I feel a bit selfish for only thinking about the plight of others now that my own life is in order. Maybe you have to look out for yourself before you can look out for others.

But even if you don't have a lot of resources, there are ways to give.

Support Social Enterprise

Unless companies make big, disgusting headlines, most people don't pay much attention to business ethics and social enterprise. Forbes discussed this topic recently. They reported on a survey that found many American consumers (30 percent) want to start buying from socially responsible companies. But at the same time, most of these consumers aren't familiar with social enterprise, the concept of a business making “improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Forbes reports that the poll was conducted by Good.Must.Grow, an organization “aimed at social enterprises and nonprofits that also uses money from after-tax profits to help nonprofits pay for marketing services they couldn't otherwise afford.”

Becoming a more socially conscious consumer is probably the simplest way to give back when you don't have much to give. Next time you make a purchase, find a company that will use some of the profit for good. Purchase from a “buy-one-give-one” company. Of course, being a socially conscious consumer does take some research and an open mind.

Oh, and maybe a small sacrifice in frugality.

“What's more, many consumers also seemed to be more interested in getting a good deal than making a difference,” Forbes reports.

I'm all for a good deal, but as J.D. wrote, “Money gives you more options, but happiness makes life worth living.” If making a difference makes you happy, then it might be worth it to forgo a good deal for the benefit of social enterprise.

Redeem Your Credit Card Rewards

It's not for everyone, but some of us like to earn rewards on our credit cards by using them for our expenses, and then pay off the balance in full each month.

Instead of redeeming your rewards for cash, consider redeeming them for a charitable donation, if your rewards program offers that option.

Volunteer

Of course, if you don't have a lot of money, but you do have some time, volunteering is the way to go. Perhaps selfishly, it's also probably the most gratifying way to give back. VolunteerMatch is a website that helps you find volunteer opportunities in your area.

Get Crafty

This is very cool. In an article about supporting charities without donating money, Mental Floss found quite a few organizations that need handmade items. If you want to volunteer on your own time, you can knit blankets for shelter animals, for example. Or you can assemble Chemocaps for cancer victims.

There are multitudes of ways to give back when you have limited resources. You can donate blood, cut your hair, or clean out your closets and give the items to Goodwill.

Maybe you're like me and you suddenly feel a social responsibility because you're grateful for your health and well-being. Maybe it makes you happy to see others benefit from your help. Maybe you want to give back simply because you believe it's the right thing to do. Regardless of our intention, there's a lot of need in the world.

Do you give back? If so, how?

More about...Giving, Frugality

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Beth
Beth
6 years ago

Great post and many good suggestions 🙂 I think most of us can find a way to give back whether it’s sharing our time or resources. (If not now then “paying it forward” in the future). I can’t discuss specifics of what I do (Matthew 6:3-4), but here are some great ideas I’ve come across: – Mentoring – Teaching (whether in a classroom or through a children’s organization. Run a workshop on personal finance, for example) – Raising a therapy or seeing eye dog. (Or training your dog to be a therapy dog to visit the elderly, read with children,… Read more »

PB
PB
6 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I agree with making giving part of your budget. We give to many things – church, Food for the Poor, etc. – but I put $ 20.00 each month into an envelope so that when local emergencies come up and people need help, I never have to say no because there is no money on hand.

Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
6 years ago

I think of all my purchases as “voting with my dollars.” I try to spend in places that support the same ideals and values that I do. I haven’t been to a Walmart in years.

Pete
Pete
6 years ago

Sometimes I think Wal Mart bashing is fashionable.

A few years ago they started selling many generic medications for dirt cheap prices. Some as low as $4.00 per month. Slowly, the other large chains fell into line so they could continue to compete.

I firmly believe that lowering medication prices is one of the great things done for Americans and should be applauded.

Jane
Jane
6 years ago
Reply to  Pete

It’s “fashionable” because they underpay their workers, will close a store before they allow them to unionize, have been known to discriminate against females in management, and often intentionally keep workers’ hours at part-time. In other countries, they also allegedly engage in bribery to get stores to open. I know they are not the only large employers to do such things, but they are the most influential employer in this country and possibly in the world. As you point out, what Walmart does, so goes the rest of the crowd. Plus shopping at Walmart (at least for me) is such… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Yeah 🙁 it’s pretty bad. Wage theft–I didn’t know much about it until I wrote an article on it a month or so ago, and it’s a pretty rampant issue that contributes to income inequality. I put up with it myself for a long time, but the more I learn about it the more I understand that we shouldn’t accept it.

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago

I hate to say it, but I don’t really give money to charity. I have enough charity cases within my own family that ironically I actually feel guilty if I give to charity. I do donate items and food though.

I am working towards freeing up my time so that I can donate more of that. My dream is to be in a position where I can work for free. At least I know that 100% of my time is going to go towards the charity.

David @ Simple Money Concept
David @ Simple Money Concept
6 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

I agree. Charity should start at home.

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
6 years ago

Still working our debt snowball, so we often volunteer our time. Once we are debt free definitely would like to be able to give more monetarily in the forms of random acts of kindness.

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
6 years ago

We are still working our debt snowball, so we volunteer our time. Once debt free we will like to monetarily donate in the form of random acts of kindness.

Brian @ Luke1428
Brian @ Luke1428
6 years ago

The widow in the Bible was commended for giving her mite at the temple even though it was all she had. I believe it’s important to give money no matter what financial position we are in…even if it’s just a little. There is something about giving of our resources, especially through the tough times, that changes our spirit for the better and helps us in the bigger financial journey.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

In every day life you can “give” in a myriad ways that don’t count as tax-deductible socially ordained “charity” and can make you feel better in a ton of ways. You can let someone through in traffic. You can visit a sick friend. You can fix your kids or spouse a nice lunchbox. You can help out a neighbor with an emergency. You can give up your seat on the train for someone who needs it more. You can give a freebie to a customer who looks down on the dumps. You can honestly compliment someone for something. You can… Read more »

Charlotte
Charlotte
6 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I agree totally! You can sometimes feel better doing ‘giving things’ that don’t give you a tax-write-off.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Charlotte

Yes. Being kind is important. “Official” giving is great, too. It’s all great. It’s about giving, not tax write-offs or what kind of giving is better.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

Exactly! Kindness and generosity work regardless of budget or income level. Seems to me that if you focus on that, you’ll be able to do what you can, whenever you can, with whatever you have.

Becky @ RunFunDone
Becky @ RunFunDone
6 years ago

Yay! It makes me sad that it is so rare for Personal Finance blogs to discuss charitable giving! I give 10% of my income to a charity that focuses mostly on bringing water/food/sustainable resources/immunizations/medical care to people who do not have these things. I just visited a charity a few weeks ago with the plan to start volunteering 1 day per month. With working full-time, I didn’t feel that I could do more than once per month, and I worried that they’d tell me they didn’t want me unless I could give more time, but they were fine with me… Read more »

Tina
Tina
6 years ago

Our family doesn’t have much extra money so donating money isn’t an option except for our payroll contribution for Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. However, we fundraise for free charity walks, donate goods and assisted in a recent fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity,donate to goodwill and Salvation Army and have participated in spaghetti dinners to raise funds for friends going through medical procedures. We recently were getting new furniture and needed to get rid of the old so we put it out by the curb on a Sunday(church across the street from our house) with a free sign. A lady who really needed… Read more »

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
6 years ago

A friend of mine is collecting donations to help hungry kids in North Korea. I kept telling myself I would make a donation “tomorrow.” Finally did it today, so thanks for the prompt!

Carla
Carla
6 years ago

I give back with time. I’ve been a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for three years now and I can’t imagine giving that up. I started when I was out of work and broke.

Its not an immediately gratifying experience (I’ve shed a lot of silent tears during hearings and stayed late up writing court reports) but we hope to plant the seeds so that “our” children will hopefully have a better life than what the cards were initially dealt for them.

Tracy
Tracy
6 years ago

I do my best to give back when I can, usually by donating my time. I judge high school debate tournaments and volunteer at a children’s museum. But one of the easiest ways that I have found is by using an extension for google chrome called Tab for a Cause. Every time you open a new tab you generate from fractions of a cent to a few cents for charity. But when you open dozens of tabs a day, it adds up. It is really that easy. download the extension here: http://tabforacause.org/?r=1004119

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Tracy

Great addition–thanks, Tracy!

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
6 years ago

Amazon Smile donates a portion of your purchases (.5% I think) to the charity of your choice at no cost to you. Jake and I donate to Best Friends, the rescue organization that re-homed The Cat We Didn’t Keep

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Honey Smith

I didn’t know about this one, either! Thanks for the share.

Sanjeev
Sanjeev
6 years ago

The idea of giving is always good. It is true that giving is what makes us happy. But at the same time, we should give not expecting anything back. “Giving without strings attached.” I have seen many people in my life who give their time and money and but they expect something back now or later. They get disappointed and upset if they don’t get what they expect back. A deep resentment and/or regret sets in and they say “why did I ever give that person my money” or “I will NEVER help that person/club/charity again”. If we give without… Read more »

Cadi
Cadi
6 years ago

Of course giving makes people happy because the act of giving requires you to evaluate two things:

1. What resources you have to give (time, skills, knowledge, money)

2. What others need and do not have

This simple evaluation, realizing that you have more than some people, creates the opportunity for gratitude, and gratitude feels good.

Charlotte
Charlotte
6 years ago

I believe giving is an essential part of a happy life. And there are so many ways of giving no one can actually say they can’t give. Money is essential in this world but we can nourish our souls by something as small and unassuming as doing the ‘buy one-get one free’ at our grocery store and dropping the ‘free one’ off at the homeless shelter we pass every day. If we are ashamed to leave something that small with one of the workers – leave it outside their door. If one of the people pick it up it still… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
6 years ago

Just donated a piece of artwork to a school auction.
Knew a dental student who traveled to impoverished areas to help provide free care. I gave him lots of toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss that I got free or nearly free with coupons and rebates.
More ideas here:
https://www.getrichslowly.org/25-ways-to-give-without-breaking-the-bank/

Gunny @ ScamsReports
Gunny @ ScamsReports
6 years ago

Very great post here. If we have do not much to give then we can give our prayers to others. We can pray for others who are experiencing distress. And prayer is free.

AMW
AMW
6 years ago

I give on all fronts…money, time, energy…but when I didn’t have any money and was working two jobs to pay my bills, I found a couple of ways to give that were free and not stressful for me but great for the recievers…

*Freecycle/donating/hand me downs
* Box tops for education and Campbell soup labels…if you don’t have a child, send them to your local school.
*Upromise

Babs
Babs
6 years ago

The grocery store I frequent the most has little tear off coupons at the checkout. You can add $1/$5/$10 to your bill to donate to the local food bank (Harvesters). I like it a lot because you can do just a little bit many times. You don’t get on a mailing list! (It really chaps me to get on a sucker list just for trying to help out!). The money is used locally.
I also donate a lot of stuff to a thrift store that helps homeless kids & victims of domestic violence.

Crystal
Crystal
6 years ago

I volunteer. I’ve worked with Meals on Wheels, hospice care, and now we foster for a local rescue. I’m also a “Big” in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. It really does connect you with your community more and make you feel less useless to the world in general on those bad days we all have once in a while. 🙂

CalLadyQED
CalLadyQED
6 years ago

1.Are we happy because we give or do we give because we’re happy. I’m not convinced that the causation is clear.

2.The people in the 2008 study weren’t giving away their own money. Maybe the people who bought themselves something felt guilty.

3.I’m always suspicious of “buy-one-give-one.” It feels like I’m buying two pairs of shoes and only getting one.

I think I find it hardest to give time/company b/c I’m very jealous of it. Hmm. Something to work on, perhaps.

Rose
Rose
6 years ago

Just knowing what your community needs can be a huge help. My nature center needs 150 blown eggs in the spring. ‘Ugly clothes’ for children to decorate scarecrows every fall. And bottle caps all year round.

I also know a girl scout troop that loves the address labels that charities mail to everyone. Cut off the name part and you have hundreds of tiny identical stickers for the girls.

Sharon
Sharon
6 years ago

I’ve supported a child through ChildFund for 30 years. I love receiving letters from my sponsored child!

Polaria
Polaria
6 years ago

Hello,

You can also donate computer time:
http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/

In a nutshell:”World Community Grid enables anyone with a computer, smartphone or tablet to donate their unused computing power to advance cutting-edge scientific research on topics related to health, poverty and sustainability.”

Current research on this site includes: “Help Fight Childhood Cancer” and “Computing for Clean Water”.

David @ Simple Money Concept
David @ Simple Money Concept
6 years ago

By the way, check with the company you work for. The last company I worked for will match my charitable donations up to $2,000 annually.

Jacqueline Way
Jacqueline Way
6 years ago

A great article and nice to see more people sharing the proven benefits of giving. I am working with one of the researchers now – Lara Ankin – studying the benefits giving has on elementary students. I believe the benefits are so great I created an educational program for students that is being implemented into classrooms teaching them how to give every day. The results are remarkable. If we teach our children to give imagine the benefits to the world and to our children!

lynne
lynne
6 years ago

Hi, great post,I believe in giving and sharing your blessing is the right thing to do,when you have more than enough, sharing your blessings in different ways makes you feel complete and happy. I mean not just financially, there are a lot of ways. Thanks for sharing,it is very enlightening.

Tarique Khan
Tarique Khan
6 years ago

Most often, the largest negative cash flows i am facing comes from our fixed expenses. These include loans on real estate and vehicles, which requires me to make the same payment each month. Even if i don’t don’t own a home, my rent is also a fixed monthly expense that reduces your cash flow. These hav become even more negative as i hav buyed them on credit. Carrying debt on a high-interest credit card is causing the cost of any item to double and even even triple because interest gets piled on month after month, until i pay the balance… Read more »

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