32 Ways to Give Back Without Derailing Your Own Finances

Tuesday is “Giving Tuesday,” an event created in 2012 as a push-back to the hyper-consumerism of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the holiday season in general. It comes hard on the heels of our national day of Thanksgiving, when we’re all supposed to reflect upon the things for which we’re most grateful.

Some people are feeling grateful that they’re managing despite serious money challenges. While they’d like to give to others, they might not feel financially able. Others are trying to live frugally to reach financial goals like rapid debt repayment, college savings, or entrepreneurship, and have to balance philanthropy with personal money philosophy.

No one should make charitable donations if it endangers their own household’s financial well-being. However, “giving” doesn’t necessarily mean cash. You can also donate durable goods, gifts of service or time, or maybe even literal gifts of yourself (more on that in a minute).

And if you’re in a position to itemize your taxes? Get your donations together now, instead of joining a long line of cars outside the Salvation Army drop-off center the afternoon of Dec. 31.

Here are some ways to give back without going broke.

(Affordable) Gifts of Cash

Maybe giving loads of cash isn’t possible right now. But you might be able to find money in the budget with tips like:

1. Found Coin Challenge: The quarter in the soft drink change return, or the dime you see on the sidewalk? Pick it up, all of it, and save it in a jar for a while. When you get a decent amount then you can drop it in a fund-raising can, the Salvation Army kettle, the donation plate at your house of worship, or anywhere you can think of that needs it. You could also deposit it in your bank account and make a donation by check or credit card. Or run it through the CoinStar machine and opt for an e-gift card (no fee), then use it to buy something to donate to charity.

2. Spare Change Challenge: This is like the Found Coin Challenge, except the specie will come from you. Every night put all the coins from your pocket or wallet into a jar. After a while you’ll have enough money to do some good.

3. Do without: Every now and then, do without something that isn’t strictly necessary: a pizza, a movie, a new T-shirt even though you already have a dresser full of the things. Put the money you would have spent toward a charity or some other pet project.

4. Cash in for gift cards: Whether you’re in a rewards program like MyPoints or Swagbucks or have a rewards credit card that allows you to redeem points for gift cards, these bits of plastic can have a nice impact. Get some Amazon gift cards and have paper products or diapers delivered to a family shelter. Cash in for drugstore scrip and buy toiletries to donate to Covenant House. Some Target or Walmart cards could purchase crafts supplies for the Boys and Girls Club afterschool program. If there’s a no-kill animal shelter in your area, use free pet-store gift cards to buy grooming supplies, cat litter, and other needed items. And so on.

5. Get free PayPal. The Swagbucks program offers PayPal as an option along with those gift cards. Cash in and use the money to do some good.

Gifts of Time

6. Big Brothers/Big Sisters: This is a huge time commitment, but the rewards are immense as well. Imagine changing a kid’s life forever for the better.

7. Scouting and 4-H: Also a huge time commitment, also a potential life-changer.

8. Volunteer at a hospital: That could entail being one of the “pink ladies” pushing around a cart full of magazines. But you might also be asked to give directions to visitors, tidy up a common area, rock drug-addicted babies – the possibilities vary from hospital to hospital, but the sense of accomplishment is pretty much universal.

9. Cleaning up: Choose a place near you – transit stop, busy corner, pocket park – and drop by a couple of times a week to pick up litter.

Gifts of Service

10. Pro bono professional services: A relative who’s a dental hygienist volunteers at a free dental services event that’s so huge it’s housed in a sports arena. Maybe you have some professional talent that other people need, too, such as pro bono work through your law practice, helping high school students with their college essays, or volunteering at a health clinic.

11. Project Linus: Are you a knitter, a crocheter, or a quilter? This organization accepts new, handmade, washable blankets and afghans to be given to ill or traumatized children. Check the Project Linus map for a chapter near you. Similar to this is…

12. Christmas at Sea: The Seamen’s Church Institute offers patterns for knitters and crocheters who want to create warm garments for mariners who work during the holidays. The SCI distributes them along with lip balm, hand lotion, and other items useful to people who work long stretches in a marine environment.

13. Help a neighbor: Maybe the guy across the street has health issues that keep him from doing yard work, or the woman next door can no longer clear her own steps and driveway of snow. Offer your services. (Pro tip: A face-saving way for them to accept gracefully is suggesting that you need the exercise, or that your new snow-blower is so awesome you’re looking for new places to run it.)

14. Tutoring: Even if you’ve never been a teacher, you might be able to do some good at a neighborhood school to help a kid (or a teen). Maybe you already do this for pay; if so, could you donate a few hours a month to helping kids who couldn’t ordinarily afford it?

15. Hippotherapy: Good with horses or own a horse yourself? See if “hippotherapy,” or therapeutic horseback riding, is offered in your area. Expect to take some training first.

16. Music, art, or writing lessons: If you’re skilled in these or other creative endeavors, offer to conduct workshops at your place of worship, scouting group, a senior center, or an afterschool program.

Gifts from Your Garden

17. Extra produce: If you’re growing vegetables, donate any excess or maybe even add a couple of extra plants so you’ll have enough to give away. The Garden Writers of America maintains a state-by-state list of contacts for its “Plant a Row for the Hungry” campaign. Another program, Urban Food Forestry, links to harvest initiatives in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.

18. Give tree fruit: If you’ve got apples, citrus, or other edibles that you’re not using, look for a way to get them onto the tables of the hungry. Talk to your local food bank about possibilities, or check out the following programs:
· Village Harvest (San Francisco Bay area)
· Falling Fruit (includes links to organizations that distribute food around the world)

19. Wedding flowers: Okay, so you probably didn’t grow your wedding bouquet yourself – but someone did. A blog called Offbeat Bride suggests donating the flowers to hospice, shelters, and other locations. The article also includes links to organizations like Random Acts of Flowers and Petals With Purpose, some of which will even come pick the flowers up from the venue. Wedding gowns can also be donated, and sometimes it’s even possible to donate leftover catered food; do a search for options in your region.

Gifts of Goods

20. Household items: Charity thrift shops have rules about what they’ll accept; for example, some secondhand stores won’t take electronics or upholstered furniture. But if you’re thinking of getting rid of items that still have plenty of wear in them, find out what local shops are accepting.

21. Giveaway sites: In your area you may have The Freecycle Network, Craigslist (which has a “free” section) and Buy Nothing Day Facebook groups. Offer items you no longer need – and also take a look at the things people are requesting, since you might be able to help.

22. Old linens: Time to replace your towels, blankets, or sheets? Don’t throw them out before contacting animal shelters in your area – they might need cloth for bedding, cleanup, and other projects.

23. Long-sleeved shirts: Cuffs frayed or elbows giving way? The shirts will still make great painting smocks for young children. Call your neighborhood school to see if they’re needed.

24. Books and periodicals: This American Library Association fact sheet offers info on libraries and organizations that accept books. Outgrown children’s books might be left in the waiting rooms of public health clinics and social service agencies (ask permission first), or at local elementary schools. When you’re done with magazines, ask about dropping them off at job-source or adult education groups. (Pro tip: Cut the mailing label off the fronts of the magazines first.)

25. Old cell phones: Sure, you might be able to sell your old phone. But if you can afford to give it away, the device will mean a lot to programs like Cell Phones for Soldiers or to local women’s shelters. Some organizations collect phones to recycle for money to fund their work. Do a search for “donate old cell phones” and learn about local or national needs.

26. Eyeglasses and hearing aids: These can be refurbished and reused. Search for local drop-off centers.

27. Military care packages: The biggest expense here might be the flat-rate shipping, since many of the items soldiers need are relatively inexpensive, can be obtained for free or nearly so if you match sales and coupons, or are things you already have. Some examples: playing cards, beef jerky, body wash, Beanie Babies (which the soldiers give out to local children), microwave popcorn, sunscreen, water flavoring packets, flip-flops, baby wipes, lip balm, Clif Bars, and nail clippers.

Gifts of Yourself (Literally!)

28. Blood donation: This is your chance to save a life, or at least improve someone’s health. Check out plasma and platelet donation, too.

29. Bone-marrow donation: So easy to sign up – and if a match is ever found, you will be saving a life. (For a double-whammy, donate the money you can earn by giving bone marrow.)

30. Sign your donor card: Not everyone is comfortable being an organ donor, for religious or personal reasons. It’s tempting to ignore the possibility because, well, it would mean thinking about your own demise. Please consider it – and be sure to let your family know of your wishes.

31. Breast milk: Local and national hospitals and organizations will accept donations of excess milk to help babies whose mothers cannot feed them naturally. If you’re able to help, contact the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

32. Hair: Grow your locks out and then cut ’em off to be used in hairpieces for cancer patients or people with alopecia areata. Do a search for regional or national organizations that collect tresses, such as Pantene Beautiful Lengths, Locks of Love, and Wigs for Kids; each has different requirements, processes, and beneficiaries.

Finally: While the holiday season is one of ringing bells and end-of-the-year donations, please remember that need exists year-round. If you’re able to give, focus some of that largesse on the other 11 months. Your donation of money, goods, time, or service will be greatly appreciated.

Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

Related Articles: 

Donna Freedman

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.” A former full-time reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Anchorage Daily News and longtime columnist for MSN Money, Freedman has also written for Get Rich Slowly, Money Talks News, and other publications