Charitable Giving on a Tight Budget

Person hold an empty wallet
Shutterstock/Nikola Bilic
'Tis the season to give to those in need -- but what can you do when your bank account barely has enough to cover your own bills?

Fortunately for the indebted and underemployed, charitable giving doesn't have to mean handing over your greenbacks. There are plenty of ways to donate, even on an almost empty wallet.

Space Out Your Donations

Charitable givers who'd like to financially support important causes can make their budget burden easier simply by spacing out their contributions.
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"Many charities offer methods of breaking one donation or pledge into smaller payments throughout the year," says Luke Landes, founder of Consumerism Commentary. "Rather than making your donation once a year, you can spread it out over the course of the coming 12 months."

Landes, 37, started his career working for nonprofits, and understands the difficulty many people have donating money to charity.

"Even after leaving the low-paying job," he says, "I was in bad financial shape for a while. It took a long time for me to come around to positive cash flow. I had no money to give to charity, but I've always been passionate about arts education."

In order to support his passion -- and protect his bank account -- Landes turned to volunteer work.

Donate Your Time

The old adage rings true: Time is money.

In 2012, the nonprofit network Independent Sector calculated that an hour of a volunteer's time is worth approximately $22.14. If you can't spare $22 to charity without busting your budget, you should look for organizations in need of volunteers this holiday season (or all year-round).

Consider using your skills to not only better your volunteering experience, but to make yourself a valuable asset to an organization.

"When I was in college, I was short on cash," says Kali Hawlk, 23, a freelance writer and blogger at Common Sense Millennial. "But between semesters I had time to spare, so I gave that instead, and I volunteered at a local animal shelter. I've also volunteered my writing skills to a horse rescue and helped them apply for a grant."

If donating time means sacrificing much-needed money going into your pocket, consider raiding your pantry or your closet for charity instead.

Donate Items

Churches and local nonprofits, like New York City's Room to Grow, are happy to accept gently used or new clothing, toys, or food donations during the holiday season and year-round.

The simple act of cleaning out your closet can help; so can encouraging your children to purge their toy chests. Even just giving up the few cans of tuna or soup sitting in your pantry can help families in need.

If you can't find anything worthwhile to give in your closet or pantry, you need to go no further than your own arm.

Give Blood

"If you're short on cash but wanting to make a difference," says Hawlk, "you can always give blood."

While other charitable organizations might have more volunteers than tasks during the holiday season, the Red Cross is always looking to collect.

"A Donation Has Been Made in Your Name to ..."

It might sound like the punchline of a joke about bad office bonuses, but requesting that family members and friends "gift" you charitable donations is one way to make a financial contribution without loosening your own purse strings.

Combine Your Efforts

If you can only afford to donate a dollar or two, you can still make an impact.

Much like Kickstarter campaigns, many charitable organizations allow you to pool money with friends or strangers to make a difference in someone's life.

Heifer International works to fight poverty and hunger through empowerment and the gifts of livestock to produce food and reliable income. Your financial contributions can be combined with others to send a heifer, sheep or water buffalo to a family or community in need.

Habitat for Humanity focuses on eradicating homelessness by building homes around the world. Your money is combined with other donations to help fund the cost of erecting a home for a struggling family.
While there are thousands of legitimate charitable organizations out there, you should still be diligent when donating your time, goods or money.

Make Sure Your Money's Going to the Right Place

Unfortunately, there are scam artists out there. Some charitable organizations are top-heavy, with proceeds rarely trickling down to those in need; others might uphold ideals you find morally questionable.

If you're dedicated to knowing where your dollars will be spent, check out GuideStar, which contains records of nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS. You can also see an organization's Form 990, a tax document for nonprofits.

Embrace the Giving Spirit Year-Round

No matter your passions or your finances, you can still embrace your need to be charitable all year long. There will always be people (and animals) suffering who could use your kindness, even if it's just a smile.

Erin Lowry writes for DailyFinance on issues relating to millennials, money and personal finance. She's also the blogger behind Broke Millennial, where her sarcastic sense of humor entertains and educates her peers. More from Erin Lowry:
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