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How to give even when you're broke

Your time might be more valuable than your money.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 2, 2009 1:52AM

The less you earn, the more you’re likely to give away. People who earn $20,000 or less per year donate more (relative to their income) than higher earners. 

Or so Arthur Brooks reports in his book about American benevolence, "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism."

Charity appears to benefit the givers as well. An article from the Christian Science Monitor noted that “greater charity tends to push up income."

That might be because the act of giving makes for “better or happier people,” which in turn might make for greater success in the working world. 

So start writing those checks!

Caring hearts, empty wallets

But what if you can't? 

Suppose there really is no wiggle room in your budget. You’re paying off medical bills, say, or throwing every dime at credit-card debt. (Side note: Set aside 10 of those dimes, buy a pair of scissors at the dollar store, and cut up all but one of your credit cards.)

Don’t worry. There are still ways for you to give. The most obvious answer is donating your time: nail banging at Habitat for Humanity, or volunteering at a local adult literacy program.

Of course, you may not have time to spare either, especially if you’re a working parent. Yet it’s still possible to be charitable. You just have to get creative. The following are three ideas that work for me.

Cashless charity

  • An ongoing project is combining coupons and rebates to get free toiletries. (I wrote about this in “Be a bargain-shopping champ.”) This has allowed me to donate many hundreds of dollars’ worth of shampoo, toothpaste, baby items, OTC medications and other products to the Roots young-adult shelter and my church’s emergency pantry.

You can do the same, through single-check rebate programs at stores like Rite Aid and Walgreens. This is a fairly simple way to make a big difference in people’s lives.

  • Stores like Staples, Office Depot and Office Max offer $3 store coupons for each empty ink cartridge from your printer. Last August, I used a bunch of these to “pay” for approximately $130 worth of school supplies to give to a social services agency. Some of the cartridges were mine and some were donated by classmates in my university program, the Comparative History of Ideas.

Schools aren’t the only potential beneficiaries. Office stores sell items like hand sanitizer and tissues (think senior centers, group homes), art supplies and craft kits (afterschool programs, Toys for Tots) and, of course, office supplies (nonprofits, benevolent associations). So start collecting those cartridges: Ask friends, bring home empties from work, put a request out on Craigslist or Freecycle.

  • When neighbors want me to house-sit, I don’t ask for payment. Instead, I request that they make contributions to the Rabuor Village Project. The next time you’re asked to bring in mail and water plants, make your “wage” a contribution to your favorite charity.

Why give?

Well, because there’s need. Duh. 

In giving, we also meet an additional need: our own. As sappy as it sounds, we need to make a difference. We need to realize we have something to give, whether it’s a big fat check or a few hours of our time.

Giving makes me feel blessed. When I give, I get. I get to imagine what improvements my dollars are helping pay for in Rabuor, Kenya. I get the satisfaction of knowing lower-income schoolkids have notebook paper and pencils. 

The best thing I get? I get over myself. Giving helps me remember just how lucky I am to have three hots and a cot every day.

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