Clayson uses short stories or parables, and Chilton's book is structured as a novel, and each communicates sound financial planning principles in an entertaining, easy-to-read form.

5. A goat

Or a sheep. Or a water buffalo. Or even a flock of chicks. Donations to charities such as Heifer International and World Vision will buy farm animals that can help impoverished families become self-sufficient. Heifer International recipients agree to "pass on the gift" by sharing the offspring of gift animals with others in need. If you're donating on behalf of a child, consider buying the book "Beatrice's Goat," which tells the true story of how a Ugandan girl's life changed, allowing her to attend school for the first time, after her family received a goat from Heifer International.

6. A college education

The spiraling cost of higher education -- and the huge debts some people take on to get their degrees -- has led some to question the value of a college education.

They shouldn't. The median weekly wage for a college-educated worker in 2009 was $1,025 -- or 64% more than the $626 earned by someone with only a high school diploma.

Furthermore, the college graduate is more likely to keep that job. The November 2010 unemployment rate for people with at least a bachelor's degree was 5.1%. The rate for those with only a high school diploma was nearly twice that: 10%.

Although Americans' incomes have been eroding for years, those who don't have college educations have suffered more than those who do. Inflation-adjusted earnings for men with no more than a high school education slid 31% over the past 20 years, from $53,395 to $37,107.

The situation is only going to get worse as the last remaining manufacturing jobs get shipped overseas. A college education these days is a chance at economic survival.

The key is to get an affordable education -- one that is paid for out of pocket or with federal student loans, which are more flexible and have more consumer protections than private student loans.

Though you may not be able to give future grads a four-year ride, a contribution to a 529 college savings plan may help them get the education they need and reduce their future debt.

7. An unexpected act of kindness

An anonymous donor gave one reader $20,000 for a down payment on her first home. ToniAnn Mannino Frothingham of Atlanta paid the bill of a complete stranger whom she saw pleading for an extension at the local utility office. A former boyfriend paid for Rebecca Brenon Carden's college education, using money inherited from his father, after she was forced to drop out because she didn't have the money.

"Sadly, he never got to see me graduate -- he succumbed to cancer at age 24, but I live my life every day knowing that I wouldn't be where I am today if he hadn't given me that gift," Carden wrote. "Hopefully, one day I will be in a position where I can pass his gift on to someone who could not otherwise afford college."

Giving to charities is great and something I think should be part of everyone's financial plan. But if you can swing it, a generous, unexpected gift to another person can really turn a life around -- or at least restore someone's faith in humanity.

It feels pretty good, too.

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"I can't explain the feeling I had the rest of the day, (but) it truly is better to give than receive," said Frothingham, who paid off the stranger's utility bill. "My husband and I watch every penny, but this was so worth it! I am so glad I did it."

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.