Personal Finance

Charitable Giving When You Make No Money

Although I am frugal, I like to at least think that I am neither stingy nor greedy. I am quick to spend if it will make my family happy and I have always been quick to donate to a good cause. When I go through the checkout line at my grocery store, I always try to give to whatever cause the store is supporting and we always put our envelope into the collection basket at church on Sunday. When neighborhood kids are selling candy or candles for school fund raisers, we always buy something, even if we know that we will never use it. We like to help others and we enjoy the feeling that we get by doing so. Charitable giving is a win-win situation for us, or so I hope.

Lately, I have been wondering whether we are being irresponsible by giving to charity. It’s been almost ten months since I last drew a paycheck and cash has definitely been headed out the door much faster than it’s coming in. At what point, do we need to heed the adage that “charity begins at home” or the maxim that “God helps those who help themselves.” After all, every dollar that I contribute to help with a school fundraiser could be a dollar that I need in another few months to pay for some necessary item that my family might need.

With our church, the issue of charitable giving is particularly interesting. The church asks that we give ten percent of our income. I am pretty sure that very few people at my church are doing that but even so, does that mean that the church wants us to give ten percent of nothing? After all, if I am making nothing, I can give ten percent, twenty percent, even a hundred percent, and still give nothing. I am pretty sure that the church would give me a different way to calculate my weekly donation if I tried to fall back on simple math to avoid a donation.

Thinking about charitable giving, which is down in all sectors this year, I think that all of us, can and should donate to charity, even if we are out of work. Here are a few reasons to consider:

There is Always Someone Needier than You: I donate small amounts because I know that there are many people in far worse financial condition than me. Even if that were not the case, I would want to believe that there are people in far worse financial condition than me. Giving to charity makes me feel better about myself and that is well worth the contribution.

Any Contribution is better than No Contribution: If I donate one dollar to a good cause, that is one less dollar that the cause needs to raise. If everyone tried to find a way to part with an extra dollar in the checkout line at the cash register or when the collection plate came around on Sunday, a lot of good would come of it and we would all benefit from it. Think of that the next time you buy a bottle of soda at the checkout stand.

Contribute Time without Spending Money: You do not need to donate money to contribute to a charity. You can volunteer your time. I have time on my hands so this week I will be donating twenty-five hours to various local charities. I know I won’t be able to do that when I have a new job so I need to take advantage of my free time now, and who knows, by volunteering you may meet someone who can lead you to your next job or a better job.

Contribute Skill without Spending Money: Perhaps you have a skill that you can share with a charity. Are you a plumber, a craftsman, a cook or a seamstress? Many charities need skills such as yours. Take a day each month and set aside a portion of it to assist a charity that you support.

Support a Charity by Going to Its Events: Even if you really cannot afford a donation, you might still be able to find the time and the money to go to charitable events. If a band is performing a benefit concert, buy tickets and enjoy the show. If a restaurant is hosting a tasting to raise money for a charity, go to the tasting. The charity will get some money and you will be entertained or fed or otherwise get a benefit.

How and why do you give to charities? Does the current economic climate have you donating less? Are you relying on charitable assistance? Whatever your relationship may be with charitable giving, tell us about it.

18 thoughts on “Charitable Giving When You Make No Money

  1. This is one of the hardest things for me to do. We are so focused on debt reduction that we find it really hard to actually give money.

    We try to give our time as much as possible. But there are several causes we would like to give to, but never seem to follow through.

  2. I have actually been working on giving free advice to people on behalf of several charitable organizations here locally. The big payoff is knowing that you genuinely helped someone out…someone who truly NEEDS it.

    Like the blog by the way!

  3. There are a couple of charities that I still give to, though not to the extent that I did when I was in corporate. I have to admit that I also do more research on those charities to see exactly how much of my dollar makes it to where I think it’s going!

    You don’t hear about them very frequently but, in my youth, I was involved in the audit of Shriners’ Children’s Hospitals. THEIR dollar contributed to dollar actually used on patients was exceptionally high, so anytime I see them selling vidalia onions or whatever, you’d better believe I buy 2 or 3 bags, even if I have to give some away! Plus, what they do is unbelievable.

    Most volunteering won’t work for me ’cause of my knees, but there are literacy programs and similar things which I tend to look at as “teaching a man to fish.”

    I’m bigger on the Salvation Army than the Red Cross and, until I started concentrating more on US based charities, I liked things like Heiffer International where you weren’t just giving things to people but giving them animals and teaching them how to raise them for profit — much better in the long-term.

    I have a friend who won’t give to a charity but contacts the local gas company or electric company and asks them of someone they may be aware of, who through no fault of their own, is in big trouble. He’s done things like paid off the oil heating bill and bought a new full tank for a single mom who got sick and lost her job. He’s had groceries delivered to an old couple whose medical expenses ate up their living expenses and a bunch of other things like that. He always does it anonymously and tries to find at least one person/couple a year to help, even though he’s on a very restricted income himself. His way does take money, but, like he says, they need it more than he does.

  4. I honestly grew up thinking only poor people give a lot of money to charity (for the most part). That giving is a habit of the poor. THat is why it surprises me that so many top financial gurus tout charitable giving high on the list.

    The reason is I live in a affluent area and few give much of their income (1% is pretty average). All my poor relatives always gave 10% to the church though. A lot of them do give because they believe on some level it will come back some day. & I am sitting here scratching my head – because they are all BROKE! I know plenty of very well off, wonderful, successful people who don’t give a dime to charity, on the other hand.

    I do think too many people worry too much about being a good person if they can’t give CASH to charity. We don’t give a lot of cash to charity. But I can’t tell you how involved we are in our community and how many hours we volunteer with various orignizations. I don’t think financial gurus should make people so quick to give up their cash. IT never made much sense to me. Giving cash to charity is kind of last on my to do list – after the emergency fund and retirement contributions. Unless I hit the jackpot I doubt I would ever give away 10%. Giving to the community is free and should be top of any list of someone trying to stand on their own feet, financially.

    Since we don’t give much cash to charity we have considered giving more this year (more to the food banks, homeless shelters). We’ve also considered increasing our volunteer hours.

    I am also wary that when you give to charity it goes to people who truly need it. Depends on the charity I guess. I much rather give to people I know who are in need (friends or relatives) than faceless organizations. Which is kind of the other slice of the pie. You don’t have to give to an organization to be giving. You just need to do it for the tax write-off.

  5. David, your post really rings true because this month is National Donate Life month, which basically encourages people to become organ donors. This is one way we can “give” without spending money.

    I’ve also discovered a few organizations on Twitter recently, like a non-profit in Massachusetts called Small Can Be Big (, that sollicits $1 donations on their website to help rescue people from foreclosure and eviction. I think we all become overwhelmed with the vastness of people’s needs, but in truth, every dollar really does make a difference. Another person I follow on twitter called ThePowerofSmall just wrote on their blog about a group in NYC called Common Cents (here’s the link from the tweet: that fights world hunger by collecting pennies!

    Even if you can only give 50 cents to charity, that’s fifty cents more than they had before, and when you build slowly, you can really harness the power of small to make a difference.

  6. The company where my wife works has been laying off people by the bus load since last year. People that have been there for over 20 years are dropping like flies. She tries to be frugal in most ways, but insists on sending our church a check for $200 every month. She does it because it makes her “feel good” about herself knowing she is helping do God’s work. I say the pastor makes more than twice her salary and he’s not in any danger of losing his job so he’s doing a lot better than she is. She says most of the money goes into the building fund. I say they need to wake up and stop pretending to be Donald Trump Jr. on a quest to recreate the vatican. What is it with churches always wanting to build, build, build? We have a complete gymnasium with indoor basketball court along with countless other buildings and spaces that just sit there locked up, only to be used maybe a couple times a month. The debt for all this beautiful yet unnecessary and underutilized space is several million dollars. Donations have been going down along with the economy but the church’s debts are near an all time high, so I have no doubt they need the money. I just think her $200/mon donation is being wasted on salaries for people who make more than she does and on servicing debt on lavish buildings she didn’t ask for and rarely sets foot in. In other words her donations aren’t going to help feed the hungry, homeless, or less fortunate but rather to pay salaries and service building debt. Why should we as a family try to cut back and save, while my wife gives $2400/yr to a church that does neither? Yes, we like the church, it’s beautiful and full of smiling happy people. I could like it just as well for say $600/year which I think is more reasonable. What do you think?

  7. I give to my church and to certain charities (usually after I’m approached by a friend or an acquaintance to make a donation). I have also given money to my siblings in the past when they have experienced rocky times. I think it is important to help others, but I try not to judge those who don’t.

  8. Another idea is to ask friends and loved ones to donate to charity for your next birthday or Christmas.

    Our office has a list of employees’ favorite charities and instead of gifts, people are encouraged to use this instead. Not only have several charities benefited from nothing more than me turning a year older, but I get less useless office presents that I will never use.

  9. whiney — You have not told us how much your wife earns so it is hard to know whether your number is more reasonable than hers. You are willing to donate $600 but she wants to give $2400 per year. After the tax deduction for the donation is factored in, it seems like your wife wants to give an extra $25 per week. It all depends on what she is sacrificing to make the extra donation. If, as a couple, you are having trouble paying your bills, then her donations are too great. If she is giving up a mocha latte every day in order to make the donation, then perhaps she is making a prudent donation. Only you and your wife can decide what is right — both for yourselves as individuals and for both of you as a couple.

  10. spicoli- We are in our early 50’s and have 2 kids in high school. We will be buying them cars in the near future and in a couple of years, attempting to pay for their college. Hopefully they will get scholarships because although we have been saving for college for many years, most of it was in the stock market and almost half has gone to money heaven. We have nowhere near enough left to put 2 kids through a 4 year college. Same goes for our 401k retirement plans, about half went bye bye. No we’re not having any problems paying our bills. My wife and I have always kept our money separate. We split all the bills and expenses that we agree on 50/50. However if one of us wants to spend money on something the other doesn’t agree on there is nothing that can be done to stop it. So I can tell her she’s crazy choosing to give her money to the church instead of saving more for our kids college and our own retirement but I can’t dictate what she does with the money she earns. I did suggest she call the church and see if they would chip in to our college fund as I figure she has given them close to $30k over the years. I think she’s gonna wish she had some of that back in the next few years as the costs of 2 kids in college finally hit her on the head like a ton of bricks. In the past there has always been plenty of money to go around. Now we have to make a choice between the church, kids college, and our retirement. I think my wife has made the wrong choice.

  11. I am new to David’s blog, I haven’t read all of the old posts, I wasn’t under the impression that he wasn’t working. I’m 30 and I work a very mid-level retail managment job. I found the love of my life two years ago and have taken her kids as my own, so between the two of us, we make under 50,000 a year and support a family of 5. Buying a house, a new vehicle, and supporting a plethera of animals…I have picked up a part time job that eats up a lot of my free time (working for my brother in law) that allows me to still donate to my favorite charity, the Humane Society. If I was ever rich, I’d just adopt all of the animals, but for now, I can at least provide a bag of treats and a few toys a week. It makes me feel better about being able to have a roof over my head every night. Nobody chooses the situation they are in….we just all have to live with it.

  12. whiney — Based on your post, I tend to agree that your perspective may be more reasonable but I think the greater issue is that you and your wife have a funamental disagreement that you need to resolve together. Perhaps you should consider visiting your wife’s church (which I assume is also yours) and meet with the pastor/priest/minister/church leader to discuss the debate that you and your wife have. If you phrase the discussion in terms of marital strife that needs to be resolved, the church may also side with your perspective.

  13. I thought I had read before on here that you had a million dollars in “savings”. How can you say you are making “nothing”? It is a good thing to give…..Love this blog..

  14. Alas, I wish I had a million dollars in savings. I have a cushion that will last me two years — primarily because I did not invest in stocks and put all of my money into cash investments (like CDs). My return was lower but I was not wiped out by the bear market.

  15. One way to give (share)charitably without money is to open your home to someone in need of a place to stay. My husband’s single son is moving in with us this week so that he can pay off debt,start a new job, and work part time at a second job. In exchange, he will mow and trim the yard weekly, clean the bathroom, and help with vacuuming. He is “giving charitably” as well because my husband has a bad back and we’d have to pay to have the yard mowed, otherwise.

  16. I was listening to the radio one day and heard about a company that was donating 1% of it’s revenue (or earnings, can’t remember which) to charity. I scoffed at it, thinking that was way too small a number, until I sat down and thought about how much I was giving. Mainly, I used to give sporadically and that added up to less than 1% of my own income.

    So, now I give 1% of my income, broken down into about $30 a month. lol, yeah, my income isn’t so big. I give exclusively, so far, to local charitable organizations. At first I wondered whether it was better to contribute to one charity or two, to give the biggest impact but there are so many good organizations that I finally decided that even $30 was better than nothing so I just give wherever. In the last year I’ve given to Harvesters (bought $30 worth of food to donate), school supplies gathered by my company, AudioReader (a local program that reads newspapers, books, etc on a radio program and also on a call in system for the blind/sight impaired), KCUR (local public radio), Cedar Cove Exotic Felines and Sam I Am (downs syndrome). I tend to double up on some places, I used to read for AudioReader so I give to them most often.

    Anyway, not tooting my horn, but I feel good and it’s not really a financial hardship. The cost of two nights out to dinner, or a new pair of shoes. Now it’s just part of my monthly budgeting. 🙂

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