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No money to donate on Giving Tuesday? Here are 9 free ways to give back

You don't have to spend a lot of money to make a difference this holiday season. Here's how to be of service if you're on a budget.
Image: A volunteer collects food at the Trussell Trust Food Bank in Liverpool, England, on Dec. 21, 2015.
It may be Giving Tuesday, but those of us who are strapped for cash should not feel excluded from giving back in meaningful ways.Richard Stonehouse / Getty Images file

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received about 20 cards in the mail from charities I’ve donated to in the past. Some of them included token stationery gifts: personalized address stickers, little notepads or batches of greeting cards. These wee presents tugged mightily on my heartstrings, as did their accompanying pleas, like: “Don’t you have $25 to help a child fight cancer, Nicole?” and “Nicole, it costs only $19 to save a dog in need. Can we count on you?” or “Nicole, the orangutans are reaching extinction. A small donation will help secure their future!”

If I heeded the plaintive call for money that every honorable charity asked me for, I’d be both very pleased and very broke. The fact is, like millions of other Americans, I’m in a bit of debt at the moment and saving like crazy for a move, plus some unexpected medical bills, so, while I truly hate to say it: Dear charities, no, you can’t count on me for that “small” donation this year.

With Giving Tuesday upon us, I feel especially crummy that I can’t dole out money for good causes — a position that again, millions of others find themselves in; a new survey from LendingTree found that 71 percent of Americans said that debt keeps them from giving more to charity, while 56 percent of respondents said that they don’t make enough money to donate.

Fortunately, those of us who are strapped for cash should not feel excluded from giving back in meaningful ways; there’s so much we can do to make a difference and truly be of service without opening our wallets.

1. Time is money and some charities need manpower more than money

“In my personal experience in working with many charitable organizations, money is not what they need the most (although they still do need money),” says Robert Gauvreau, CPA, founding partner of Gauvreau & Associates. “One of the greatest gifts you can offer a charitable organization is your gift of time. Whether it is donating your time to assist with some administrative tasks, fundraising for one of their initiatives, mentoring some of the organizations staff, providing hands on delivery of the organizations programs, or sitting on a board of directors, these are all ways that you can contribute to the charity without having to give them your own personal cash resources. Not only is this something that is in great need with many charitable organizations, I can verify from personal experience, that your contributions may just change your own life for the better, too.”

Jumi Aluko, an event planner and PR consultant, joined the Young Professionals Advisory Board of the Los Angeles Music and Art School as a general advisory board member in 2018, finding the move the best way to give back when money was tight. A year later, she was nominated to take over as chair of the board.

“Charities need manpower; they need individuals to regularly donate their time to helping them, whether that is in their respective offices doing administrative work, marketing work, legal work, or helping them plan events (like I do with this organization),” Aluko says.

Becoming a board member (which by the way, looks fantastic on any resume) typically entails filling out an application, meeting with the board chair, and discussing what you could bring to the organization.

2. Donate your credit card points

With holiday shopping and travel in the air, you may be fresh out of credit card rewards points, but if you’re not — pay them forward.

“Serving as [CFO] and consultant to more than a dozen nonprofit organizations over the past 20 years, I have found that one of the best ways people can donate to charitable organizations without grabbing their wallets is to donate credit card rewards points,” says Katherine L. Leahy, CEO of 3 Beans for Nonprofit. “These points are often forgotten and have little value to the consumer, but to a nonprofit organization they are like gold. American Express has a very helpful program, JustGiving, to enable AMEX cardholders to select from thousands of charities and donate reward points online.”

3. Set up a Facebook fundraiser

Giving Tuesday is a great day to launch a fundraiser on Facebook, similarly to what you might do on your birthday. I’ve done these in the past (typically to help preserve orangutan habitats), and have had the most success when I ask for just $5 and make the post public so that friends can share it.

“It took [me] all of three minutes to set up and raised over $300 in a day for my favorite local charity,” says Amanda Holdsworth, who runs The Heal-A-Boo-Boo Project which makes and donates custom hospital shirts and legwarmers to send to children around the world. “From the standpoint of someone who had to raise money in order to keep the project afloat, even $5 can go a long way to helping responsible organizations meet their missions.”

4. Give blood — it’s always in need

Donating blood is a wonderful way to give back to one’s community because it’s always in need. NBC News BETTER previously covered exactly what the process entails. If donating blood isn’t something you are able to do, consider Leslie H. Tayne, Esq., financial attorney and author of “Life & Debt”’s suggestion of volunteering at a blood drive instead.

5. Create a bake sale fundraiser in your kitchen

Bake sales aren’t just for kids, they’re for virtually anyone looking to raise money for a good cause. They’re also “low-cost strategy” says Logan Allec, a CPA, personal finance expert, and owner of personal finance blog Money Done Right. All you really need to pay for are the basic dessert ingredients, which could be as simple as a batch of cookie dough.

This tip has me wondering if I shouldn’t charge my dinner guests for their slices of pie and then run that money straight down to the local animal shelter. Or perhaps I can set up a potluck party tip jar for charity. Would that be a ghastly faux pas? I’m willing to risk it.

6. Donate toys, furniture and winter wear

You may be waiting for spring to clean out your closet or do some redecorating, but why wait? Plenty of charities could use the stuff you no longer like or want — but do call ahead and please don’t pass on junk; the old “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” type thinking only goes so far.

“Many charities accept non-cash goods, [but] it's always helpful to see what they are in need of,” says Megan Gorman, Managing Partner, Chequers Financial Management. “Some charities are always willing to take noncash items like clothing, furniture and household goods.”

Alexander Joyce, CEO and president of ReJoyce Financial LLC, stresses that “there is a large need for clothing and toys around this time due to weather and celebration. Giving your gently used or like-new clothing, toys and household items is a fantastic way to save money while budgeting, but continue to be present in the spirit of giving.”

Depending on what type of charity you donate to and how much you give in terms of value, you could qualify for a tax deduction.

“If there is an opportunity to save a dollar in taxes, that is just as green as a dollar earned at work or grown in an investment,” says Michael K. Macke, CFP, and VP, owner and principal advisor of Petros Financial Group, Tax & Wealth Advisors. “Gifting things you no longer use, such as furniture, clothing, electronics, even boats and cars can add up and create a charitable deduction that could reduce your tax bill.”

Learn more about how charitable tax deductions work here.

7. Have a truck? Help deliver furniture to those in need

“Many charities have an abundance of donated furniture and other large items but lack the resources to deliver them to those who need them,” says Ben Watson, CPA and Virtual CFO of DollarSprout, as well as founder of Fiscal Fluency. “Single mothers often need beds for their children but rarely own a truck or a large enough vehicle to transport furniture to their home. By donating your time and use of your vehicle you can help a family in need and help a local charity. In addition, the IRS allows you to claim a deduction for every mile driven for charitable purposes on your personal tax return.”

8. Shop with e-commerce sites that will donate on behalf of your purchase

If you’re struggling with debt, shopping may not be on your priority list (especially not after Black Friday madness), but keep in mind that if you do shop online this Giving Tuesday, there are ways to do it charitably.

An eBay spokesperson confirmed to NBC News BETTER in an email that the e-commerce site has some “exciting inventory” coming up for Giving Tuesday).

“Buy a Gift That Gives Back and support favorite causes with symbolic gifts ranging from $10 to $100,” the spokesperson said. “Causes included in the program: the fight against cancer, animal protection and services, child welfare, disaster relief, poverty and hunger relief. Buyers can give a donation at checkout [and] sellers can donate a portion of their sales. Purchase one of the millions of charity listings at every day.”

If you use Amazon to shop, a simple URL change can help make your purchases charitable all year long.

“Use the AmazonSmile version,” says Todd Christensen, Education Manager at Money Fit by DRS. “You access the same deals and products, but Amazon donates 0.5 percent of your [eligible] purchases to a charity of your choice.”

You can find plenty of other retailers in a charitable spirit right now. For instance, Patagonia is matching all donations made through Patagonia Action Works through December 31, and no purchase of a Patagonia product is necessary.

9. Share your financial literacy with others

If you’re managing debt, you can probably help someone else manage theirs — not by giving them money, but by helping them navigate paperwork, budget strategy, etc.

“I help homeless veterans fill out paperwork to obtain disability benefits and medical benefits,” says Michael Kothakota, CFP, CEO of WolfBridge Financial. “Helping them design a budget with their new income is a follow-up activity. Professionals struggling with debt can leverage their knowledge to help underprivileged groups.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the mindset that unless we’re in a financially secure position, we have to sit out charitable giving, but there’s so much we can do to help our communities and serve the causes we care about. Sure, I’d still love to be able to write a fat check to the SPCA, but I bet bringing down supplies and volunteering my time at a few animal shelters will feel much more meaningful, and enable me to not just think, but really feel, like I’m making just that little bit of a difference.

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