How to Work Giving into Your Budget

The following post is from contributing author Laurel Gray.

It is a mistake to think that frugality and charity are mutually exclusive. “I was trained from the beginning to work, to save, and to give,” said noted philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Even if you are not a Rockefeller, these three rules can be applied to your family’s monthly budget—no matter how tight.

Compassion by Aaron Alexander on Flickr

In tough economic times charitable donations trend downward, but people do continue to give. According to a study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 65% of U.S. households gave to charity in 2007. The average annual household contribution was $2,213 and the mean was $870. This works out to around 3% of annual income for most households, according to

If you are clipping coupons and trimming expenses, $2,213 probably sounds like a astronomical sum. But there are many ways to work giving into your budget without torpedoing your ongoing efforts at thrift.

Give Frugally

If you intend to make charitable contributions during the course of the year, plan ahead to make every dollar count. Here are a few hints to help you get the most bang out of your charity buck:

Trust, but Verify—Determine which charity is most in line with your interests and beliefs, then investigate the charity’s financial practices, especially its overhead costs. Make sure the charity meets IRS qualifications so that your donation will be tax deductible.

Double Up—If your workplace offers a matching program, review program rules to determine the level of matching (some programs match dollar for dollar, others are percentage-based). Small donations throughout the year can add up to make a big impact when coupled with your employer’s contribution.

Give as You Go—If a payroll deduction seems too much to bear, then consider signing up for an online giving program such as Your online purchases from affiliated vendors generate small donations to your chosen charity. If you shop online frequently, these donations will add up quickly.

Gifts with Meaning—If you are stumped for a gift-giving idea, you can make a charitable contribution in someone else’s name. Many charities like Heifer International and The Nature Conservancy offer gift programs and will even send a card to the recipient detailing the gift that was made in his or her honor. These donations are a great idea for the person “who has everything,” while helping you increase your annual giving

When the Well is Dry

If you are scraping to make ends meet and can’t spare cash for a donation, there are still ways to work philanthropy into your budget. During the holocaust, teenager Anne Frank wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Don’t let a lack of liquidity stop you from starting to improve the world:

Purge—Go through closets, the attic, and the basement and donate unused items in good condition to Goodwill, your hospital auxiliary’s thrift shop, or other collection site. Remember that many organizations accept housewares, electronics, and even furniture. Ask for a receipt and follow IRS rules for non-cash charitable donations.

Think Outside of the Box—When cash is tight, think of other ways to give. Donate art or antiques to a charity’s fundraising auction. Place land in a conservation easement. Donate a clunker car or boat. Even accumulated airline miles can be gifted. Take an inventory of tangible and intangible assets and determine which items you can donate.

Give of Yourself—According to the National Philanthropic Trust, the estimated dollar value of volunteer time was $20.85 per hour for 2009. By volunteering your time to a charitable cause—be it building a house with Habitat for Humanity or volunteering at a literacy or food bank program—you can make a difference in your community.

Giving as a Way of Life

Perhaps no one exemplified Rockefeller’s work/save/give advice better than Lake Forest College alumna Grace Groner. After living through the Great Depression, she worked as a secretary at the same job for 43 years. She lived in a Spartan, one-bedroom house and led a simple, frugal life. When she died, she left a whopping $7 million dollar endowment to her alma mater. We may not all be in Ms. Groner’s league, but we can all make a positive impact in our own way by making giving a part of our financial strategy.


  1. Nice article, and you saved the best for last. Volunteering time to a charity is the sometimes the most meaningful value. With some of us, the older we get the more money and less time we have.

  2. Great post and ideas to give more! We’ve been slowly increasing giving into our budget. Our biggest concern with donation is making sure it’ll be used wisely. I think Charity Navigator is a great resource and surprisingly hearing from other bloggers. appeals to us because we’re giving to a specific classroom trying a project dear to our heart.

    • I like the idea of! They’re a great charity. I personally give to the Covenant House here in Toronto – they’re a great NPO that helps out kids in need around town.

      Another small thing my girlfriend and I do, is that simply give away our leftovers to the homeless if we go out for a big dinner… I know it’s not that big, but every little bit counts I suppose.

  3. “The average annual household contribution was $2,213 and the mean was $870.”

    “Average” typically means “mean”. Which version of “average” (mean, median, or mode) is the $2,213? I can’t imagine the mode would be relevant, but it seems odd that the median would be higher than the mean in this context…

  4. We raise money every year for the cystic fibrosis foundation because it is a disease my daughter has. We’ve noticed this trend, yet our friends and family continue to give a decent amount. This year we’ve started asking for smaller donations. We’ve actually had more people give than average at this time in our fundraising. Kind of interesting.

  5. “Charity” is one of the fixed amounts included in my budget. It includes my weekly donation to the collection at church, and a donation to another organization. Right now that usually comes out to a $40 donation each month to some organization. I’d love to be able to increase that a bit. There are a handful of non-profits that I support that are particularly important to me, and this works better on my conscience than giving larger amounts to only one or two organizations. Even when I was a student I used this strategy, only back then I donated $10-15 to each of the organizations on my list. I figure every little bit counts!

  6. Great article! I’m a tither, but it was hard to do initially. My way is probably very unorthadox, but it worked for me. I started at 1% and gradually worked up to 10%. This year I decided to add another 1% to it making an extra offering. For 2011 I took an 18% pay cut, but decided to stay with the company as I really like what I do, and to be able to give 11% to my church has been a big step of faith for me. I also save 11% of my income now too. I still have cc debt to pay off and am chipping away at that.

  7. We have been giving away baby clothes that our son has grown out of, as well as items we no longer wear. We also make it a point to donate at least $100 each year to a charity – usually my work provides a dollar for dollar company match with donations, as long as we give to their charitable foundation. We can then invest the match into any charity we want. This effectively doubles the contribution we planned to give, which is great. One tip that can benefit you as well as make you feel good is to donate stock; particularly stock that you are planning to sell, but have capital gains. By donating stock, you can then claim the total amount on your taxes, and not have to pay the capital gains on your stock. Therefore you keep the money you were planning to donate in lieu of the stock, and avoid the capital gains you were going to pay when you sold the stock.

  8. I’ve often wondered how best to give in a lifetime. For example, Bill Gates is not giving billions away full time. Before that he was the richest man in the world for a few years and I heard him ridiculed, even by a buddhist teacher Robert Thurman (Uma Thurman’s dad)

    Had Bill Gates been like one of us and not used the money to grow, instead giving a few dollars here and there, now he would be making only a fraction of the impact.

    I see all the poor children and the disaster victims on the television and I think: I should take care of all those people. I should just do whatever I can until I run out of resources (of course, I don’t) because it could easily make the difference between people living or dying.

    I’m not saying that I will be a billionaire, and I give my dollars here and there to the various drives, but it begs the question: If it’s good to give, should I just give all my surplus income out now OR should I just give minimally now and give it all away later when hopefully there is more?