Editor's Note:This month we're sharing a Thankfulness series, focusing on giving thanks and gratitude. Stay tuned for future installments every week in November and be sure to come back to Ask Experian to read general credit and personal finance topics that can help everyone achieve their financial goals.
As the holiday season ramps up, Americans often increase their charitable giving. Last year, individuals gave a total of $281.86 billion to charities, an increase of 3.9% over 2015, according to Giving USA. Here are five ways to give to others while still staying on budget:
Give gifts that do good
If you're like me, you really don't need much from your family and friends when it comes time to exchange gifts (what we want is another story!). Rather than spend money on each other, you can gather money to give to a charity that's important to you. This year some of my family decided that instead of giving gifts to each other, we'll adopt a family and use the money we'd normally spend on presents for each other to get make sure a family in need gets some of the outerwear, clothes and toys on their list.
You can usually find a local organization or group that puts programs together to adopt a family over the holidays (which makes it easy for those without a lot of spare time) and some even offer the opportunity to deliver the gifts to the family once the holidays arrive. If you get the chance to do that, take it, as I've heard it's an incredibly impactful and rewarding experience. Plus, it gives you time with your family and friends to shop or wrap gifts for your adopted family. Ask your friends, colleagues and neighbors for recommendations of organizations to work with on it, plus many churches and synagogues coordinate efforts as well. Soldiers' Angels is a national organization that helps military families and there are others around the country, such as Christmas Family Adoption Foundation in Portland and Families First in Atlanta.
If your friends and family ask you what's on your wish list, you can ask them to join you for a volunteer activity over the holidays. Plenty of local groups can use help. Better yet, make monthly or quarterly dates to help others—even if it's something small like visiting a children's hospital or retirement home. If you have kids, it's also a great way to get them involved. Organizations often have different tasks available so people of all ages and abilities can lend a hand.
If you're a pet lover, you can also check with local animal rescue groups to see if they need people to hang out, visit or walk dogs at the shelter. You can even do this if you're traveling or on vacation with your family. "Countless nonprofits need volunteers to help keep their organizations running, especially during the busy holiday months," says Ashley Jacobs, CEO of Sitting For a Cause, a pet sitting company that donates 50% of profits to help animals in need. "Even if you are traveling, you can find organizations that will happily welcome you as a volunteer. A fantastic example of this is the Kauai Humane Society, where tourists can take shelter dogs out on field trips to help the dogs get exercise and meet potential adopters."
Only give to the good ones
One thing you don't want to do is fall for a scam over the holidays. Scammers unfortunately use goodwill to their advantage, so you have to be on the lookout for anything shady. According to Eva Velasquez, CEO and President of the Identity Theft Resource Center, "During the holiday season, people are more likely to donate to charity and unfortunately, scammers know this too and will undoubtedly use it to their advantage."
To stay safe this holiday (and year round) Velasquez recommends keeping these tips in mind:
- Research charities before donating to confirm their legitimacy—Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator are two helpful resources.
- Think twice before turning over any important personal details.
- Don't click on a link or open an attachment in an email or text, even if it appears to be genuine.
- Never wire money or send cash. Use a credit card instead as it provides more protection. (See also: Debit vs. Credit: What's the Difference?)
Avoid those coming door-to-door and who pull on your heartstrings to make an immediate donation. It's always okay to ask for additional information like a brochure or website so you can do your research and make sure your money is going to a legitimate organization.
Some fraudulent organizations posing as charities may use phishing techniques. These could be phone calls, emails, or even snail mail letters that appear legit while directing you to fake sites in order to collect personal information such as your credit card, account information or even Social Security number.
Especially for small donations, you shouldn't have to provide any personal information so feel free to keep anything anonymous that you'd like and don't provide additional details that aren't necessary. (See also: What Can Identity Thieves Do with Your Personal Information?)
Check for available matching funds
If you work for or with a large company or organization, look to see if they offer matching funds. Additionally, some charities offer special promotions during the holidays to match donations if they get a corporate sponsor or are trying to generate additional contributions before the end of the year. Be on the lookout for anything that can help stretch your giving further.
Clean out your closet, for a cause
Especially if you have kids, you likely have toys or clothes that they quickly got tired of playing with or outgrew. If you have gently used items, use this as a win-win by cleaning out your closet and giving to someone in need.
Donating clothing, toys and books that are gently used but still have a lot of life left is a way you can help others without spending anything. You can also check with friends or family to see if they can use the items.
Local Facebook groups and Facebook marketplace also allow you to give away the items or sell at a low cost to other local families (although you'll want to make sure you meet in public places and protect yourself with any online sales or transactions).
Another idea if you're crafty is to make items to donate—scarves, hats and quilts are items that are especially helpful in the winter for homeless shelters. Local hospitals can always use little hats and mittens for babies as well. Many shelters and organizations collect new toys and canned goods as well. Groups like Toys for Tots collect toys and games for children of all ages. Additionally, you can buy canned goods that are on sale or use coupons to stretch your dollars even further when giving, just as you do to keep yourself on budget.
Track your donations for tax purposes
You can claim contributions to legitimate tax-deductible charitable organizations, but you can't give to specific individuals or political candidates and expect to claim a tax-deduction. The IRS has tips on its website. Check out the guidelines before giving if your goal is to claim what you donate, and make sure to save any receipts in a safe place for when it comes time to file your taxes. The organization you're giving to should be able to provide information and documentation to confirm they're a registered 501(c)(3) and can be claimed.
Bonus: Stocking Stuffer
In addition to the tips above, you can donate to charitable causes even when you're shopping online. Amazon's AmazonSmile program donates 0.5% of the price of your eligible purchases to a charity you select from a list of nearly one million options. You have to register for the program but you can give charity without putting in any additional money as you're doing your holiday shopping—and buying things throughout the year. You even have a dashboard that tells you how many orders and dollars you've donated individually. On their site, Amazon says that over $62 million has been donated through this program as of August 2017.
Other options to shop and give include Target's Yoobi line which helps provide supplies to classrooms and Toms, which donates proceeds of every purchase to give shoes, sight and water as well as other initiatives to help improve lives.
By following these steps, you can feel good about giving and keep your finances in check.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on November 9, 2017, and has been updated.