10 Money Smart Ways to Give Thanks This Season

Donating to charity doesn’t have to strain your budget.

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You have pies to bake, gifts to buy, and family time to navigate. But there’s one more item to squeeze onto your list: Giving back. Not only will it get you in the holiday spirit faster than spiked eggnog, but it can also boost your happiness levels and reduce stress—and who doesn’t need that this time of year?

As I was interviewing people for my book Generation Earn, one theme became clear: People who felt most financially secure and confident were also among those most likely to give back in significant ways. “Giving back” means much more than just donating dollars, though. People give time, skills, energy, and even their careers to causes they believe in.

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So, how to get started, without busting your budget? Here are 10 money-smart ways to give back this holiday season.

Develop a plan. Many of us give haphazardly throughout the year, donating $30 for a friend's walkathon and $100 at a school auction. But Lisa Endlich, author of Be the Change, says that's a mistake. "It doesn't make you an effective giver. You don't know how the giving is being used, and it's not something that's integral and important to you," she says. "People do their best giving when they focus on what matters to them the most."

Instead, Endlich recommends that people ask themselves what one or two things matter most to them and what will affect others most. Inspiration can come from almost anywhere, including movies, a conversation with friends, or a magazine article. When you give to those priorities, you won't spend any more money than you already did throughout the year, but it will be in a way that better reflects your values.

Learn everything you can about your chosen cause. Bill Gates shared this advice for would-be philanthropists with the New York Times: "The key thing is to pick a cause, whether it's crops or diseases or great high schools.... Pick one, and get some more in-depth knowledge" by traveling, reading, or volunteering. Studying up on your cause doesn't need to cost much money, but it will make you a more informed—and more effective—giver.

Give of yourself—literally. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (and blog of the same name), says that signing up to be an organ donor or giving blood can boost your own mood, especially in a recession. "If you're feeling impoverished . . . a way to counteract that feeling is to do something generous," she says. It's a way of convincing yourself that you have something to give, adds Rubin.

Investigate close-to-home options. Local organizations often arrange gift drives. In Northern Virginia, for example, the Alexandria Department of Human Services connects local givers with families in need of assistance. Instead of doubling your own shopping bill, talk with family members about putting the money you would have spent on each other toward gifts for a family in need. To make the decision even more affordable, join up with friends to share the cost of gifts.

Give time. Volunteering at a hospital, making dinner for a sick person, or working in a soup kitchen are all ways to donate your resources, and they don't cost much. To make it more fun—and even more affordable—sign up with a friend.

Make sure your money is being used wisely. If you do decide to donate money, you want to be sure it's being spent wisely. One helpful site is Charity Navigator. Just type in the name of the organization and see what pops up.

Clean out your closet. Many nonprofits and shelters are constantly looking for used books, clothes, CDs, and other items. Spending a few hours cleaning out your house could result in several bags of goodies—and you'll have a cleaner house.

Start your own nonprofit. This is a big project that will take years and not weeks, but for some people, it’s the best way to channel their passions. When Lindsay Hyde was a freshman at Harvard, she wanted to become a mentor to younger girls in the area, but when she looked into potential opportunities, she couldn't find any groups willing to work with undergraduates. So she organized her own team of volunteers and found two elementary schools interested in working with them. Once she graduated from college, she officially launched her nonprofit, Strong Women, Strong Girls, which now works with over 400 girls a year in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Miami.

Hyde, now 27, is one of hundreds of young people who start their own nonprofits each year. Over the last decade, there's been a 30 percent increase in the number of nonprofits, and experts say much of that comes from the energy and idealism of 20-somethings like Hyde who are sometimes disillusioned by the bureaucracy of large, established organizations.

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Find power in numbers. Lisa Philp, head of philanthropic services at JPMorgan Private Bank, says women in particular often enjoy working together to fund projects. You don't necessarily give more than you would have otherwise, but you generate more leverage. Giving circles, where a group of people pools money and jointly decides where to put it, are one way to do that. Philp participates in one in New York that focuses on supporting projects or organizations led by Asian-American women.

"You end up learning about more organizations than you would on your own and gain from the collective knowledge of others," Philp explains. Groups such as Women Moving Millions and the Women's Funding Network also help women get connected.

Feel good about your hard work. Basking in the pure enjoyment that giving back brings can inspire more of it, even during tough times otherwise, says Rubin. If your salary is frozen, then volunteering in a shelter or becoming someone’s mentor can generate a feeling of personal growth. “If you’re feeling impoverished . . . a way to counteract that feeling is to do something generous,” she says. It’s a way of convincing yourself that you have something to give, adds Rubin.

Here’s to finding—and sharing—whatever it is you have to give this season.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.