Ask Brianna: Can I give to charity if money is tight?

Published December 19, 2017
Associated Press

"Ask Brianna" is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com.

Q: This time of year, I'm getting a lot of requests to donate money, but bills and debt payments are hanging over my head. I want to be generous. Can I give to charity anyway?

A: Congratulations: You have a heart. The desire to donate comes from a place of compassion and empathy, and it's worth celebrating.

"We can't avoid being human and wanting to help others," says Derrick Feldmann, lead researcher on the Millennial Impact Project, which studies millennials' philanthropic behavior.

Feldmann says millennials donate $200 to $300 a year on average, and closer to $400 in years when major natural disasters occur.

While you can't give money you don't have, it's possible to do your part to save the world even with, say, thousands of dollars in student loan debt. You're financially ready to give if you are:

—Earning more money than you spend

—Paying at least the minimum on your debts, on time, every time

—Saving regularly for the future in both emergency and retirement funds: That means setting aside at least $500 for unexpected expenses and contributing enough to get the company match on your 401(k) — or saving in an individual retirement account

Once you've determined you can spare some cash for charity, follow these tips on how to do it. And if donating isn't possible this year, consider volunteering or participating in activism instead.

BUILD YOUR VALUES INTO YOUR BUDGET

Your question is about spending money on what you value most, and that's all budgeting really is. Figure out what you can spare by looking at how much is available for discretionary spending.

Using the 50/30/20 guideline, aim to spend no more than 30 percent of your after-tax income on wants (50 percent of your take-home pay goes to needs like housing, food and utilities; 20 percent goes to paying down debt and saving for the future). Decide how much of the 30 percent you want to give away. Maybe you'll decide $20 a month can go to charity.

This approach makes it easy to set up automatic recurring donations, instead of giving lump sums at the end of the year, says Elise Murphy, a certified financial planner at Level Financial Advisors in Amherst, New York. You won't feel crunched or drain your bank account in November and December, when you're also buying holiday gifts and traveling to see family.

DONATE STRATEGICALLY

Once you've earmarked your precious cash for charity, put it to good use.

—Donate your full charitable giving budget to just one or two organizations, says Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust. Sending $10 to 20 different organizations won't make as big an impact, because it costs money to process every donation.

If you give more to one, "the charity will have more net money to actually devote to programs," she says.

—Ask if your workplace matches donations, which will make your money go further.

—Keep records of your donations; you can deduct them from your taxable income if you itemize on your tax return and the organization qualifies under IRS rules. Check its eligibility using the IRS' Exempt Organizations search tool .

—Make sure you're giving to reputable organizations. View nonprofits' financial information by signing up for a free account on GuideStar.org, or check out the Better Business Bureau's reports on individual charities on Give.org.

GIVE YOUR TIME INSTEAD

Sure, of millennials who have been more involved with causes or social issues since the 2016 election, the largest share — 35 percent — said they'd donated more money. That's according to the 2017 Millennial Impact Report, released by Achieve, a cause-focused research and marketing agency. But the next-largest share said they volunteered more, followed by those who said they joined more nonprofit boards.

Your budget may simply be too tight to contribute money; maybe rent alone takes up half your take-home pay. If you've decided animal welfare is your cause of choice, volunteer at a shelter or to walk dogs for elderly pet owners. Sign petitions, attend community meetings or participate in a run or walk to raise awareness of an issue.

"You don't have to have any money to make a difference," Feldmann says.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet . Brianna McGurran is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com . Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

RELATED LINKS:

NerdWallet: Free budget calculator https://nerd.me/budget-calculator

Internal Revenue Service: Exempt organizations select check https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/exempt-organizations-select-check