Keep On Giving: Times Are Even Tighter For Others

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, November 23, 2008

With rising unemployment and the stock market looking like a bungee jumper whose cord has snapped, it's hard to argue that people should continue their charitable giving.

And yet, I will make that plea.

I know that in tough times you want to pull back on your spending, including planned donations, but that's exactly when your giving shouldn't go down -- when the need is so great.

The way to continue giving is to be a regular donor. Although the percentage of American households that report giving to charity has remained constant in recent years at around 70 percent, it's not always the same households, according to new research by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

The center studied the charitable giving of the same 8,000 families in 2000, 2002 and 2004, and found that nearly one-third alternated between donating and not donating. The researchers found that "persistent donors" give much more on average than others.

In 2004, consistent givers made total charitable gifts averaging $2,659. Occasional donors -- people who gave in one or two of the three years -- contributed an average of $820, according to the study.

Charitable giving is a vital part of the budget for my husband and me. We believe the line item on your budget for giving should be as important as your mortgage, rent or car payment. Make giving a priority, and you're less likely to dispense with it in hard times.

In an unscientific study, I've looked at the people I've been helping in a financial ministry at my church. By and large, those who make giving a priority -- whether it's tithing (giving one-tenth of your income to the church) or consistently donating money through a workplace giving campaign -- handle their money better.

Consistent givers can weather economic storms because they're better at budgeting. They let go of things that don't matter so they don't have to cut out the funds they've pledged to help others.

If I may, I'd like to recommend some ways to continue giving during hard times.

Let's start with how you organize the categories on your budget.

The category of charitable giving is often listed at the bottom of a budget form. If it's not dead last, it's tucked in the miscellaneous section.

Instead, move the category up closer to the top. We tend to fund our expenses starting with the most important -- housing or transportation, for example -- to the least important -- pet grooming or video rentals. When things get tight we start cutting from the bottom up because that's where more of the expendable costs are located.

On the budget sheet for my household, the line item for tithing is first, even before the mortgage payment. The line item for church offerings and charitable giving is listed right after major expenses such as housing, food and transportation.

Treat your donation like it's a bill, advises Melissa Brown, associate director of research at the Center on Philanthropy, who co-authored its donor stability study.

Brown said her family agreed to give up a regular treat to make room for a monthly charitable contribution.

"We are trying to teach our children about philanthropy," Brown said. "So we told them we had to give up something to do this."

And they did.

"We have a lot of options in our modern lifestyle rather than cutting off contributions to people who have less than we do," Brown said. "We consume so much. When you challenge most people, they can find the money."

If you are worried about the economy or your own finances, there's another way to find money to give. De-clutter your house.

When's the last time you used that treadmill? What about the barely used clothes your children have outgrown or the toys buried at the bottom of bins in their bedrooms?

Pack up all the stuff you're not using and sell it at a flea market or online and then donate the proceeds. In fact, make this the yearly fundraiser in your household. You get to clean out your house and do some good.

Looking for a way to cut your taxes? Try giving. Your donations could add up to a sizable tax deduction if you itemize. Just be aware that to deduct any charitable donation of money, you must have a bank record or written communication from the recipient showing the name of the organization and the date and amount of the contribution.

Also keep in mind that if your contributions entitle you to merchandise, goods or services, including admission to a charity ball, banquet, theatrical performance or sporting event, you can deduct only the amount that exceeds the fair market value of the benefit received.

Finally, become involved. You are likely to be a persistent giver if you maintain an active relationship with the organizations you support.

I know that giving is personal. But don't be a fair-weather giver. If we all gave regularly, the burden would be easier on everyone in good times and bad.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and at

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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