Finding A Way To Give

The economic pinch makes it tempting not to give to charities this year. It's important to make it a top priority, however, says our personal finance contributor.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

As we just heard, these are challenging times for many charitable funds, some of which could dry up as fewer people offer to give.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

There is a way to give without feeling an economic pinch, and here to discuss strategies is personal finance expert Michelle Singletary, and Michelle, you recommend charitable giving even in these times?

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Absolutely. I believe that charitable giving is as important to your budget as your rent or mortgage or car payment. For my husband and I, we tithe, meaning we give 10 percent of our income. That comes out before anything else, before even a mortgage; that's how important it is to us, because if you make it an important item, you won't give it up in hard times. It'll become a part of what you do with your money.

BRAND: And so, how do you discipline yourself to give in times like these?

SINGLETARY: You know, one thing is - you know, when I help people, I set up a budget for them, and we tend to fund our budget according to the items as they're listed. So, you know, first thing people usually list is their mortgage or their rent and car payment, utilities and so forth. Unfortunately, charitable giving ends up all the way at the bottom or in the miscellaneous category. And so, when times get hard, you start to cut from the bottom up, like pet grooming and, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SINGLETARY: Things like that. And unfortunately, that's what charitable giving is. But if you move that line item to the top of your budget or near the top to the major things that are important to you, then you won't cut that first. Many charities will allow you to make regular payments on a monthly basis. If you make it like a bill, it won't get cut in hard times.

BRAND: And what if you just don't have any money? Is there another way to be charitable without spending money?

SINGLETARY: You know, before we talked about ways to raise money in your household, and I always tell people, if you absolutely don't have the money, and you're really struggling, look around your house. Look at some things that you can sell, and make it a family thing. Just say, kids, let's all go through the house. Do it once a year. And then gather everything up and sell it, and use that money to give to charity. And remember, giving is a tax deduction, so there is a tax benefit to giving throughout the year, not just at the holiday time.

BRAND: Right. But people have until the end of this year for it to appear on their financial statements.

SINGLETARY: That's right. You have until the year of the year to still give, and it's a great tax deduction. Now remember, the law's changed, so you have to prove that you actually gave the money. Hopefully, you're not lying about something this important. And if you go to the IRS Web site, there's guidelines on making sure you get the proper receipts.

BRAND: And Michelle, there sure are a lot of organizations out there that are asking for donations. And how does one navigate through all that and find the ones that use the money the most wisely?

SINGLETARY: You know, there are a couple resources that I would recommend. Definitely BBB, the Better Business Bureau, has a charitable-giving site where you can go and get a lot of information about how to give to a charity, how to make sure that they are a legitimate charity. There's also Charity Navigator, and if you put both of those in a search engine, you'll go right to those sites, and they will help you choose the right charity. And just be careful, particularly this time of year, and make sure that they're legitimate, and also, that they're using the majority of their funds for their programming and not to raise money. You want to be sure that your dollars are being well-spent.

BRAND: That's Michelle Singletary. She writes "The Color of Money" column for the Washington Post. And you can ask Michelle some questions, if you have any, some personal finance questions. Go to npr.org/daytoday, click on Contact Us, and put Michelle in the subject line. Thanks, Michelle.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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