Story last updated at 12/3/2008 - 2:01 pm
During the holiday season, many people reflect on what they can do to help those less fortunate. In 2007, caring Americans gave a record $306.4 billion in charitable donations - which doesn't even include the countless hours spent on volunteer activities.
But during this recent economic turmoil, many folks are being forced to cut back on contributions as they themselves face increasing hardships. This is particularly bad timing since food banks, disaster relief organizations and other charities need our help now more than ever.
So what can you do to help others while safeguarding your own family's well being? Here are a few ideas to stretch your charitable contributions.
Donate your time
Charities always gladly accept cash, but many run on shoestring budgets with minimal staff, so your time and expertise may be just as valuable. Numerous organizations can match you up with local charities that suit your interests, including Network for Good (www.networkforgood.org), Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org) and Volunteer Solutions (www.volunteersolutions.org).
Although you can't take a federal income tax deduction for your time, you can deduct mileage and certain expenses related to your volunteer activities at IRS-qualified, tax-exempt organizations. IRS Publication 526 explains how tax deductions for charitable contributions work and Publication 78 lists all IRS-approved organizations (www.irs.gov).
Bang for your buck
Make sure any non-profit organizations to which you donate are well-run and contribute at least 75 percent of contributions they receive to programs that serve their beneficiaries, as opposed to being spent on their own salaries and expenses. Several online rating services can help you research potential recipients of your generosity, including www.charitynavigator.org, www.guidestar.org and the Better Business Bureau (www.give.org).
If you're strapped for cash, there are many other valuable items you can pass along to charity. For example:
Clean out your closets and donate unneeded clothes, appliances, furniture and other items to non-profit organizations that sponsor thrift shops, like Goodwill Industries (www.goodwill.org) or your local religious or AIDS service organizations. Just be sure they're on the IRS-approved list above.
Many organizations accept donated frequent flyer miles. One great program, the Make a Wish Foundation (www.wish.org), estimates it needs over 2.5 billion miles a year to fulfill the travel needs of the sick children they help. Check airline websites for links to organizations that accept their miles.
Local food pantries and homeless shelters always need food contributions, especially around the holidays. Many also will accept and distribute toiletry items, so the next time you buy two-for-one toothpaste, set one tube aside for a needy family.
Adopt a family
Numerous social and religious organizations sponsor programs that will align you with a family in crisis. You can provide services as wide-ranging as helping them to pay rent to educational tutoring to playing Santa Claus for homeless children.
Tap your employer
Many companies will match a portion of their employees' donations to IRS-approved non-profit organizations or educational institutions. Ask your Human Resources department if your company offers such a program.
Be wary of unsolicited calls or emails seeking contributions to organizations that sound legitimate but may not be. Visit the organization's website independently (not through an email link) and look them up on the online rating services mentioned above. And never give out your credit card number or personal information unless you initiated the contact yourself.
One last suggestion that won't cost a dime: Donate blood. I can't think of any better way to literally save lives.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. Sign up for his free monthly e-Newsletter at www.practicalmoneyskills.com/newsletter.