Money, Time, or Both: What Can You Afford to Give?


We all want to give. Generosity tends to be an inherent trait, and even the stingiest curmudgeon probably has a soft spot deep down for a good cause. The question is that when it comes to making an impact in the lives or causes of others, what can you afford to give? Time or money?

The reality is that being charitable or having the desire to do so can do a wonderful thing for the world, but can also be a murky area when it comes to our finances. We don’t always have enough money to give freely, and those with extra-busy schedules can barely imagine how to fit in the time to volunteer for a cause. As generous as we may want to be, these restrictions can leave us asking: how?

Chances are, you have the ability to give something. Whether it’s a day at a food drive or a respectable donation, the will to give will lead the way. Read on to find out how.


While many people wish they could write a check to their favorite organizations, volunteering time can often be a suitable substitution. There are plenty of ways that money can help a non-profit, but time can often be harder to procure.

Some groups require that you sign up for regular shifts or not volunteer at all. If you can work it in as part of your schedule, a recurring time can be more fulfilling than going to a soup kitchen once a year. Plus, it can help you develop new friendships, learn a skill or even network.

The Harvard Women’s Health Watch said that volunteering regularly can boost your mental and physical health. If you don’t have a lot of time to give, try focusing on organizations where you can help sporadically.

Different groups will have different time requirements, so be sure to understand how you can give before you sign up. There’s no point in running yourself ragged trying to meet expectations if the organization isn’t a good fit for your schedule.

You can also tell volunteer coordinators what your availability is and see if they can make a recommendation for you. Not every volunteering option will be a possibility, so don’t be afraid to keep looking, but ensure it’s for a cause you care about to ensure you’re pursuing something you value as well.


Donating to charity is not only a personal decision for many people, but it’s also a financial one. Determining whether or not you can afford to give to charity depends on what your other goals are. For example, if you want to retire early, charitable donations may have to wait. If you’re stuck with thousands in debt, donating may also set you back.

However, if you have a comfortable income with relatively low or manageable expenses, you can probably make a significant difference without sucking your bank account dry. A financial planner can help you decide if you fit in that category, and show you the best way to funnel your money towards the causes you care about.

Here are some basic guidelines you should follow before you start allocating money toward charity:

● Emergency fund: The emergency fund is the basis of your finances. Before you give to others in need, you need to ensure that you won’t be the one asking for help. An emergency fund is something you use when your transmission goes out, when you have an ER visit or when your mother dies unexpectedly. Make sure you have at least the beginning of an emergency fund built up.

● Debt: If you have student loans, credit card debt or car loans, it’s better to pay those off before going big with giving to charity. Small monthly contributions or even bigger annual contributions are okay as long as they are worked into your budget on a consistent basis and you’re not going into debt to give. Debt payments decrease your ability to save and spend as you choose, so the sooner you pay them off, the more financial freedom you’ll have.

● Retirement: Flight attendants tell you, “Put your own mask on before helping others.” It’s the same with retirement and charity. Before you help others, help yourself. Save between 10-15% of your salary for retirement and then feel free to donate.

Before you donate anywhere, use GuideStar to find an organization with a solid, trustworthy record. That will ensure that your dollars go to people who need them, instead of flashy galas and under-the-table kickbacks.

Mary Beth Storjohann, CFP® is an author, speaker, and financial coach who takes a fun, no-nonsense approach in working with individuals and couples across the country, helping them make smart choices with their money.

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