Giving Back on a Budget

This holiday season, help the less fortunate and donate to the charitable causes you want to support. No matter how tight your budget is -- and, let's face it, almost every family has trimmed its spending in the past couple of years -- there are lots of ways you can make a difference this holiday without digging deep into your pockets.

1. Give presents that benefit others.

Donation box

Peter Ardito

Instead of doling out gift cards for the holidays, regale everyone on your list with a "Good Card." The recipient visits networkforgood.org, where she can donate the balance to any of the group's 1.2 million registered charities.

Prefer to give a toy or a tie? That's fine -- but pick it up at a nonprofit gift store. Many large charities, like The Nature Conservancy (nature.org), The Make-A-Wish Foundation (wish.org), and The United States Fund for UNICEF (unicefusa.org), have online shops that will save you an in-person trip. "When you buy directly from a charity, you're getting something nice for a loved one and supporting its programs at the same time," says Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, which provides detailed ratings of more than 5,000 nonprofits at charitynavigator.org.

Worthy Charities:

2. Clean up for a cause.

Simply sorting through the stuff gathering dust in your basement can make a difference. Chances are you'll find things of value for a family in need or a nonprofit. Martha Brant donated a table to her children's preschool for a silent auction. "We can't afford to write huge checks," says the Washington, D.C., mother of two, "but this was something we could do." Aside from your church or day-care center, there are lots of places in need of your donations.

Clothing, toys, and kids' gear: Try your local Goodwill (goodwill.org), The Salvation Army (salvationarmyusa.org), or the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation (mophsf.org). You can drop off at a local chapter or, in many places, schedule a free pickup.

Furniture: Your best bet is nationalfurniturebank.org (enter your zip code to find a local affiliate). These groups generally accept beds, dressers, tables, chairs, sofas, lamps, and other furnishings that struggling families need to make a fresh start.

Cars: To ensure that your donation is tax-deductible, give your ride directly to a qualifying charity. Habitat for Humanity (habitat.org) takes any vehicle, working or not, and will even pick up the towing fee.

Cell phones, PDAs, iPODs, and digital cameras: Recycling for Charities (recyclingforcharities.com) safely disposes of these items and makes a donation to your designated charity. But you pay for the shipping.

Computers, printers, scanners, zip drives, and fax machines: The National Cristina Foundation (cristina.org) matches donors of these items with local nonprofits.

Worthy Charities:

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