Even with looming bills and the steep cost of raising kids, financial experts say it’s still possible to support the causes close to your heart. Here’s how to plan your 2020 donations now.

mother daughter placing money into jar illustration
Credit: Illustration by Bijou Karman

Life with kids is expensive: child care, diapers, another pack of pacifiers (where do they all go?!). Expensive enough, in fact, to leave you less financially secure than you’d like to be. But when the PTA at your child’s school asks you to pitch in for the annual fund, or your sister is walking to raise money for breast cancer, you’re inclined to say yes—because even if paying this month’s credit-card bill will sting, how can you say no to a worthy cause?

And so you find yourself faced with a conundrum. Your heart pulls you to give to the charity that means a lot to you, to communities affected by natural disasters, to your own child’s school. How can you manage it all? Before you throw your hands up, know that the giving pendulum swings both ways. Studies show that donating time, money, or even social support has several health benefits, like lower blood pressure and stress levels, increased self-esteem, and greater happiness (what’s known as a “helper’s high”). Plus, you’re showing your kids that supporting others is worth doing.

We asked financial experts who are also parents to weigh in on ways to maximize your budget and find room for generosity.

What’s the best way to set aside donation money?

Fewer than two in five millennials say they follow a monthly budget. But as daunting as it might sound, you really do need to sit down and figure out your monthly spending before you make any donation decisions, says Kumiko Love, a financial counselor and founder of The Budget Mom.

This might seem unnecessary, but it’s a tried-and-true method for a reason. First, take a look at your bank statement and write down all income (use a notebook, a spreadsheet, or an app—whatever works for you). Then subtract your core expenses (such as your rent or mortgage, student loans, groceries, bills, child care) plus any other expenses (like an out-of-office lunch, that last-minute birthday present, your Netflix account). The remaining amount (whether $75 or $750) is yours to divvy up into donations, savings, fun money, or any other category that’s important to you. While there’s no special formula for how much to give, Americans tend to donate around 4 to 5 percent of their gross income to charity, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

To make sure you really do put that money aside, many of our experts suggest setting up a savings account through a credit union or an online-only bank, which is free and typically earns more interest than your local bank can provide. (Search for one at MagnifyMoney.com. It should be FDIC-insured and require a minimum balance that’s close to $0 so you can deposit a small sum and still earn interest.) Then link this new savings account to your traditional bank and set up an automatic monthly transfer of the amount you’d like to donate.

When is the right time to give?

Right now. “If you waited until you had no credit-card debt, no mortgage payment, and had saved half a million dollars for retirement, you’d never give,” says Gregg Murset, a financial planner and founder of BusyKid, an app that lets kids split chore money into save, spend, and share buckets. The key is to give what you can. Even tiny amounts matter.

It’s charities galore out there! How do I find one to support?

Aside from well-known nonprofits like the American Cancer Society or World Wildlife Fund, it can be hard to tell if a charity is legit. Before you donate, search for the organization at CharityNavigator.org to review its financial health, accountability, and transparency. “I might not know local organizations in the Bahamas that are helping Hurricane Dorian victims, but I am confident that the American Red Cross will use my money appropriately for relief efforts,” says Bola Sokunbi, a certified financial education instructor and founder of Clever Girl Finance.

How should I plan for asks from family and friends?

Develop a protocol. “I don’t have enough mental headspace to decide how much to give for every donation situation, so it makes it easier to have a rule in place, like I’ll give $10 to anyone who asks,” says Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, founder and CEO of The Fiscal Femme.

Tiffany Aliche, a financial educator and founder of The Budgetnista, has a similar rule: “I’m partial to women’s and kids’ organizations, so if someone asks me to give to a charity for dogs, I’ll say no because I’ve already set my giving mission statement to these parameters.”

If you’re getting a lot of requests that just don’t fit into your budget or personal guidelines, Gerstley suggests coming up with a system of how you’ll decline the ask. Consider drafting an email you can copy and paste that explains, “This is such an incredible organization. I’m passionate about X charity, so I’ve decided to put my giving toward that at the moment, but thank you for thinking of me.” (This works perfectly in a real-life conversation too.)

My kid’s school seems to constantly request donations. How should I handle that?

At the start of each school year, ask your child’s teacher about the fund-raisers or events you should expect. If your school doesn’t have a set amount requested per child, commit to one you’re willing to give. Then include that in your back-to-school budget alongside clothes and supplies. For Aliche, a stepmom of one, that’s $100. From there, she says, you can decide on how to give that amount, like writing a check for $100 up front, splitting that $100 into monthly payments, or giving $50 now and the other $50 to fund-raisers later on.

And it’s totally fine to sit out a school fund-raiser. “My son was disappointed when I said I didn’t want to buy a candle he was selling,” says Murset. “But if it costs $20, the candle company might take $10 for profit, leaving only $10 for the school. I find that my money goes farther when I donate directly to the PTA.”

I’m inclined to donate after a natural disaster. How do I budget for this?

It comes back to your charity-specific savings account. If you give quarterly to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, for example, but you’d also like to donate to the victims of a recent flood, you might either use your St. Jude funds or split them and give half to each cause.

If you want to make your gift go farther, consider organizing a giving circle—where you and others who are passionate about a cause each chip in a given amount of money, time, or both in order to contribute a larger donation. With the help of nine friends, your $50 can turn into $500.

I don’t have money to donate. What are “free” ways to help?

Take toys or books your kids don’t use to day-care centers or schools. Ask neighbors if they need help weeding their garden, or prompt your kid to bring in a neighbor’s bins on garbage day (soon he might do it without being asked—the greatest gift of all). “You don’t have to get out your credit card in order to give,” says Sokunbi.

Apps That Will Give Back

Charity Miles: For every mile you walk, dance, run, or cycle, Charity Miles will donate 10 or 25 cents to your chosen cause. And those miles can really add up! Free; iOS and Android

Qapital: Sock away extra change with Qapital, which allows you to set various savings goals and rules to fund them like “donate $1 every day toward school fund-raisers.” Free; iOS and Android

Freerice: Correctly answer trivia questions and Freerice will donate rice to people in need via the World Food Programme. Free; iOS and Android

Donate a Photo: With Donate a Photo, you share a pic once a day in the app and Johnson & Johnson will give $1 a day to a charity you choose. Free; iOS and Android

Walk for a Dog: Every time you grab your pup’s leash, open up Walk for a Dog to give to a local animal welfare organization. Free; iOS and Android

Parents Magazine