Cost: As much as you choose or can afford.
How long it will take: A few minutes to write a check, several hours or days if you're donating your time.
What you can donate: Cash, clothes, food, household goods, and time.
What to do:
1. Get organized. If you really want to make a difference, consider picking one or two charities that mean something to you and stick to them. You'll make more of a splash with larger contributions to a couple of places than with small dribbles to every cause your 10k-running friends are endorsing. (If you don't care either way, of course, dribble away.)
2. Do some research. Not all charities are legit, and you want to make sure your cash goes where you expect. Charity Navigator can help you wade through the donation options. The Better Business Bureau also rates accredited charitable businesses on its site.
3. Give what's needed. If you're really trying to make a difference, contact your charity of choice and ask what they can use. Cash is generally appreciated, but many organizations also need volunteers or donations of certain goods (like mosquito netting).
If you want to take a tax deduction for your donation, it's slightly more complicated. (By the way, this only applies if you're itemizing deductions on your taxes.)
1. Make sure the organization has 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. This may not be necessary if you're giving to a church or other religious organization.You can also search for the charity on the IRS's list.
2. Get a receipt. Save the canceled check, for instance, or the acknowledgement letter from the charity when it receives your donation. If you're giving non-cash items, get a receipt from the charity when you drop everything off. Credit card charges and payroll deduction records also count. If you give via text message, you'll need a telephone bill showing the name of the organization, date of contribution, and the amount given.
3. Do the math. If your contribution entitles you to merchandise, goods or services, you can only deduct the amount that exceeds the fair market value of the benefit received. So if you purchase a $100 camera at a charity auction for $150, say, only $50 of that donation can be deducted.
4. Keep good records. If you incur expenses while you're volunteering-supplies, travel costs, telephone calls, etc.-keep receipts. Many of those costs are deductible. See this article for more info.
5. Give good stuff. All donated clothes and goods should be in good used condition or better.
6. Estimate its value. The organization receiving the donation may provide you with an estimated value for it, or you can estimate it yourself. The Salvation Army provides a good guide. (NOTE: Donating a car is a whole different ballgame. Check out the IRS document here.)
7. Fill out the right forms. If your total deduction for all noncash contributions for the year is more than $500, you'll need to attach IRS Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions, to your tax return. (Here are the instructions.)
8. Get an appraisal if you need one. If you're donating an item or a group of items worth more than $5,000, you need one. You'll also need to complete Section B of Form 8283.
9. Watch the calendar. Donations must be made by December 31 to count for that tax year.
10. Itemize. To deduct a charitable contribution, you must itemize deductions on Schedule A and file form 1040 when you do your taxes.
To learn more:
For Charities and Donors (BBB)
Did you do it? Tell us what worked or share other tips in the comments below.
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