Should You Give to Charity if You’re In Debt?

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give to charity

Since my family has six figures of debt, our ability to give to charity around the holidays is a stretch. It seems everywhere I go, people are asking for donations to their causes. I know I can’t donate to every cause, and sometimes I wonder if donations are even a good idea given the high payments I have to make on my student loans. Still, every holiday season, the question (and the struggle that accompanies it) comes to mind – should I, should you, give to charity if you’re in debt?

Should People in Debt Donate?


This is a controversial question. Some people believe that if you’re in debt, all of your extra funds should go to paying off that debt. No excuses. Others believe that in a time of giving, it’s nice to give a little something here or there, even if it’s only $5.

I think most of us can agree that although our budgets get tight, there’s always some place we can trim them. Whether we eat vegetarian for two weeks straight or decide to forgo something for ourselves, I’m sure we can all find $5 to spare.

And, if you really, truly can’t find something to spare, there’s an even more valuable thing to give to others, something you can’t ever get back: time.

Giving Your Time


If you are in debt and can’t justify finding something to give to charity at this time in your life, there are many ways to give your time. Whether it’s helping your parents, an elderly neighbor, or even your own spouse, sometimes doing something nice for something else is the greatest gift you can give during the holiday season.

If you need some ideas for charitable acts, here are a few:

1. Clean up your church.

2. Walk an elderly neighbor’s dog.

3. Serve food at a soup kitchen.

4. Pick up a friend’s child from school.

5. Buy groceries for a new mom.

6. Cook dinner for someone who is sick.

7. Shovel your neighbor’s driveway when it snows.

8. Read to kids at a local school.

9. Help your parents clean out their basement.

10. Babysit your friend’s kids for free so they can have a date night.

I’m sure there are many more ways you can think of to give to charity (whether it be volunteering or donating your time) that would make someone else’s life a little better this holiday season. Sometimes it’s not about the dollar amount or the tax deduction but about helping someone you know to have a better day.

I know that I personally will be donating to two places this year. I am going to send a small amount of money to my high school, which is a state-funded public boarding school. They exist off of tax dollars and donations, and it’s an amazing school that I’m happy to regularly support. I’ll also be selecting a teacher to help from Donors Choose, which is a website where teachers can go and ask for extra supplies for their classroom. Last year I paid $20 so a teacher could have some printer cartridges so kids could print out the stories they wrote to bring home to their parents. I like to find teachers who are art teachers or English teachers to help since that’s what interests me.

In my opinion, you really don’t have to give a lot to make a difference, even if you’re in debt up to your eyeballs.


What do you think? Is donating while you’re in debt a bad idea? Should you give to charity even when it means cutting something else from your budget to be able to do so? 


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Catherine Alford is the go to personal finance expert for parents who want to better their finances and take on a more active financial role in their families.


  • Erin H. says:

    Another option to consider is donating material goods – there are plenty of clothes and toy drives at this time of year that can benefit from material items that may accept your new-and-unused or “like new” materials. Alternatively, The Salvation Army, Goodwill, and similar organizations accept used but still usable donations year-round. Such donations are tax deductible.

  • I think donating your time is a great compromise. You shouldn’t feel obligated to give a lot of money to charity when you are already making financial sacrifices to avoid debt/pay it off…especially when you have little ones.

  • Lovely list, Cat. I wish more people would follow your advice here and donate their time to charities. Many people think time donations have to be big, long things but they truly don’t! A half hour or two hours can still make the world a better place.
    Your school sounds really interesting, I’d love to hear more about it.

    • Cat says:

      Thanks Anne. I agree about the time. Even if it’s just an hour to help a friend decorate their tree would be so appreciated! Thanks for your interest in my school! It’s called LSMSA – Louisiana School for Math Science & the Arts. It’s by admission only – however, it is not a rich kids boarding school. It’s free for everyone to go to (we just paid a few hundred dollars in room & board which can be waived if there is a financial need) As long as they get in, it’s open to everyone – a very cool place. 🙂

  • We often donate a lot of things like food/canned goods and clothing at this time of year. We also have debt and as a general rule we aren’t donating much money at this time in our life because we feel that those dollars need to go to our debt first. We are very much looking forward to being able to donate more when the debt is gone!

  • We really limited our cash donations during our debt repayment, but offered our time and sometimes donated used good that we had previously purchased. The thing we kept in mind was that the limited cash donations were not forever and once debt free we where able to give more frequently.

  • We are doing the same thing, Cat: giving minimally dollar wise, and giving lots of our time/resources. I think it’s a great balance for those deep in debt.

  • Money Beagle says:

    Donating time and materials are good ideas. I think from a monetary perspective, it is OK to make small donations as long as they fall within your range of everyday spending limits.

  • You’re right, you can always give your time and I think it’s a great thing to do. I just don’t think that $5 here and there will help charities out very much, so it would be a better strategy to put it on your debt and be generous when you are debt free.

    • Cat says:

      Really appreciate your comment, but I think $5 definitely makes a difference!! Every little bit helps when it comes to charities and non profits.

  • We try to donate on a regular basis. Our target is to donate 5% of our take home income. We don’t make a huge amount of money but we’re doing ok so we feel like it’s the right thing to do. Volunteering is something I would love to start doing again. Just need to find the time 😉

  • Tre says:

    I think that you should always find ways to help others. It doesn’t always have to be by giving them money.

  • Kassandra says:

    I had donated mainly time and things when I was in debt. I gave the occasional monetary donation but I had suspended all monthly contributions until I became debt free.

  • Ciel Belle says:

    I am still continuing to donate money to charities even while I am in debt. I set the amount I would like to donate for the year, my company just divides it and takes it out of my paycheck (before I even see it)

  • Yes, I think people should give when they are in debt (in most cases). That is unless it is high-interest personal loans or credit card debt. You don’t have to give a lot, but giving even a tiny amount can make a difference for a nonprofit.

  • New girl says:

    I became a bit weary of the aggresive seasonal charity shakedown, so I started pitching my own favorite charities to the people who try to pressure me into donating. I start with the truth, “I give blood.” Then I move to discussing the financial report cards of different great charities. I have a few more cards to play, but this usually solves the issue.

  • Mark says:

    Great suggestions! Especially watching your friends’ kids! That is HUGE for people who don’t have family close by. You can only give what you have, whether that be time, talents, energy, or money.

  • Sadly, I don’t donate money anymore. I used to and do very occasionally but I mostly donate time, goods, or services. In some ways that can be more powerful than money. I do plan on donating more once I am debt free though.

  • Michelle says:

    I think if you can donate without stretching yourself too thin, then go ahead. I donate money even though I am in debt. I don’t think a thing of it.

  • I found your post very heart-warming : ) I think that as we get out of debt, it’s important for us to give a little something along the way. One way to give is to help organize fund-raisers. At my school, our Christian Group is holding a raffle, and the money raised will go to support Ratanak – an organization that rescues children in Cambodia who have been sold into the sex slave trade. It’s a cause close to my heart, and I’m glad that although I’m not giving much of my own money to it, I’m able to help organize a fund raiser so that many can support it.

  • As someone who works in a school, it is exciting to hear that people outside of the school system go to places like donors choose to make donations. I always wondered if we were all just donating to each other 😉

    I like all of your ideas, and giving always feels good–whether it is time or money 🙂

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