Want to Give Back, But Don’t Have Cash? 8 Alternative Ways to Spread Holiday Cheer

Young woman is throwing clothes in a pile to give up for donation.
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

The holiday season is an expensive time of the year.

For the sake of frugality, I make presents for our extended family and friends, and my children and I bake cookies to drop off to neighbors and caregivers.

It’s also a time for charity.

We’re reminded during every grocery visit to pick up some peanut butter and cereal for the food bank; we’re asked to donate an extra $1 after our transaction at the store; and empty shoeboxes sit in an inviting pile at our church, begging to be filled with toys and toiletries.

It doesn’t take long for families to become overwhelmed by all the options for giving.

Most of us are willing to help in some way. San Francisco sees a 56% increase in charitable giving during the holidays. Many other major cities across America document an increase in charitable giving during the happiest time of the year, too.

But if you’re frugal or find yourself short on cash around the holidays, you might not want to open your wallet to give back.

Here are eight alternative ways you can be generous and help others without spending any money.

1. Volunteer at a Food Bank or Soup Kitchen

Consider spending a few hours this year volunteering at your local food bank or soup kitchen. Being able to actually serve and meet the people who are benefiting from the donated food might open your eyes to the need, as well as help you appreciate the importance of giving.

Volunteering is a valuable way to “donate” to an organization when you can’t afford to support it financially.

2. Donate Toys, Clothes and Christmas Décor

Look through your house and donate toys and clothing in good condition that you don’t use much anymore, or unused Christmas decorations. Most of us own more than we need, so consider passing along items that are useful, but not necessary for you.

Some even say donating is cheaper than selling used items.

If you know of a family that can’t afford decorations this year, gather some of your excess and bring holiday cheer into their home.

3. Invite a Family Over for Dinner

Opening your home to friends and family who may be struggling this Christmas season is a great way to share joy, and it doesn’t cost much. My favorite websites for cheap meals are Budget Bytes and $5 Dinners.

We try to invite friends over who could use a free meal, might be struggling through a loss or are without family on the holiday. This is my first year celebrating Christmas since my own brother’s death, and I know having friends over will bring me comfort, too.

4. Dress Up as Santa or Mrs. Claus and Visit a Children’s Hospital

Children find joy during the Christmas season; however, some struggle to find the magic when they’re ill.

Thankfully, some children’s hospitals allow visitors to bring arts and crafts, put on a puppet show, or even dress up as Santa or Mrs. Claus. Check with your local hospital.

5. Use Your Creativity and Knit or Sew Clothes for Preemie Babies

Both of my daughters received a knitted hat minutes after birth. We cherish these knitted hats and keep them in a box to remember the day they were born.

However, some children are born too small to fit into these knitted hats.

When a family member close to us had preemie twins, my mother was enlisted to knit a few hats to cover their heads. Since then, I’ve always remembered how important it is to have a hospital supplied with small preemie knit hats, and even preemie outfits.

If you’re able to knit, whipping up a dozen preemie hats for a baby will be fast and easy, and you can use leftover yarn scraps to do it. It won’t cost you a thing!

6. Visit a Retirement Home and Offer to Run Craft Time, Play Music or Organize Something Special

Every few months my mother-in-law visits a senior living home to sing for them and visit with residents. She finds her visits are even more cherished during the holiday season.

Many people living in these homes have lost family members; having a cheerful face can help brighten the season for them.

7. Volunteer at a Community Holiday Festival

My favorite part of the holidays is finding out which local festival is happening each weekend. Our family tries to keep our weekends open so we can enjoy them — plus, they’re almost always free.

If a particular festival is special to you or your family, consider volunteering your time.

Our children are quite young, but as they get older we’d like to get them involved in our local Christmas parade. This shows them fun and free events take a lot of work, and helps children understand the importance of community involvement.

8. Take Your Family and Friends Out Caroling Around the Neighborhood

Spread holiday cheer by gathering a group of people and going door-to-door caroling in your neighborhood. This is a nice way to reconnect with your neighbors.

We’ll take our children caroling this year (even though none of us are particularly talented vocalists!).

Your Turn: What do you do to spread holiday cheer?

Brianna Bell is a freelance writer and corporate blogger. She specializes in personal finance blogging and storytelling. You can find her work in The Globe and Mail, The Guelph Mercury and on her blog at mrsbriannarose.blogspot.com.