Sunday, January 11, 2009

Free retirement advice, free ice cream, a free ink-saving font, and more

  • This Tuesday the 13th, and again on January 30th, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors is offering free advice through the Jump-Start Your Retirement Plan Days-- on the 13th or 30th between 9am and 6pm Eastern, call 1-888-919-2345 or chat online to get your questions answered by personal financial advisors.
  • On Thursday (January 15th) between 5pm and 10pm, bring a gym membership card to Baskin-Robbins and get a free 2.5 oz scoop of any BRight Choices flavor (50% less fat than our regular ice cream)-- find a location here.
  • Big Bowl's offering a free Chinese New Year's meal to anyone born in the Year of the Ox (1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, etc...)
  • And you can download a font that uses 20% less ink than ordinary fonts (because it's full of holes) yet is apparently almost indistinguishable at small sizes-- check out EcoFont.

Monday, December 29, 2008

How you can save money by giving more to charity in this time of great need

For people who are unlikely to itemize deductions on their taxes every year, bunching your deductions into a single year is often a very effective strategy.   The general idea is that you try to combine as many tax-deductible expenses into a single year as possible in order to get maximum benefit from itemizing, and then the following year you can go back to the standard deduction.  This can work with all sorts of deductions, but it's especially effective for charitable donations because there's so much flexibility in when you choose to give.  

And now more than ever is a good time to give a double dose of donations to your favorite charities.  Donations are down, thanks to the economy's effect on the individuals and businesses who usually do the giving.   Charities are also getting fewer foundation grants, because foundations' giving is usually a percent of the total assets in the foundations' endowment (a minimum of 5% a year) and most foundations have seen their assets shrink significantly as a result of stock market declines-- even the huge Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is cutting back its planned grant-making for 2009.   Charities are also having a harder time borrowing money, like everyone else.   Yet simultaneously, many charities are dealing with higher demand, particularly
if they're serving the needy-- for example, food pantries nationwide are seeing an average of 30 percent higher demand, up to 60 percent or more in some places.   Times are really tough for many of these charities; making bigger donations can make a very big difference.

(And there are other benefits to doubling up on charitable donations, too, especially if you like recognition and thank-you gifts... bunching can turn your usual $50 donation into a $100 donation or a $500 donation into a $1000 donation, which can snag you extra goodies or VIP treatment!)

If you're concerned about your own finances and don't feel able to give much more in cash to charities right now, donating goods (like clothes, toys, books, cars, computers, and more) increases your deductions too, so now could be a good time to gather the things you've been meaning to give away and drop them off before it becomes 2009.  (Here's the details from the IRS on what receipts you need and how to figure the tax-deductible value.)  If you're driving to volunteer or drop off goods, you can deduct 14 cents per mile.   (And of course, regardless of the tax implications, these organizations will appreciate your volunteer hours and donated goods even if you can't afford to give much in cash.) 

(You can also donate appreciated stock and deduct the full value without paying taxes on the capital gains-- yes, stocks that're worth more than when you bought them are harder to find these days, but if you have them it can be a very good deal to donate the stock rather than selling it and making donations in cash. The Motley Fool has some suggestions of stocks with positive 5-year returns.)

As for me, I'll be itemizing my 2008 taxes for the first time-- it never made sense when I lived in Illinois, with no mortgage and a 3% state income tax, but now my DC taxes are high enough that combining those with my annual giving budget gives me a total right around the standard deduction.   If I gave my budgeted amount in both 2008 and 2009, I wouldn't gain much from itemizing and would probably just take the standard deduction.  But if I accelerate my 2009 giving and do it all before the end of 2008, I'll end up significantly higher than the standard deduction, which means I save hundreds of dollars on my taxes in 2008 (and can still take the standard deduction in 2009, so that tax situation stays exactly the same.)

This has been my plan for months-- since well before the economic downturn accelerated-- but it's especially satisfying to know that my larger-than-usual gifts come at a time when they're especially needed.  Now here's hoping that by the end of next year, when I'm giving little or nothing because I did it all in 2008, things have recovered enough that non-profits are on the upswing...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Charitable holiday gifts: a great solution for those awkward gifting situations

We all occasionally (or more than occasionally!) have those gift-giving situations we can't figure out how to handle-- do we give this person a gift or not? Often the biggest part of the awkwardness is not wanting the other person to feel obligated to reciprocate. Sometimes this translates into no gift at all, even if you really want the person to know you're thinking of them; sometimes it means you give a small gift so as not to overwhelm, which often leads to a cycle of exchanging little trinkets that neither of you really want or will use. But this year in just such a situation, I think I've hit upon a great solution-- charity-related gifting!

There are some big benefits:

  • Shows you're thinking of them. Giving a gift to a charitable organization in someone's name definitely shows them that you care and that you took the time to think about them during the holiday season. And if you can find an organization that's a good fit for their interests, it's especially thoughtful.
  • Less likely to make them feel awkward or obligated about giving back to you. Because you're not sending them an actual gift, but instead making a donation in their name, there's less of a sense of "Oh, so we're gift-exchangers now." At worst, it creates a cycle of charitable giving, which is the best kind of giving cycle!
  • Keeps the "stuff" to a minimum. These gifts typically do come with some kind of tangible recognition, often a certificate and/or nice photograph. To me that seems just about right-- often you want the person to have something to hold in their hands, but "a little something" is less wasteful than the kind of stuff that you might otherwise buy in this situation.
  • Giving to a good cause. And then there's the fact that your money is going to a worthy cause. That's wonderful in and of itself, and it also could mean that if you consider it part of your "giving budget" then you have little or no extra expense. (Or if you don't have a giving budget and it is an extra expense, at least it's a tax-deductible one.)

As for me, I'd been struggling with how to approach giving gifts to my boyfriend's family. I haven't spent the holidays with them in person yet, so we haven't exchanged gifts so far, but after getting to know them better this year I wanted to show them I was thinking of them. Yet I also didn't want them to feel obligated to reciprocate (or embarrassed that they hadn't.) But once I started to think along the lines of charitable gifts, it all fell into place. I adopted half an acre in the Northern Rockies for his father, who really enjoys nature in general and that area of the country in particular, and I sponsored an animal for his sister, who's a real animal-lover. (There are a lot of other great choices, too; Oxfam America Unwrapped is one of my personal favorites, but there's a ton of options of all sorts listed at Changing the Present.) I think everyone wins-- I get to show them I'm thinking of them, they feel cared for, and more money goes towards conserving nature and protecting animals.

What's your take on giving to charity as a gift to others? And how else do you approach these awkward "do I or don't I?" gift-giving situations?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tips and links for holiday gifting that's cheaper, saner, and greener

The holiday gifting season is upon us again... time to take a deep breath and figure out how to think outside the box to make your holidays cheaper, greener, and saner.

I had a whole post on this last year-- Holiday Gifting: 14 Ways to Give More Meaning and Less Stuff-- with tips in categories like "give to fewer people," "give to a good cause," "give non-'stuff' gifts," and "give non-purchased gifts."  I'm trying to do all of those things this year!  I'm particularly excited about one gift which falls into two of those categories, as both a non-"stuff" experience-based gift and a gift to a good cause-- I'm taking my Mom to Taste of the Nation, an event held in many U.S. cities in which you can sample great food from top-tier chefs and 100% of the ticket proceeds go to fighting childhood hunger.  I think she'll really enjoy experiencing it with me (and vice versa!), and it's win-win for me because the ticket costs can come right out of my giving budget.  (The ticket cost is partially but not entirely tax-deductible-- it goes 100% to charity but when you get something of value in return you can't deduct the full amount.)   And there's absolutely no clutter or wasteful plastic packaging involved! 
 
I'm also buying fair trade products for my cousins, who at 5 and 9 are still very much in the "we want presents we can unwrap and hold in our hands" stage, so I'm taking advantage of some of the sites and discounts I posted earlier this month (December discounts on socially/eco-conscious gifts.)
 
There've been a ton of great posts lately along similar lines:   
How are you making your holiday gifting cheaper, saner, and/or greener?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

December discounts on socially/eco-conscious gifts

You all know that I'm a big proponent of giving more meaning and less stuff for the holidays. But if you are buying gifts, I encourage you to look at the types of places that are in Co-op America's National Green Pages-- companies that are screened and verified as socially and environmentally responsible and values-driven. You can use their search engine to find bricks-and-mortar stores in your community, and here are some online sales currently being offered by National Green Pages companies:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Greening your Thanksgiving and saving money too

This Thanksgiving, whether you're interested in saving the environment, saving money, or both, check out these tips from the Cool Foods Campaign, which looks at the connections between food and global warming.

First, they have 5 money-saving green tips for Thanksgiving. Here they are, with my comments:

  • Buy from the bulk foods section. This not only saves money but decreases packaging. And when stuff's transported in bulk rather than packages, more fits in a single vehicle, meaning a lower environmental impact.
  • Buy dried beans rather than canned beans. It's obviously cheaper, but it's also better for the environment because the dried beans are lighter and easier to transport than beans full of water and surround by liquid. And soaking beans is easy!
  • Use non-processed foods. It's cheaper, healthier, and it's better for the environment because of the energy that goes into all that processing (and typically extra packaging.)
  • Avoid food waste by using your leftovers. Apparently we waste 27% of our food, and big meals like Thanksgiving are a big part of the problem. Take a few minutes after the meal to make plans for the extras. Be honest about what you'll actually eat in the next few days, and stick the rest in the freezer or send it with your guests.
  • Make cheap, edible, biodegradable decorations. Rather than paper or plastic turkeys and pilgrims, why not string up some popcorn or cranberries? You can eat or compost them afterwards.

But they also have general green tips for Thanksgiving, and several of them are money-savers too. For example:
  • Use less meat in your meal. It's estimated that animal production is responsible for almost 20% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (and Americans are less than 5% of world population but consume more than 15% of the world's meat.) It takes a lot more energy to produce meat than vegetables and grains, because the animals eat much more than their weight in feed over their lifetime. So if you're looking to lessen your impact, cutting back on the meat (and dairy) is a great way to do it. Plus meat's typically more expensive than many great vegetarian options!
  • Don't use disposable plates, cups, and utensils. The logic-- both environmentally and financially-- is pretty obvious, even if it's tempting to find ways to do less dishes.
  • Store leftovers in Tupperware or in serving dishes rather than foil and plastic bags. Ditto.
And here are the rest of those top 10 tips for a "cool" Thanksgiving:
  • Keeping it local means less carbon's emitted to get it to you, plus you're supporting your community and your neighbors. And a focus on local foods creates a more authentic connection to your local area's heritage (and the history of Thanksgiving!)
    • Get a local, free-range organic turkey.
    • Buy local produce.
    • Choose local wines and beers.
  • Buy organic for as many of your food purchases as possible. Organic products are free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which is not just good for your health but also for the environment-- besides the ill-effects of the chemicals on the earth, they also take a lot of energy to produce and emit greenhouse gases when applied.
  • Recycle your cooking oil. I can't find a good website that centralizes the info, but in a surprising number of places around the country you can donate your used vegetable oil to be turned into biodiesel to power vehicles. Just Google your city or state, "donate"/"recycle" and "cooking oil"/"vegetable oil."

Happy Thanksgiving! And if you're interested in more about the environmental impact of your food choices, the Cool Foods Campaign website is a great place to start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Round-up: free chocolate, coffee, and soda-- plus how to green your Thanksgiving!

Thanks for bearing with me as I try to juggle a few different things going on in my life...