Advice for Good Giving

Want to really feel good about your refund check? Give it to a good cause.

Posted in , May 1, 2008

I've never been one of those people who receive a hefty income-tax refund check—according to the Internal Revenue Service, the average tax refund for 2006 was a whopping $2,324. But I do enjoy the $200 or $300 I do get. I usually treat myself to a shopping spree or put the surplus funds toward a vacation—whatever's going to make me happiest right then. But recent studies prove that spending money on others, not ourselves, brings the greatest satisfaction. With high hopes for another refund, I thought I'd find out if there was a better way to spend my springtime surplus.

The Science of Giving
A group of scientists from the University of British Columbia published findings last month that confirm what many of us have experienced: that sharing our wealth, not splurging on ourselves, make us feel good. Over a series of three studies, the researchers tracked levels of contentment among individuals with regard to their spending habits. Whether awarded a bonus of $8,000 or simply handed a five-dollar bill, when the money (or a portion of it) was spent on others, overall levels of happiness soared in a way not reported by the individuals who spent the money on themselves. Does this mean giving my money to a good cause could actually make me feel better than strolling around the shopping mall?

Why your refund?
I regularly give to charity, but I've never considered donating part of my tax refund. Like most people, I've always thought of this as "fun money," because it's not a part of my budget. According to Rob Sadowsky, Executive Director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, this can make the money easier to part with—which is why more nonprofits are encouraging this type of donation. Sadowsky also pointed out that it can be easier to part with money in the spring than around the holidays, which made sense to me: It's been hard in the past to make a year-end donation with that long Christmas shopping list on my mind. Tax time can also give you a clear sense of how much you really are able to give.  And if you're like me, you may be receiving a rebate check from the government this May, so donating this year might seem even more doable.

Choosing a Charity
With more than a million charities, deciding where to give can be a challenge. One suggestion I received recently was to donate to small, local organizations, that way you'll likely see your money in use. Certain nonprofits, like area wildlife funds and community organizations, make your contribution work for you. For example, donors to the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation enjoy safer biking conditions as a result of the money they've contributed. And many donors to the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition have had friends or family affected by the disease, says Heather Hibshman, the organization's Executive Director, and therefore want to support other area women in the same situation. 

Donate those dollars.
I called one charity I was interested in donating to and they said I could sign my refund check directly over to them. Others I spoke to preferred a gift in the form of a personalized check. So be sure to inquire before mailing in money. Everyone I talked to reminded me of the importance of asking for a receipt: That's the only way you can deduct this donation from your 2008 taxes.

If all this paperwork sounds too complicated, there's an easier option, a type of donation you may have already made without thinking twice. State tax forms often let you donate part of your tax refund to a long list of charities simply by checking a box. I'm afraid I may have overlooked this section on this year's forms, but every contribution counts, so I'll be sure to choose a few causes next year. Although the average donation of this type is under $10, Hibshman says the state of Pennsylvania has been able to raise $2 million though its "Check Yes for Breast Cancer Research" program since 1997. That's a significant amount of funds—and good feelings—going around.

So while I may not be wearing a new spring dress, I'll sure feel good while soaking up the beauty at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, my local charity of choice.

Jessica Cassity is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Self, Redbook and The New York Times.

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