Are You Making the Most of Your Charitable Donations?

By Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

December 12, 2018 7 min read

Dear Readers: When it comes to charitable giving, the holidays can sometimes challenge your feelings of generosity. Yes, it's the season of sharing, but it can also be overwhelming as you're approached by an increasing number of organizations asking for donations. How do you decide which causes to support? Plus, if you're concerned about getting a tax deduction for your contribution, the higher standard deduction established by the new tax law makes this a little more difficult.

So how do you make the most of your charitable contributions? You have to be strategic. Whether your donations are large or small, here are some ways to give meaningfully while staying true to your budget and to yourself — and possibly get a tax break, too.

Personal Strategies for Giving

Just because you can't give to every worthy cause doesn't mean you have to feel like Scrooge. With a little strategic planning, you can choose both the best place and the best way to share your good fortune during the holidays and year-round.

—Start with what's important to you. Do you have a particular passion, such as the arts, the environment or education? Is there an organization that has made a difference in your life? Giving to a cause that has personal meaning can be both effective and rewarding.

—Look to your own community. Making a financial contribution that will not only benefit a cause you believe in but also have a local impact can give your donation extra meaning. Consider a local food bank, a scholarship fund for a neighborhood school or a struggling homeless shelter in your city.

—Narrow down your list. Chances are you can't give to every charity on your list. So, next, think about where your donations will make the most difference and choose the top three. Consider doing a little extra research by comparing charities at an independent online rating service such as Charity Navigator or CharityWatch before you make your final choices.

—Apportion your money accordingly. Decide on an overall dollar amount you can afford, and then decide how to distribute it. You don't have to give the same amount to each charity, nor do you have to give all the money at once. Many organizations welcome small regular contributions over time.

Getting a Tax Benefit for Your Contributions

Charitable contributions are still tax-deductible; however, you have to itemize to get the benefit. With this year's higher standard deduction ($12,000 for a single filer, $24,000 for married filing jointly) — plus the reduction or elimination of many other itemized deductions — it's a bit more of a challenge to get total deductions above that limit. Consequently, a lot of people will choose the standard deduction rather than claim the charitable deduction.

One possible solution is to give a larger amount every two or three years to help push you over the standard deduction, rather than giving a smaller amount every year. This would increase your deductions in the year you make your charitable contributions.

Two Tax-Smart Ways to Give

Hopefully, people will continue to give regardless of the tax situation, but if tax advantages are an important part of your charitable-giving strategy, here are a couple of other ways to go about it.

1. A donor-advised fund is one of the easiest, tax-advantaged means of giving to charity. It's more of an initial financial commitment, but the ongoing benefits to you and the charities of your choice make it worth considering. It generally takes a minimum of $5,000 to open a donor-advised fund account; however, you may qualify to get an immediate tax deduction for the entire amount, if you itemize. If you donate appreciated assets, you could not only get a tax deduction, but also potentially avoid having to pay capital gains taxes. You then use the funds to make grants to any public charity, and any money not immediately distributed can be invested — potentially increasing the amount available to give. To me, if you have the means, it's a great way to make an upfront contribution that you can then strategically manage over time. Plus, you can do most of it online — and have easy access to your giving history.

2. A qualified charitable distribution from an individual retirement account is another option for retirees who are 70 1/2 and older and have to take a taxable required minimum distribution each year. This necessity can be turned into a tax advantage by making a direct contribution from an IRA to a qualified charitable organization. For example, if your required minimum distribution is $10,000 and you make a $5,000 qualified charitable distribution, you would only have to withdraw and pay taxes on $5,000 to satisfy your required minimum distribution for that year. If you are able to leverage the qualified charitable distribution rules, you can potentially avoid paying taxes on IRA distributions of up to $100,000 a year. While the contribution doesn't qualify for a charitable deduction, it's not considered taxable income, so there's no income tax on it.

Making a Difference

As you may have heard me say before, I believe philanthropy should be a part of everyone's financial life. It's not how much you give but rather the act of giving itself that's important. I encourage you, especially during the holidays, to make a commitment to help others. And as I wrote in a recent column, get your family involved as well. Whether you give a lot or a little, contribute money or time, by sharing what you have today, you're making a difference and investing in a better tomorrow for everyone.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, Certified Financial Planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty." Read more at You can email Carrie at [email protected] The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


Photo credit: at Pixabay

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