Giving to charity or volunteering are tough when you’re in debt. Here’s how to do it gracefully.

I am always haunted by the fact that even though I’m in a ton of debt ($86,781.40 to be exact), there are still a lot of people who are worse off than me. I just can’t shake this feeling that I should be doing more to give back to other people. If that sounds like you, take heart. It is possible to balance charity and volunteering without sacrificing what little financial gains you might have made. The feelings of guilt might not totally go away, but there are still plenty of things you can do to lessen the burden. Here’s what I’m doing.

Accept the Fact: I Can’t Donate a Lot of Money or Time Right Now

I’ve come to view my debt as a sort of financial emergency. It’s not an immediate threat-to-life emergency, but it is a slowly-bleeding leak that’s keeping me from getting ahead.

If I can’t get ahead financially, I can’t donate as much money in the long run. It’s that simple. I need to put my own oxygen mask on first before helping others (even if they may be having problems, too).

Every dollar I spend now towards charity (or anything else) reduces my ability to become debt free and financially stable.

Every time I volunteer for extended periods of time, that’s cutting into my ability to make more money to pay off of my debt. I especially noticed this when I was volunteering four hours per week at a wildlife rehabilitation facility. It was fantastic work, but that was 20 hours per month I could have used to get ahead financially while the bills kept piling up. I eventually had to give it up.

Finding Small Ways to Give Back: Apps

Luckily, there are a ton of ways you can still give back. My favorite ways are through apps that help incentive good actions on your part.

Need another motivation boost to exercise on a regular basis? Before I get ready to exercise, I open two apps on my iPhone: Charity Miles and Walk For A Dog.

Each of these apps will pay a charity you select each time you exercise. In the case of Charity Miles, a corporate company will “sponsor” your workout and pay out 25 cents for each mile you walk or run, and 10 cents for each mile you bike. Walk For A Dog distributes a set pool of cash to all of the animal rescues on its list based on how many people are actively walking for each rescue.

I also love using the Forest app. It temporarily locks your phone for a set period of time so you can stop procrastinating and get to work. Forest then rewards you with virtual points and trees that you can use to make a digital forest. What’s really cool is that you can donate your points to buy a real tree for the Trees For The Future charity.

Finding Creative Ways to Give Back: Hair and Bone Marrow

I’ve also found smaller non-digital ways to give back.

I’m really lazy and haven’t gone in for a hair cut in approximately 1.75 years. You can imagine that my hair is quite long right now. But, it’ll make someone a fine wig when I do cut it and donate the ponytail to the Pantene Beautiful Lengths program.

Finally, I’ve signed up as a bone marrow donor with the Be The Match registry. All I had to do was go to a registration event and swab my cheek, but you can also request a kit to be sent to your home.

There’s only a one-in-430 change you’ll ever be selected for an actual donation, depending on whether your genetics match a person in need. Still, it makes me feel good knowing that there might be someone out there right now whose life I can save in the future with no financial output required from me. In a case like that, I’m pretty sure I’d even be able to get over my fear of needles, too.

Maximizing the Money I Do Donate

Donating money isn’t something I do often. But when I do, I always look for matching donations. You’d be surprised how many corporations and other businesses will match your donation dollar-for-dollar up to a certain limit (although let’s be honest; I usually never hit the limit).

For example, on Giving Tuesday recently, Facebook paired with the Gates Foundation to waive donation fees and match donations to charities. How cool is that?

Planning Beyond Getting Out of Debt

I’m not going to be in debt forever. In fact, one day I hope to be financially independent so that I don’t have to rely on a job for a regular paycheck—it’ll be totally optional.

But the truth is I like working. And once I am financially independent, I’ll have way more excess cash to give back. I like to spend my days thinking about what charities I would give to and how I would do it.

One of the ways I would like to donate more money in the future is through a donor-advised fund. You can actually use these funds to take a tax deduction so it’s cheaper for you to give (therefore allowing you to give more money), and you can invest the money long-term in the stock market and create a sustainable giving fund. It’s one way to leave a legacy from your future wealth.

This is one of my carrots-on-a-stick, and it helps keep me motivated so that I keep moving forward financially.

Long-term plans like these, combined with short-term small actions mean that I can still give back, even if I don’t have the deep pockets of Bill and Melinda Gates or all the free time of a retiree. I can still make a difference in the world even if I am currently buried in debt.

Lindsay VanSomeren is a personal finance and science writer. Check out more of her writing at Notorious D.E.B.T.

Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.

While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner.

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