Free and Cheap Ways to Give Back and Make the World Better in Early Retirement // Our Next Life // financial independence, work optional living, adventure, happiness, servicegoals

Free and Cheap Ways to Give Back in Early Retirement

Americans have a funny relationship to the notion of wealth: we’re brought up to aspire to wealth, but then we rarely acknowledge it when we have it.

For example, I don’t know many early retirees or financially independent people who see themselves as rich, even though they are the very definition of it, perhaps even more so than those we traditionally think of as “the rich,” because they are flush with both money and time.

That matters because many of us are trained see philanthropy as something the wealthy do. But that’s us! The early retirement movement has the potential to be the epicenter of giving back and making our communities better. We just have to make that a core focus. (Not to mention that some of our richest people give almost nothing. So we can’t rely on the super wealthy anyway.)

And while I’m a huge believer in the importance of charitable giving, there are plenty of ways to make a difference without having to shell out lots of money — especially when you have time on your hands, as many work-optional people do. (Of course, if you’re also game to donate money, here’s a post on donor advised funds, which I highly recommend.)

Let’s talk about what those ways are.


Donate your skillz — If you’ve managed to save for early retirement in some form, chances are good you’ve built up some useful career skills. Can you run an event? Keep an organization’s books? Build things? Offer legal services? Upgrade a website? All of those skills are useful to nonprofit organizations who’d otherwise have to pay someone to do those things, and if you can offer to donate them, you’ll be offering tremendous value. While volunteering to staff a food distribution line for homeless people or walking dogs at the animal shelter are good things to do, you make the biggest impact by contributing the skills that not just anyone could do — and that would cost them more to pay for. And all the better if you can do it consistently. One of my top career skills is staying calm when nobody else is, especially when things get frantic, so I manage a high-stress component of our local animal shelter’s annual fundraising gala, and I’ve done it for several years now. In addition to keeping a stressful thing off the staff’s plates, my involvement also keeps them from feeling stressed in the lead-up, because they don’t have to worry that things won’t go smoothly, and saves them the time of recruiting and training new people to help each year.


Believe it or not, this is volunteering. Mark is demonstrating safe backcountry skiing transition tips for the nonprofit he’s on the board of. I do not have those skillz.

Be thoughtful when you declutter — Marie Kondo’s new show on Netflix, Tidying Up, has a lot of people revisiting their home clutter, and while I’m all for simplifying, it kills me to see all the things families get rid of end up in trash bags. It’s old news to donate that stuff instead, but you can go a step farther by doing a little bit of research to ensure that the things you get rid of go to the best possible home (instead of to the landfill, where most donated clothing actually ends up). For example, if you have suits or work clothes to declutter, especially after leaving a career, rather than donate them along with everything else to Goodwill, could you find a local organization who gives them to career-seekers in need? Dress for Success is one such organization focusing on women specifically, but there are several others. If you have office supplies to get rid of, could you drop them off at a local school for the teachers and students to use? If you have tools, could you find out if Habitat For Humanity‘s local chapter could put them to good use in home-building projects? Can you ask if your local optometry office accepts old glasses for people in need? (Most do.) There are an infinite number of solutions, so get creative.

Related post: The Use It Up Challenge, and Our Nothing New Year

Give blood and platelets, and register for marrow — If you are healthy, you’re constantly producing good stuff within your circulatory system that can help lots of others. You can give blood every eight weeks, and if you’re not squeamish about needles, you can donate platelets even more often. Platelet donation takes quite a bit longer than regular blood donation (1-2 hours), because you are hooked up to a machine that takes out blood a little at a time and separates out the platelets and plasma before returning the red cells back to you. Here’s more info about how it works. Platelets are critical to many cancer patients, those with bleeding disorders, trauma victims and transplant patients, and because it takes a lot of time, there aren’t a whole lot of people donating them. But if you have the time, it’s an incredible way to help others. (Plus, when you donate, they wrap you up in lots of warm blankets, bring you snacks and let you pick whatever movie you want to watch. It’s pretty sweet.) While you’re at it, donating either blood or platelets, ask to be added to one of the national bone marrow registries — or you can register yourself directly with one like Be The Match. Your odds of ever matching to someone are low, but you might one day be in a position to save someone’s life.

Shop in ways that give back — None of us here are super pro-shopping, but we must all buy things sometimes. For those things, explore whether you could buy them in ways that make a positive contribution. For example, when shopping on Amazon, if you click through Amazon Smile instead, you can select any nonprofit organization to get a small cut of every purchase without it affecting your price. And consider shopping with brands that use a “buy one, give one” model with their products.

Pay people what they’re worth — We don’t have to rely on charitable activities to make a positive difference in the lives of others. We can do it every single day, in every financial interaction. Maybe it’s committing to tipping well. Perhaps it’s not haggling too hard with a contractor for work you need done on your home, especially if you know they do top-quality work. Maybe, if you’re still working, it’s advocating for others to get raises, or for interns to get paid in the first place. Paying people what they’re worth costs us little in any given interaction, but reduces the need for all the rest of this charitable stuff all the way down the line.

Give out of a donor advised fund (DAF) — My very favorite thing about having a DAF is that once we’ve put the money in there, charitable giving is “free.” That is, we don’t have to come up with money or wonder how much is in checking at the moment — we just send grants out from the DAF. It’s a bit like magic, honestly. Any perceived pain of initially funding the DAF is long gone, and now it’s just awesome to be able to give money to worthy organizations without it costing us a thing. Several times last year, I was at fundraising events, and when the time came for the hard sell, I could just click over the Fidelity Charitable site, look up the organization, pick an amount and click confirm. If you’re on the fence about whether to open a donor advised fund, I really can’t recommend it strongly enough. We love knowing that we’ll always be able to give, even if we earn no additional money and the budget is tight.

Your Turn!

I’d love to hear from you, because I have no doubt that you can add to this list. What are some other easy or low-cost ways to give back or improve your community? (Easy isn’t a prerequisite, because the goal is to have more time, after all.) What are some ways that you give back now that you’d recommend others try?


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29 replies »

  1. These are all great ways to give back! Thanks for sharing!
    I would like to add that we don’t really have to wait until we’re FI to do some of this :-)

    Right now I am looking at the big picture stuff from Effective Altruism and thinking about how to maximize the impact of donating my skillz. It’s pretty awesome what we can do with our FI superpower!

  2. It’s funny, until recently I didn’t actually think of my board position as “real” volunteering, even though it very obviously is. Love the comments about long term volunteering versus just a one off day as a no-particular skill body.

  3. Since the average person who reads this blog is pretty financially savvy, I would add that it is possible to find ways to teach others about personal finance.

    Some options include:
    Volunteer to help people pull their credit reports and explain what they mean. This is really important for someone who may be “technically homeless” as in living with friends or family members who is trying to get a place to rent on their own. (You can do this through your local library)

    -The library also recruits people to help with resume building- which is not my forte, but I have gotten other friends out for that.
    -Become a certified tax preparer and volunteer to help people file their taxes.
    -Create a “Section 8” marketing document to help explain to landlords how the Section 8 process works, so they may be more willing to accept a Section 8 tenant.
    -Teach budgeting through your library, community center or church.
    -Mentor a young person through Big Bro/Big Sis, YMCA, a church or another civic organization. This is especially great if you can stay involved in their life for several years.
    -Volunteer to give rides to a grocery store. Food pantries often limit people to one “shop” per month, but they also organize rides to and from real grocery stores so people in food desserts can actually stock up on inexpensive foods. The pantries need drivers for their vans, and also people willing to use their own vehicles from time to time.

  4. My thought is the same as Hannah’s: Donate your personal finance know how. Offer to speak at the local library or local schools or anywhere that you think you could help people with this kind of information. Clearly you know how to manage your finances, and it’s a skill a lot of people in this country are sadly never taught but most probably want to learn.

    • Agreed! We folks who love money numbers also usually love to talk over the subject with others.

      On the tax preparer front – I’ve signed up to volunteer as a tax preparer with this program: in order to help poor folks manage their tax filings. Very challenging and satisfying. It may seem like an odd thing to volunteer to do, but it’s a poverty alleviation program (because poor folks sometimes don’t file even though they’re entitled to get not only their withholding back, but Earned Income Credit and other tax credits – and that refund check can make a huge difference for them financially). The demand for the service outstrips supply by a 6 to 1 margin. They need you!

  5. I tried to donate my suits to dress for success when I retired early, but they rejected my donation – donated clothing must be less than 5 years old, which mine is not.

  6. The most impactful way in which you’re giving back is happening right here on the pages of this blog.

    You’re on point with volunteering in ways that best utilize a unique skill set you have. I know the local soup kitchen would rather have $500 than 5 hours of my time, but donating my time doing anesthesia work for complex surgical cases in a third world country can be quite valuable. We have helped at the soup kitchen personally, but mainly to give our young kids a taste of what it’s like to help out and to recognize that there are people in our community that need that help.

    This morning, I had the snowblower out to clear my driveway, and I took care of my elderly widow neighbor’s driveway while I was out there. The little things count, too.

    Cheers for encouraging others to be generous!

  7. If anyone is looking to go beyond donating blood and platelets, consider being a living kidney donor. I donated a kidney altruistically (not knowing the recipient) a few years ago, and it was one of the best decisions of my life. I found the whole process fairly simple and well worth the time, energy, and slight discomfort involved. And it’s pure joy to know that the recipient is doing well, as am I.

  8. Good intentions Tanja but “healthy and hetero”? You’re a better writer than that….lots of healthy homos out here doing good for philanthropy. Didn’t expect ONL to reinforce my biological inferiority!

    • Hey Christian. I’m sorry I worded this wrong and gave an impression that does not match my heart. I meant to throw shade at the stupid, antiquated rules of the system that block a lot of people from giving who are totally capable and willing.

  9. In this ever increasing highly selfish world, its always nice to see some people being generous and thinking of others. Nice tips, thanks, and of course, this is just a start, there are many many other ways to give to others.

  10. I’ve recently early retired and have also thought about ways to give back in various ways. I live in a building with lots of seniors and have been thinking about doing more just by socializing and sharing a meal with them, checking in on them from time to time, etc.

  11. I read the article you linked about Jeff Bezos. If the guy donates $2 billion, $2, or 99% of his wealth, it’s ultimately none of our business. It’s his personal choice how he chooses to use it. It doesn’t make him a better or worse person. Why is it that so many think it’s their right to tell others how they should act and if it doesn’t fit their standard, to shame them for it?

    Maybe it’s better to focus on ourselves and how we want to do better than to point fingers at others for what we judge is inadequate.

    • Hoarding wealth while others live in poverty is not cool. The extreme accumulation of wealth by small numbers of people is a huge problem in this country that is harmful to many.

  12. Having earned several thousand dollars last year selling perfectly good still usable items on eBay that I rescued from thrift store dumpsters, I can corroborate your statement that much of the clothing (and numerous other items) donated to thrift stores ultimately end up in landfills. I appreciate your helpful thoughts about how to more directly target the giving away of a variety of items.

    I like Hannah’s idea to educate landlords about the potential of offering section 8 housing. I recently wrote a blog post encouraging a broader discussion of philanthropy in the FI community as well. In that post I posited that a person on the real estate path to FIRE might want to consider purchasing a rental property in a marginalized community to provide high-quality low-cost housing to people in need. By developing a relationship with a local affordable housing non-profit you could likely identify good potential tenants and connect them with wrap around services to help them improve other areas of their lives.

    Your suggestion to share skills, especially those that can help build capacity in other individuals and organizations is especially prudent. In a recent article in YES! magazine activist Malik Yakini makes the point that large sums of money are needed for large-scale economic development efforts to lift large numbers of people out of poverty. Foundations and other grant giving institutions prefer to direct their giving for such efforts to the organization(s) with the “best capacity” to manage the funds.Yet,“because of historical inequity, and historical underdevelopment which has occurred in Black communities and Brown communities, often we don’t have the mechanisms in place to handle large grants, like a large White nonprofit that’s been around for 20 years might have. And so, if the grantor is looking at who has the most capacity, then invariably more established White nonprofits have that capacity over smaller emerging groups.” This further concentrates wealth in the hands of Whites, exacerbating the situation these smaller, less well-established grassroots efforts are trying to solve. A married couple I know are directing a lot of their retirement energies to essentially act as office managers for their local NAACP. Their efforts have been greatly appreciated by the members and are equipping the group to better manage itself. They in return have found an extended family and culture amidst which they continually experience great joy.

    A few other suggestions I included in that post include:

    -From the team behind the documentary Poverty, Inc. “Focus less on writing checks to causes and more on having relationships with people, who are struggling, particularly in your community, where you have the most understanding. Develop relationships that are reciprocal and not predicated solely on donor-recipient power dynamics.”

    -Ask people of color in leadership positions in your community about which local non-profits they believe are successfully lifting people out of poverty and volunteer with those organizations.

    -Get in the trenches and volunteer in marginalized communities to learn first hand what the challenges are and engage in conversations about effective, culturally appropriate ways to address them. (Let this guide your philanthropy.)

    -Recognize that true change requires far more than our charitable contributions. Citizens in resource poor communities and countries need to demand fundamental services like improved healthcare or better roads in addition to pressing local agencies to be more responsive to public concerns. Their governments must also better manage their budgets. Let’s figure out ways to support them in these efforts.

    -Reduce your consumption – of everything: energy, gas, consumer products, processed and packaged foods, etc. When you do buy things vote with your dollars and spend more money to purchase high-quality ethically made products that last from locally owned businesses, fair-trade companies, and organic farms and other regenerative enterprises.

    -Instead of or in addition to donating to non-profits consider taking a risk and investing through crowdfunding websites in startups that can help raise people out of poverty by providing jobs and bringing wealth to communities as well as address other pressing issues. I’ve invested in a number of companies that I think have this potential such as Native American Natural Foods, Terracycle, and Urban Juncture. You could also prioritize investments in startups led by women and people of color. I’m especially excited to follow newcomer Buy The Block, the first black-owned real-estate crowd investing platform, which aims to raise millions of dollars in funding for property development in black communities.

  13. I’m curious how you built up your DAF- was it something you regularly contributed to while still working, like any other investment account? Or did you put in a lump sum at one point? While you funded your DAF did you still contribute to charities?

  14. A really high impact volunteer opportunity for those who are empathetic and good with people would be to volunteer as a Crisis Counselor (with IMAlive or Crisistextline). They usually provide you with 40 hours of training and supervision, and ask that you give them 4 hours a week of your time. You can do it from anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection. You may even save a life :)

    • That is a great suggestion, I am going to look into it! It is something I’ve always been interesting in doing but the only opportunity I ever knew of required volunteers to work overnight in one of the worst areas of the city and I didn’t want to get stabbed on my way back to my car. Have you done this Leanne? If so what was your experience with it?

  15. These are all great ideas and I love the commentary about also reducing your environmental footprint. Most of my giving is automated and I have an organization where I volunteer my time so just like saving it can be predictable month to month. I like to do small random acts of kindness whenever I can like buying coffee for people behind me at Starbucks, leaving a gift card for groceries on a random car in the parking lot or leaving an extra large tip for my Uber driver. While it probably won’t make a huge difference, it’s nice to brighten someone’s day.

  16. For people with more artistic talents, I have seen artists do creative projects where all of the proceeds go to a charitable cause. I worked at a place where a bunch of the guys in one department would make a Christmas CD every year and pick a charity to give the proceeds to. I know of a group of artists online that make collaborative art zines and sell digital copies and donate the proceeds to animal charities. I used to volunteer at a cat shelter and I donated some jewellery I made to their silent auction, another woman donated a quilt she’d made.

    If you have photography skills there are lots of ways to volunteer for charities by taking pictures for their websites, I recently met a woman online who takes professional pictures of animals at shelters so they can be posted online to help the animals find homes. I recently saw a facebook post about a photographer who volunteers at a few local hospitals and takes free pictures for families who have babies in the NICU. Vouchers for photography sessions are also things that can be donated to charity silent auctions or raffles – same with art commissions especially if you specialize in human or pet portraits. Photographers can also volunteer at Christmas time to do a pictures with Santa (pets or kids) event to raise money.

  17. One way I think that American cultures are failing is our insularity. That is, people who are not actually participating in their community. Who only spend time with their spouse and children. So many people are living in islands in a sea of people. A thing many of us can do now is to also up the EQ in our communities by establishing true bonds with others in it. Social ties matter

  18. I really love the first idea. I participate in a small arts non-profit and can verify that there are many organizations in dire need of free skilled support, especially in accounting and financial organization! Other skills that organizations tend to need: graphic design, copy writing, public outreach / marketing, web support, photography and videography, etc. If you worked in an office (also lots of other places), you probably have some skills that local organizations can use. I recommend finding local groups that align with your values and learning about them by attending any public events, if possible. Cold emails with offers of support skills are always appreciated as well!

  19. One cool thing about giving a blood or plasma donation with the machine is that it takes a double unit, but it’s of what’s most useful. Depending on what it is set to put back into you after spinning the “blood”, it can take a double unit of blood or of plasma.

    I’m AB+, which is the universal receiver for blood. But it turns out it’s the universal donor for plasma. If I have the extra 30 minutes or so, I always have them hook me up to a machine.