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Holiday Giving Without Spending

Photograph by ThinkStock

In December 2009, I was the broke single mom of two girls, ages 8 and 5, as a result of divorce and unemployment courtesy of the unmerciful great recession. That Christmas, my daughters and I were on the receiving end of welfare and charity. I will never forget the beautiful acts of kindness that we received that year.

An acquaintance gave me her wedding and engagement rings to sell so I could pay my rent. The neighbor, who had three children of her own, would invite my little ones to dinner almost every night. Friends would fill up my gas tank so I could drive my kids to school. In fact, the public school they attended was responsible for my daughters having gifts under the tree that year. Far from making us complacent, that display of giving without expecting anything in return made me even more determined to pull myself out of dire straits. It also helped me look for ways to pay it forward even when I felt I had nothing left to give.

Grit, coupled with the drive of being a mom, got me back on my feet in a relatively short time, so it's easier for me to pay it forward now. The humility of having lost it all and living to tell it has taught me that you never know when you may be in a position to need help again. As a result, I try to practice generosity as much as possible while I have the means. And yet, what if you really don't have anything — as I did not — and still want to give?

Here are five tips I picked up during those tough times:

  1. Remember there is always someone worse off than you are. If you don't have money but have a roof over your head, invite your neighbor's children to play with yours, while you have tea with the mom. Human interaction is a gift, especially in the modern world.
  2. You may have a talent or a skill that others need. When I had nothing material to give, I would translate the school's newsletter into Spanish, or help a Latino family communicate with the teachers, or write an online review about a friend's business.
  3. A great attitude goes a long way. I recall feeling sick to my stomach when I had to put back a $5 shampoo at the store because I couldn't afford it. When the cashier said she was sorry, I smiled and told her at least I was alive and thanked her for being so nice to me. We both came away from the interaction feeling much better.
  4. Give your time. Yes, try volunteering your time when you don't have money. It will make you feel much better about yourself — which is especially important when you're down on your luck. Helping others improves your outlook and even your health.
  5. Mail handwritten letters to people you care about. Whether it's your kids' teachers, your abuela in your home country, your best friends, or even your own children, telling someone how you feel about them on paper is one of the best and cheapest gifts gifts you can give.
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