How to Give a Lot When You Don't Have Much

On a trip through Italy I remember going on a walk and ending up chatting in pidgin Italian with a fruit vendor. I didn’t have any cash with me, but she handed me a pear anyway. I protested that I couldn’t pay for it. She smiled at me and said, “giving costs nothing but it is the best reward.” At first I thought I had misunderstood her. “Giving costs nothing?” If she hadn’t given me the pear, she could have sold it. There was an obvious economic cost, and I found myself doubting her business sense. And yet, I remembered her and thought about what she’d said (and the sweet taste of the pear). Giving back sure feels good, doesn’t it?

I may be a bitter young cynic, but I can still appreciate the joy of giving, and I admire those who give. So how do you give back when your salary barely covers the necessities?

  1. Give what you have.

Chances are that you have extra stuff lying around, taking up closet space. You don’t have to send your stuff to a developing country for it to make an impact (in fact, some make a strong case for overseas aid ruining the economy of developing countries). Make an account on Freecycle, and give it away there. I had some extra kids lifejackets when I bought my boat, and I listed them on freecycle, and within 10 minutes I had five people asking if they could take them. No matter how little you have, chances are that you have something extra that somebody else could use, whether it be a cardboard box or an old towel.

2. Give your time.

Time is money, so it’s understandable that you feel like you can’t afford to give your time. However, if you find yourself wasting time in front of the computer or television, consider giving your time to charity instead. There are many groups, such as the Seattle Volunteers Meetup (for those in Seattle), that give you a great social outlet while at the same time providing you a rewarding opportunity to give to others. You don’t even have to commit to doing it regularly – you can instead choose to go out every now and then for a key event that really matters to you, such as cleaning up the parks on Earth Day. And if the reward of giving in itself wasn’t enough, you can volunteer in a field where you are trying to build a portfolio, such as volunteering to build a website for a non-profit.

3.  Give your home

I have some awesome travel stories, thanks to the amazing people who have hosted me around the world. Without these hosts, I would never have had the chance to travel and see what I did. In Argentina, I lived with three wonderful families who put up with me for four months each. To me they are still "familia."

If you have the space and time, you could consider becoming a host parent for an exchange student. If all you have is a very tiny boat, like me, you can consider becoming a host for couchsurfers. Some amazing people hosted me when I was doing a bike trip across France. I just hosted my first couchsurfer, Rebekka from Germany. It was her first time in the states and her excitement about being here rubbed off on me. It’s cool to be able to see the place you live through the eyes of a stranger. (Disclaimer: This is pretty much common sense, but here are tons of weirdoes in the world and you should be choosy about whom you host. Make sure that they have plenty of recommendations and a fully filled out profile, and if they give you the creeps when you meet them in person, don’t feel bad about reneging on your couch hosting offer).

4. Give your knowledge

Chances are that you have more than just time to give. You might even have some knowledge! There’s even a chance that somebody else wants to learn some of the knowledge that you have. In the age of the Internet, there’s a ton of ways to give your knowledge. For instance, you could contribute to Wikipedia or an opensource project. You could submit a recipe to or a similar site. Or you could contribute your expertise on a forum that interests you. Then again, you could go old-fashioned and offer to teach or tutor face-to-face.

5. Give your positive energy

Okay, so you don't have time to host a guest, you have nothing to donate, and you frankly just aren't a giver. What to do? You can give yourself simply by being yourself. Have you ever had a stranger smile at you and that kept you smiling the rest of the day? Or have you ever interacted with somebody who asked you how you were doing and really meant it? Rather than being a martyr and giving everything away, try being selfish and focusing on your own happiness. Rather than spreading yourself thin by trying to give to much, forge sincere relationships with people. Once you are happy yourself you’ll probably make a lot more people happy. Who knew giving could be so selfish? Apparently giving really does cost nothing.