Forget gift cards or store-bought knickknacks that will just get regifted. The best presents come with something money can't buy.+ READ ARTICLE
If you want to really wow someone over the holidays with a token of your affection, chances are it’ll take more than a trip to the mall (or Amazon.com): A survey shows nearly three-quarters of Americans will be unhappy with their gifts this year.
Distinguish yourself from ordinary gift-givers by using your skills to make a present that packs an emotional punch. Artistic? One MONEY staffer’s illustrator boyfriend once gave her a hand-drawn picture book in which she was the main character. Good on Google? Another staffer did some Internet sleuthing and tracked down her father’s long-lost war buddy and was able to give her dad a letter from the friend as a gift.
If these ideas sound too intimidating or time-consuming, there are shortcuts to memorable gifts. Consider ordering a wall calendar from a site like collage.com with your funniest family photos, organized by season. Or a shirt with an inside joke for your closest group of friends from customink.com.
If you’re short on inspiration, your best resource is the vast digital footprint we all leave behind these days (for better or worse): Comb through old texts, emails, and chats for clues as to what your intended gift recipient might really love. And—for even more creative ideas—check out the video above.
Want to give a holiday tip, but don't have a clue how much to give? Here are some helpful guidelines from the etiquette experts.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, but instead I often find myself stressed when I realize I have no clue how much to tip my hairdresser. Or my housekeeper. Or my garbage collectors. If you’re like me, you have a list of people you want to thank for helping to make your life easier throughout the year. If you’re also like me, you have no clue about what gratuity levels are considered typical, stingy, or even generous.
That’s why this year I reached out to a couple of highly regarded experts to get the inside scoop. Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas says, “The first rule of thought is to gift and tip within your budget. No one wants to see you struggle to tip through the holidays if you have just lost your job, or you are having trouble paying the rent.”
“Tips are subjective,” adds Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass. “Tips are dependent on your relationship with the individual and the norms for your area, as well as your budget.”
With that in mind, here are some helpful guidelines from the experts to help you (and me!) navigate gratuity gifts as the year comes to an end.
These are the people who help out around the house, so you have more time to earn money to hire people to help out around the house!
- Babysitter: Cash or gift card equivalent to one or two night’s pay. I talked to someone who used to sit for my kids and she told me, “It’s nice to know you’re appreciated. A small gift is a nice token of appreciation and helps keep a sitter loyal to a family.”
- Nanny/Au Pair: The equivalent of one week’s salary and a handmade gift from your child. “A live-in nanny or a nanny that spends most of the day with your children is invaluable,” says Gottsman.
- Housekeeper: A cash gift equal to one week’s pay. “If you use a service, and you don’t see the same person on a regular basis, or the person is brand new,” says Gottsman, “you may not feel obliged give a tip at all. If you have a relationship with the person(s), or they come weekly, consider a gift card per person or a tip equivalent to one visit.”
- Pet Sitter: One day to one week’s worth of service. “Our pets are our family and someone that takes care of them while we are on a trip, or walks the dog on a regular basis is worth their weight in gold,” says Gottsman.
You’ll want to keep happy all those folks who make apartment living nice.
- Doorman: Between $20 and $200. (This range seems huge to me. I’ve never lived in an apartment with a doorman so I’d love to hear those of you who do ring in on this one.)
- Custodian/Superintendent/Handyman: $20 – $100. “If they have saved you in the middle of the night when your toilet was overflowing or jumped your car more than once when you forgot to turn off your headlights,” says Gottsman, a holiday tip would be helpful.”
- Parking Attendant: $10 – $50
- Landlord or Building Manager: $50 (cash or gift card)
While homeowners don’t typically have doormen to tip, they do have a host of service providers to gift.
- Garbage Collector: Between $10 and $25 per crew person. In many areas, tips left taped to the trashcan lids can be stolen (I’ve had several friends tell me this happened to them.) If you miss your crew during the day, Gottsman suggests arranging to drop the gift off at their corporate office.
- Lawncare: $10 per crew person.
- Snow Removal: $10 per person.
- Pool Cleaner: One week’s pay.
These gifts are more personal than those traded during the office Secret Santa.
- Your Boss: $0 or a group office gift. “It’s not necessary to give your boss a large or expensive gift,” says Gottsman. “Consider an office gift pool or bring a tray or holiday goodies for the office.”
- Your Office Assistant: A bonus, gift card, or small gift.
Show teachers and staff you appreciate all their efforts to educate Junior (even if Junior doesn’t).
- Your Child’s Teacher: Many schools encourage parents to contribute to a class gift. If your child’s school doesn’t, consider a small gift with a note and/or a handmade gift from your child. A teacher friend of mine told me, “I always love and save handwritten notes. If they come with a gift or gift card — to anywhere at all — that is appreciated, too. But, it’s the notes that keep me going.”
- Classroom Aide: If there is not a group classroom gift, a small gift with a note and/or a handmade gift from your child.
- School Lunch Attendant: $20 per attendant, if you have a child with special dietary needs, and school policy allows such gifts (check with your child’s school office to be sure). Says Gottsman, “A lunch attendant who is vigilant when it comes to your child’s food allergy is worth their weight in gold.”
- School Secretary: A small gift or gift certificate.
The people who keep you and your family looking good should know you appreciate their work, too.
- Hairstylist: The cost of one session or a gift. “Hair stylists become our confidants,” says Gottsman. “It would be uncomfortable to arrive empty handed the last week of the holiday season.”
- Shampoo Attendant: A small gift or $5 – $20.
- Manicurist: The equivalent of one visit or a gift.
- Massage Therapist: The equivalent of one session or a gift.
- Personal Trainer: The equivalent of one session or a gift. According to Gottsman, “Personal trainers often double as counselors. A tip of one service or a gift that has personal significance would say happy holidays.”
- Pet Groomer: The equivalent of one service or a basket of treats from your pet.
- Personal Healthcare Nurse: The equivalent of one week’s pay.
Gift Wrap Your Gifts, Too
When preparing your holiday gratuities, Smith says, “Tips should be crisp, new bills placed in an envelope with a card or note of appreciation.” For the financially strapped, Smith suggests a heartfelt note of thanks along with a thoughtful and inexpensive gift like homemade cookies. Gottsman agrees and offers further suggestions like a pot of fresh herbs from your garden or a basket of scones with homemade jelly.
When to Skip the Tip
Gottsman also suggests adjusting your tips according to level of relationship and frequency of service. “Everyone has different lifestyle preferences and providers,” says Gottsman. “One person may use a hairstylist once a week while another person may visit the salon every three months. If you don’t see them regularly and they can’t remember your name, you may opt to skip the tip.”
If the relationship is solid, though, Smith says that skipping the tip is akin to telling your service providers they’re not valued or to imply they’ve done something wrong. If a gratuity is not in your budget for this year, consider the alternative suggestions above. However, “when your finances are fluid again,” Smith suggests, “please do tip them.”
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When you support a good cause, make sure you also get the tax benefits you deserve.
Year-end is peak charitable giving season. To make sure your generosity pays off on next April’s tax return, know the rules for writing off your donations.
You have to itemize deductions. Sorry, but if you take the standard deduction, you can’t write off your gifts to charity on top of that.
You need to give to a legit charity. To check if a nonprofit is a qualified charity in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, use the IRS’s Select Check tool. You can also deduct donations to your church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.
You can donate right down to the wire. For a gift to qualify for a deduction, you simply need to get your check in the mail by December 31. Need more time? You can put your gift on a credit card before year-end and then pay the bill in January. (Keep in mind, though, that when you pay by credit card, processing fees may reduce the value of your gift.)
You should save your backup. Make sure you have a receipt for your gift. A cancelled check or credit card statement may be enough. But if you make a donation worth $250 or more, you must get a written acknowledgment from the charity.
Your time can be worth money. As a volunteer, you can’t deduct the value of your time. But you can deduct 14¢ for every mile you drive as part of your volunteer work, so keep track.
You shouldn’t take credit for giving away actual junk. If you donate clothes or household items, you’ll be able to deduct the fair market value—as long as the items are in good condition or better. Keep any paperwork you have for valuable items, and take photos of your donations for your records. It’s up to you, not the charity, to assign a value to your stuff. To do that, you can use thrift store guides published by the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and others, or the ItsDeductible app.
You can’t inflate the value of your old car. When you donate your old wheels to charity, your deduction is generally limited to what the nonprofit brings in by selling your car, not the Kelley Blue Book value. Plus, when you donate a car or other property worth more than $500, you’ll need to file IRS Form 8283.
You can get two tax breaks if you donate winning investments. Another way to save on taxes is to give highly appreciated stocks, bonds, or mutual funds directly to a charity. You won’t owe any taxes on your capital gains. And you can deduct the full market value of the investment as a charitable gift.
You can contribute a big sum now and give it away later. If you open what’s called a donor-advised fund, you can deduct the entire gift on your 2014 tax return and parcel out the money to good causes later. With as little as $5,000, you can open a donor-advised fund at firms such as Fidelity or Schwab.
If you want to give in support of Breast Cancer Awareness month, don't get "pinkwashed." Instead, consider donating to one of these five worthy organizations.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, in case you hadn’t noticed.
While buying those pink products may seem like an easy way to support the 2.9 million people living with breast cancer in the U.S., you should think twice before purchasing.
Not everything with a pink ribbon is supporting research for a cure, says Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. Some of these products give no proceeds to cancer charities, but simply “raise awareness.”
Other times, Sulik adds, sales of the products don’t have any impact on a company’s giving as the firm has already set a cap on its donation amount.
Even worse than buying a pink product that gives nothing back is buying a product from a company that “pinkwashes,” or promotes pink ribbon products while also selling or producing products that contain ingredients known to increase the risk of breast cancer.
All in all, “it doesn’t make much sense to buy pink ribbon products,” says Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. “By doing so, you’re simply subsidizing corporate marketing campaigns. If you want to give, give directly to the breast cancer organization.”
Plus, by giving directly you get to report the tax-deductible charity contribution, rather than letting a corporation have your write-off, notes Sulik.
Of course, with all the different charities vying for your generosity, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where exactly you should donate.
To make that task easier, MONEY—with the help of Sulik, King and Charity Navigator—identified five breast cancer charities where you can feel confident that your dollars will be put to good use funding prevention research, education, and patient support.
These organizations have high levels of accountability, have successfully sustained their programs over time, and spend a high percentage of their revenue on programs and services rather than administrative or fundraising costs.
If you want to support prevention research:
Millions of dollars from the government, universities, and nonprofits are spent investigating breast cancer each year, but the majority of those funds are going to support research aimed at treating the disease.
This Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit invests only in research that focuses on understanding the causes of breast cancer. In particular, the organization studies the breast duct, where breast cancer begins, to understand what conditions support or block the development of the disease.
The research foundation spends a high 83% of its revenue on program expenses and received Charity Navigator’s top rating for its standards of accountability and transparency for donors.
Run out of the University of California, this program is the largest state-funded breast cancer research effort in the nation. While it accepts donations, it also has a stable revenue stream from California’s tobacco tax.
An extremely high 95% of its revenue goes directly to funding research and education. California Breast Cancer Research Program also devotes 50% of its research fund to work that focuses on the environmental causes, risk factors, protective measures, and the impact of income inequality. Both Sulik and King recommended this charity because of the program’s quality of research and prevention focus.
If you want to help young breast cancer patients:
Founded in 1998 by three women who were all diagnosed with breast cancer before their 35th birthdays, this organization’s mission is to serve the roughly 13,000 women under 40 who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. (Sulik says this was a neglected population within the breast cancer community for a long time.)
YSC helps these young women by providing support and health information to see them from diagnosis to long-term survivorship. The nonprofit tackles issues specific to this population, like early menopause, effects on fertility, more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates. It also advocates for increased studies on young women with breast cancer.
If you want to support breast cancer education:
The National Breast Cancer Coalition’s sister organization works to help guide breast cancer patients through the maze of medical information available to them so that they can make informed decisions. Its Project LEAD program, which Sulik called “excellent,” offers courses to prepare people to be active leaders in all forums where breast cancer research decisions are made.
According to Charity Navigator, which has awarded the Fund three stars, the organization spends more than 80% of its revenue on these education program expenses and has extremely high levels of accountability.
If you want to help breast cancer patients avoid debt:
“This is a growing organization designed to meet a practical need,” says Sulik. It provides short-term financial aid to breast cancer patients who have lost all or part of their income during active treatment. The Pink Fund also helps cover patients’ health insurance costs, mortgage payments, utility bills, car insurance and other basic living expenses.
Because the organization was founded in 2007 and has less than $1 million in revenue, it isn’t rated on Charity Navigator. But on our request, analysts from the site vetted The Pink Fund’s finances. And Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, says that adding a smaller, less-tested charity to your overall giving portfolio can make sense if you believe in the kind of work it is doing.
A video of a panhandler driving off in a new car has been viewed by millions -- and raises questions about how best to help those in need.
It’s a story right out of a Ronald Reagan campaign speech: Oklahoma City resident Brandi Newman saw an elderly woman asking for money to buy food and generously handed over some cash — only to spot the same woman a few minutes later behind the wheel of what appeared to be a brand new, candy-apple-red Fiat.
Newman says she felt scammed, and she wasn’t the only one. A viral video subsequently recorded by Newman — in which another angry benefactor berates the 78-year-old widow for taking his donations under false pretenses — has been viewed more than 3 million times on Facebook and YouTube.
“You’re asking for money in the middle of the street, and you’re driving a 2013 car?” screams Daniel Ayala. “Listen, I work hard for my money, I don’t appreciate this sh*t!”
Why was this man so angry over what is, after all, just a few dollars? And why has this video seemingly touched a nerve?
For many of us, of course, it’s impossible not to feel compassion for the legions of homeless and hungry who ask us for spare change. And yet, in the back of our minds, this compassion comes packaged with a gnawing suspicion: Is that person really needy? Is my money being wasted? Am I being scammed?
The crooked beggar is a deep and long-standing societal fear: a squanderer of limited resources; a cynical manipulator of our noble instincts; the embodiment of what economists call “moral hazard.” And this bogeyman has at least some basis in reality. Reagan’s famous story during the 1976 presidential primaries about the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” has been dismissed as an exaggeration, but as Slate‘s Josh Levin has explained, she was actually quite real. More recently, a 45-year-old self-described “lazy” man named Warren Speegle (also, as it happens, in Oklahoma City) reportedly told arresting police that he was able to make $60,000 a year panhandling and consequently saw no reason to try to get a regular job.
On the other hand, at least one recent study of San Francisco’s homeless suggests that these notorious cases are aberrations. The majority of the city’s panhandlers, it found, gather less than $25 a day and 94% use the money they receive for food. (The research also confirmed some less favorable assumptions. For example, 44% used donations on drugs and alcohol.)
Newman’s video, in short, seems to crystallize the moral complexities we face each time we are confronted by someone asking for money on the street.
It also forces us to ask a number of uncomfortable questions: Are we right to care about how our charity is spent? Is our skepticism justified? And, most importantly, how do we get help to the people who need it most? So we decided to put them to some experts.
The community organizer: “Not all homeless people are scammers.”
Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, urges people not to assume every panhandler they encounter is a scam artist. When told about the incident in Oklahoma City, he points out that every group has a few bad apples. “If you send me $5, unless you told me you wanted to buy a meal for someone, I could buy a box of jumbo paper clips [instead]” says Stoops. “Sometimes it’s okay to give to the middle man, but not all homeless people are scammers and not all scammers are homeless. There are also scammers in Congress and in the business world.”
Stoops acknowledges that we have reason to be concerned about how our cash is spent once it leaves our hands. But he argues that people who ask for money on the street deserve the same trust we would afford to anyone else. “Do you really have the right to follow someone to the liquor store?” he asks. “The answer is no.” And just because a panhandler has a car, or even a comfortable place to live, doesn’t mean they don’t need help. (Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of Philanthropy at Indiana University, even told MONEY about one program that provides cars to low-income women to help them travel to work.) “If you could make a lot of money panhandling, I might be out there on the street myself,” Stoops adds dryly.
The civil rights lawyer: “People may present a false image of their plight.”
Mark Weinberg, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who has spent more than a decade defending the rights of panhandlers, understands where our suspicions come from. “It’s an exploitation of people’s empathy,” says Weinberg of the video. “I think that actually goes on in the world of panhandling. People may present a false image of their plight.”
“I don’t think any of these people are rich,” he continues, but his experience can make him skeptical. “I’ve seen all different situations of the past 12 years, and one of the confusing things is it’s hard to tell who’s in that situation of desperation where you truly do want to help, and who’s using the money to pay for their cable TV.”
The fundraiser: “There’s only so much we can do for someone as an individual.”
James Winans works to provide for the needy on a daily basis as the head of development at New York’s Bowery Mission. He says he would never try dissuade anyone from giving money directly to someone on the street. “We all have to do what we think is right,” Winans says.
“But what I do say to people is, first, there’s only so much we can do for someone as an individual; and second, there’s only so much we can know about another person’s situation.” For those worried about their money being misused, the Bowery Mission offers business card-sized printouts on its website listing the organization’s location and range of services. The cards can be given instead of cash, or with money wrapped inside. Says Winsan: “It’s great to connect that person with a community that can help them.”
The homeless advocate: “Giving money to people on the street is not going to solve the problem.”
Steve Berg, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, agrees that giving to an individual isn’t a bad thing, but also won’t really fix anything. “It might make life a little easier,” he said in a phone interview, “but it’s not going to solve their homelessness and it’s not going to solve the whole community’s problem with homelessness.”
Instead, Berg urges concerned citizens to support anti-homelessness policies that have been proven to work. Thanks to a $300 million federal program to solve both short- and long-term homelessness among veterans, the number of former service members on the street has decreased from 76,000 in 2010 to fewer than 50,000 in January of 2013—a drop of over 35%. The Obama administration has proposed another $300 million to end chronic homelessness by 2016, and Berg is optimistic that another bipartisan coalition will approve those funds as well. In addition to supporting more federal efforts, he suggests peoples ask their mayor’s office which local organizations need assistance.
For those who want to help a specific person they meet on the street, but want to avoid being misled, all four experts interviewed suggested a simple method: Ask the person what they need and why. “To find out what someone needs takes time and that’s a higher level of sacrifice,” Winans says. “But I think it’s actually more effective. If people are willing to put themselves out there to panhandle, they’re usually willing to tell you about why they’re doing it.”
We also reached out to Charity Navigator for help finding some of the best organizations that work to fight poverty and homelessness. Some charities to consider (in addition to all those mentioned in this article) are The Robin Hood Foundation (which operates in New York City), Feeding America, Habitat for Humanity, LIFT, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Correction: This article previous stated Leslie Lenkowsky was a professor at the University of Illinois. He is actually a professor at Indiana University.
Elite universities are offering workshops in philanthropy. Is it a nod to future fortunes? Or just the new normal?
As a young reporter in the 1980s learning the personal finance beat my editor kept things simple: just write about money—how people earn it, spend it and save it. Tellingly, how they might one day give it away wasn’t on his radar.
Those were different times. Boomers were still decades from retiring. The stock and housing markets were on a tear. Most folks were getting ahead. The whole game was about building a large nest egg. Readers could deal much later with how to disburse their kitty. After all, how tough can it be to choose a benefactor and write a check?
But today charity is on the minds of even young people who may have seen unusual hardship and need up close during the Great Recession. Many have also seen their career opportunities narrowed in a slow growing economy and come to view nonprofits as not just a decent, but laudable, alternative path.
So it is that a string of elite universities have begun to offer students a workshop in philanthropy, a development that not a few observers find jarring. Who do these kids at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale think they are studying to give away fortunes not yet made? Do the sons and daughters of the elite believe riches are their birthright? The underlying presumption further stirs the unrest many feel about income inequality and the methodical, disproportionate gains of the top 1%.
It doesn’t help matters that the phenomenally rich hedge fund manager, Geoffrey Raynor, provides most of the funds for these workshops—and that in return for financial backing he demands time in front of the enrolled so he can spread his peculiar gospel on giving back. Raynor does not believe in good for good’s sake. He says all giving is selfish. “There is no moral high ground,” he told a group at Stanford, as reported in The New York Times.
This is hardly a novel thought. Tocqueville famously regarded helping others as “self-interest, properly understood.” How could it be charity to help a neighbor build a barn when you expected the same in return? In A New Purpose, I and co-author Ken Dychtwald explore the many ways that giving promotes one’s own missions and passions, and brings selfish rewards that range from tax breaks to public adulation to simply feeling good about yourself. But we also leave room for altruism—the high moral ground; the Mother Teresa’s of the world.
The notion that we’re all crack dealers giving away samples as an investment doesn’t fly. Even before the Great Recession changed the way many of us think about charity, plenty people were doing good for good’s sake. And now the new normal is stirring such activity among the very young. Popular allowance management websites like Famzoo.com and Threejars.com promote kids as young as five divvying their income into piles for saving, spending and sharing. The sharing part is relatively new. Certainly, it wasn’t on my former editor’s screen.
Giving has emerged as a family activity in many cases. Nine in 10 clients who have set aside charitable dollars in a donor-advised fund say they are teaching their kids about giving, Fidelity finds in its just released Giving Report 2014. Nearly one in five discuss the topic with kids more than five times a year. Eight in 10 say the cause they support reflects input from family; and family involvement is most acute among donors under the age of 50 and thus most likely to involve young people.
So maybe universities that offer philanthropy workshops aren’t so tone deaf. The economic recovery turned five this month, making it one of the longest U.S. expansions on record. But many continue to struggle and young people appear fully engaged. There’s a lot more here than kids at Harvard and Yale pondering the disbursement of their future estate.
In advance of your Mother’s Day plans (or lack thereof) not going over well today, here’s some ammunition for making the case that you—and your mom—could have done a lot worse.
Moms get more love than dads. Or at least we spend a lot more on moms. According to the National Retail Federation, average household spending on Mother’s Day is roughly $50 higher than it is for Fathers Day.
Mother’s Day = Scam Day. The Better Business Bureau warns that consumers should “proceed with caution to avoid falling victim to a Mother’s Day scam,” which might consist of phony coupons and vouchers, a phishing e-mail, or an e-card of mysterious origin that is “as likely to contain destructive malware as warm wishes,” notes Consumer Reports. So if you’re desperate, you can use the possibility of a scam as an excuse for why you didn’t pony up and get mom a gift. You know: “Sorry, ma, just trying to save you from the horrors of identity theft.”
Thoughtful, hand-picked gifts are overrated. In a survey conducted on the behalf of PriceGrabber, the majority of consumers (60%) said they’d just order something online as a Mother’s Day gift. As for what moms want on Mother’s Day, 29% said they favored the not-remotely-personalized gift of a gift card, which was the second most common answer after a “gift” that doesn’t cost anything—spending quality time with one’s family (44%).
Mom would probably return whatever you picked anyway. Nine out of ten consumers polled by RetailMeNot.com said they suspect that their mothers have returned or exchanged a Mother’s Day gift at least once. (Only 30% of the moms surveyed admitted to doing so, but what else do you think they would say.)
Tons of sons and husbands whip up plans at the last minute. Among the men polled by MyTime.com, 42% said they’ll make Mother’s Day plans only a few days beforehand or just throw something together on Mother’s Day itself. So you’re in good (or at least abundant) company if you’re totally winging it at the last minute. Just don’t be among the 6% of men who have forgotten about Mother’s Day altogether in the past.
Thousands must think moms really love beer and wings. Some 35,000 people reportedly brought their moms to Hooters last year on Mother’s Day. So on Sunday you can tell your mom, “Hey, at least I didn’t drag you to Hooters last year for your big day.” And if you did—hey, moms eat there free after all on Mother’s Day—at least you weren’t the only one.