You don't need to spend money to do good deeds. From delivering meals and toys to donating your skills for a worthy cause, there are plenty of ways you can give back without giving a dime.
Celebrate the spirit of giving on Feb. 17 for National Random Acts of Kindness Day with a simple gesture that will brighten someone's day — or spend the day committing to self-improvement, which also doesn't have to cost you a penny.
Click through to see how you can help others for free.
Deliver Meals to People in Need
Food is a basic human necessity, yet many Americans don't have regular access to meals. According to Feeding America, a hunger relief organization, 41.2 million people struggled with hunger in the U.S. as of 2016 — including 12.9 million children. Organizations like Meals on Wheels are actively working to help keep Americans fed.
As a volunteer, you can help deliver nutritious meals to seniors in need. With more than 5,000 independently run Meals on Wheels programs throughout the nation, there's a good chance one exists in your community.
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Deliver Toys to Underprivileged Kids
Food isn't the only thing people in need lack. Add joy to an underprivileged child's Christmas by helping deliver toys through nonprofits like Toys for Tots.
Even though there's still a ways to go until the next holiday season, local campaign coordinators host a variety of activities throughout the year, such as golf tournaments and voluntary events, in an effort to raise awareness and generate donations.
Write a Letter to a Soldier
Although care packages are always appreciated by soldiers, a simple gratitude letter can also lift the spirits of people in service, said Kendal Perez, a blogger at Hassle-Free Savings. Operation Gratitude facilitates donations and letters for soldiers stationed overseas.
"Make it a family event, and have everyone write a letter to a soldier this season," said Perez.
If you're not in a writing mood, you can find other ways to help troops for free. For instance, send an old smartphone to Operation Gratitude's cellphone recycling program. If you donate DVDs, clothes or other items on the Operation Gratitude wish list, you can get a tax deduction.
Organize a Donation Drive
You don't have to have extra funds to gather them. You or your child can start a Cents for Service drive at work or school, where people donate what they can. A mere $15 pays for an Operation Gratitude care package for a soldier overseas. The organization will even show you how to get started with downloadable flyers and information.
Become an Advocate for a Child
If you're up for a volunteer effort that's more involved but offers more impactful rewards, become a court-appointed special advocate. CASAs work on behalf of neglected or abused children, getting to know them and their parents and teachers, in order to advocate for them in court.
As a CASA, you are trained and then appointed to a case by a judge. You get to know the needs of the child for whom you're advocating and facilitate change.
Deliver Clean Water to a Third-World Country
For many people around the world, clean water is a luxury. That's why former pro surfer Jon Rose started Waves for Water in 2009. Become a Clean Water Courier by sticking a few small filters in your luggage and transporting them to an area near where you're vacationing. And you don't have to travel to deep, dark jungles to help.
Waves for Water has helped people get clean water in vacation spots like Hawaii and Fiji. They'll even help you create an online fundraising campaign to buy filters, which cost $50 each. One filter can give 100 people clean drinking water for five years.
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"Whether it's writing, web development, social media and more, if you want to use your skills to help a nonprofit organization, use Catchafire to find an opportunity that matches your skill set," said Perez.
Catchafire was started by Rachael Chong, an investment banker who participated in an annual event with her company during which she and her peers helped build houses for the needy. After the experience, she quit her job and started the organization. Her mission is to maximize people's charitable efforts. Volunteers can feel good about doing what they do best to help others. And people in need get professional-level help.
Every two seconds in the U.S. someone needs blood, according to a study by Carrington College — and over 41,000 pints of blood are needed each day. Taking an hour and a half out of your day to donate some of your own could save lives.
Your donation could help someone with sickle cell disease, which affects over 70,000 people in need of frequent transfusions. A car accident victim might need 100 pints of blood for a full recovery. Visit your local blood bank to learn more and find out if you're a strong candidate.
Donate Recyclable Materials
Rather than toss away plastic or paper bags and aluminum cans, donate them to thrift stores, schools or other establishments that could use them. A child's classroom, for example, might collect cans to exchange for money. You can also collect your own food or beverage cans to trade in for cash to then donate to people in need.
Most likely, you'll make at least 30 cents per pound of aluminum, according to Scrap Sales USA.
Take Care of a Neighbor’s Chores
Your time and energy can be an invaluable gift, especially for someone running short on either.
If you have an elderly neighbor or a neighbor who has an illness or disability, offer to rake their leaves, mow their lawn or shovel snow from their driveway. For a busy parent in your neighborhood, offer to run an errand such as picking up dry cleaning on their behalf or volunteer to babysit as they take care of chores.
Share Your Expertise
Everyone has unique skills and interests.
Contact a local school or homeless shelter to find out if tutors or mentors are needed. Possibilities might include helping kids with math or reading homework, or teaching homeless individuals job or interview skills.
Some organizations such as the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas offer virtual opportunities to teach reading or another language.
Taking time to meditate might not sound helpful to others, but research shows that routine stillness — or walking meditation if you prefer that — can not only relieve stress but also potentially benefit more than yourself.
A study published in the journal Emotion linked loving-kindness meditation, during which you wish yourself and others happiness and ease, with more positive social emotions. As a result, you might be more fun and uplifting to be around. Your relationships could improve, too. If you've never meditated before, start with a few minutes per day. Sit or walk in silence or use a guided meditation app or video.
Volunteer to Walk Dogs
Even if you aren't in a position to adopt a pet from a shelter or have plenty of pets already, you can enhance the lives of animals by volunteering. Organizations such as Paws allow volunteers to not only provide exercise but also to teach dogs basic skills and commands.
This makes the dogs' shelter stays more stimulating and makes the animals more adoption-friendly, too. As a bonus, once the dogs are adopted, they'll likely transition more easily to their new home.
Start a Gratitude Journal
Gratitude has been linked with a broad range of benefits, from better health and happiness to stronger relationships and fulfillment. Gratitude can also foster kindness, according to Happier Human, while reducing self-centeredness and boosting optimism.
A study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2017 found that people who wrote daily letters of gratitude showed more kindness socially than people who wrote instead about their weeks. To up the gratitude ante in your life, jot down what you're thankful for each day.
Cultivate Better Sleep Habits
Americans as a whole are sorely lacking in sleep, which raises the risk for irresponsible driving, injuries and accidents, according to the National Sleep Foundation. A lack of sleep also fuels emotional challenges, such as irritability, stress, depression and anxiety.
Adopting better sleep habits is one of the cheapest ways to invest in your health. Aim to stick to a routine sleep schedule, turning in and waking up at similar times. Relaxing bedtime rituals, daily exercise, sleeping in a dark, comfortable setting and limiting caffeine can also help.
Collect Canned Goods
Non-perishable food items are almost always welcome at food shelves, and you don't need to have a surplus of your own to donate them. The Feeding America network of food banks distributes and secures 4 billion meals each year through meal programs and food pantries throughout the U.S.
Go door to door around your neighborhood to collect items or send an email before a group event and invite attendees to bring items to donate to your collection.
A physical activity routine makes you take responsibility for your experiences, according to Jules Mitchell, a yoga teacher and educator in Los Angeles. She considers exercise one of the keys to becoming a better person.
Exercise can also help you better deal with difficult situations by practicing rising up to challenges, she wrote in a Udaya article. And, it can help you feel more energized. To take the benefits further, invite a friend or loved one to join you as you hike, walk or jog.
Break an Expensive Habit
Whether you smoke a pack a day or purchase lattes daily, some bad habits affect more than your health. Giving up your weekday gourmet coffee or pack of cigarettes would save you $1,200 in a year. Use that money to get out of debt, donate to a charity or fund a mix of both.
Making coffee at home costs pennies, by comparison. Quitting smoking can also save you from pricey medical fees.
Read More Fiction
To be a good person, you might want to read more stories, according to recent research. The study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences linked engaging with stories about other people and improved empathy and theory of mind.
"When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it's like being that person," researcher Keith Oatley told The Washington Post. "That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them." For a free option, visit your local library.
Let Your Interests Inspire You
As you are exploring kind things to do, consider your unique skills. Use your social media skills, for example, to help promote a local charity. If you're an event coordinator, see if you can help organize a fundraiser.
If you don't know exactly what you want to do, look to your interests. If you love gardening, join a community project to plant trees in the area. Search networks like VolunteerMatch.org, Help From Home or United Way for volunteer opportunities. Finding causes that pique your interest is a great way to get involved and stay committed.
Becoming a better person often starts with self-awareness and goal-setting. Regardless of the direction you choose, there's no need to spend a lot of money to improve yourself and help others in need. But don't be surprised if your efforts lead to greater financial well-being or other resources as a byproduct — the more you work on yourself and contribute, the more you'll likely have to give.
Terence Loose contributed to the reporting for this article.