When times are tough, you can't afford to waste money. But for most people, giving up on supporting worthy causes through charitable gifts simply isn't an option.

So if you're still planning to give, make the most of your gift with some twists on a few simple rules of thumb.

Give stock? Maybe yes, maybe no
In past years, a great way to make charitable gifts was to give shares of stocks rather than cash. By giving away stock, you could effectively get a double tax break: You not only got a charitable deduction for the amount of your gift, but you also avoided having to pay taxes on any gains since you'd bought the stock.

That method has worked well for wealthy philanthropists like Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) Warren Buffett, who has funded his charitable gifts largely from personal holdings of Berkshire stock. That combination can give high-income taxpayers nearly 50% savings.

But now that the market has fallen sharply, you have to be careful with gifts. In particular, watch out for these pitfalls:

  • Short-term gains. Giving away stock you've owned for less than a year doesn't give you a full tax break. If the value of the stock has gone up, you only get to deduct what you paid -- not what the shares are now worth.
  • Losing stocks. If you have a loss on your shares, it's smarter to sell them and give away cash. That way you keep the benefit of a capital loss.

That second case can make a big difference. Consider, for instance, two scenarios involving 1,000 shares of stock in a portfolio of different companies that you've held for the past two years. In one case, you just give away shares -- in the other, you sell them first.

Stock

2-Year Total Return

Tax Savings
if Give Shares

Tax Savings if Sell Shares
& Give Cash

Honeywell (NYSE:HON)

(24.0%)

$11,529

$13,091

Paychex (NASDAQ:PAYX)

(32.4%)

$8,901

$10,731

Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO)

(40.7%)

$5,537

$7,169

Dell (NASDAQ:DELL)

(59.0%)

$3,594

$5,807

Citigroup (NYSE:C)

(92.9%)

$1,225

$8,110

Source: Yahoo! Finance as of Jan. 16. Assumes 35% deduction for charitable contributions and 15% in long-term capital gains tax saved.

Make a difference with your retirement
Another option that those over age 70 1/2 have is to make charitable gifts using money from their IRAs. Although distributions from IRAs are usually taxable at your normal marginal rate, a recently extended tax rule lets you avoid that tax if you direct the money to charity.

Now you don't get to deduct such donations a second time -- you simply don't include them in income, which amounts to the same thing. But it's particularly useful in a couple of cases:

  • Non-itemizers. Typically, to get a charitable deduction, you have to itemize on your tax return. Those who use their IRAs to give, however, don't have to worry about that -- they just never include the IRA money as income as they'd otherwise have to do.
  • Minimum distributions. Although seniors don't have to worry about taking minimum withdrawals from their IRAs in 2009, they typically do. Charitable IRA distributions count toward these minimum withdrawals, which can help make dealing with minimum distribution requirements a lot simpler.

Need a worthy charity?
Most people have no shortage of great causes they support. But if you have room for one more, we'd like to make a recommendation.

This year, The Motley Fool's annual Foolanthropy campaign is working with DonorsChoose.org to fund specific school projects designed to encourage financial literacy. Your donations help teachers buy the materials they need to teach these critical lessons to kids.

It's important to maximize the value of the donations you make. By keeping track of how best to make your gifts, you help not only others but also yourself.

To learn more about our annual Foolanthropy campaign:

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger isn't old enough to give his IRA to charity, but he does hope to make a difference. He owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Paychex is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Paychex, Dell, and Berkshire Hathaway are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Fool's disclosure policy makes a difference for you.