After two entries in a row of our talking about taking advantage of free civic and cultural institutions, I'd like to talk about giving back to maintain civic, cultural, and charitable institutions.

Times are tough, and every organization that depends on donations is suffering, while demands on charitable organizations are greater than ever. Here's one telling example:

The Alameda County Community Food Bank operates an Emergency Food Helpline. With just a phone call, those in dire need can receive food at a local pantry on the very day they dial. In 13 years, the Bank's help line had received more than 1,500 calls a month only twice. In 2008, every month topped the 1,500 mark. For the last six months, the average has been more than 2,000 a month and is soon expected to break the 2,500-call barrier.

If you're still doing all right, can you spare anything? If you're longer on time than cash, most organizations could use volunteers (even more than money, in some cases.) If you can't spare either, reconsider when you can.

A philosophy of always selfishly maximizing your own benefit would sometimes suggest the same specific courses of action we'll recommend on this blog. But we're serious about better living through economy. My idea of frugality is informed by Kant's Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." If no one supported the organizations that give things away for free, they'd cease to exist, and we'd all be worse off for their absence. That's not the world I want to live in.

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