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Keeping control of charitable requests

WASHINGTON — The requests for donations have increased as they usually do during the holiday season.

Various organizations and charities put on the full-court press before the end of the year to boost charitable giving, in part to cash in on the spirit of the season, and also because the groups know some people become more willing to donate to avoid higher taxes.

The many requests can be overwhelming, especially when they come from co-workers, friends, and family. So just like with other expenses in your budget — if you have one — you need a line item for charitable giving and some personal rules as to how much to give and to whom.

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My husband and I approach our giving much like some foundations that target specific causes. We want to make the biggest impact we can with the dollars we set aside. We give to public radio and support the arts by donating to a theater where we have an annual subscription. We give through our church and its efforts to help the needy in the United States and abroad. We give to the University of Maryland, where we both received our undergraduate degrees.

Our charitable giving is a conscious choice based on our values. This in turn means we don't mind that the organizations approach us year after year for donations. We are committed to them.

So, what's your cause or causes?

And yes, I'm being a bit forward by asking because I believe that giving should be as important in your budget as saving or getting out of debt. It should occupy a top spot.

Now having said that, here are a few charitable-giving rules you can follow:

 Give with your heart and your head. Don’t blindly give without knowing something about the charity. This doesn’t mean you can’t give when you encounter a group raising funds for something that may not be part of your charitable mission. But at least make sure the charity is legitimate. Develop a charity checklist, recommends the Federal Trade Commission. For tips on what to check out, go to www.ftc.gov and search for “Before Giving to a Charity.”

 Create your own charitable fund. Decide how much you can afford to give regularly to the charities you like, and set that money aside. The more that charities can rely on consistent donors, the less they have to spend on fund-raising, which means more funds going to services and programs.

You may want to have a second fund, perhaps less than the first, for spontaneous giving. For instance, your co-worker's kid (or more likely your co-worker) may be raising funds to help the child attend a summer camp. Or there may be a natural disaster relief fund you want to support.

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 Understand the tax rules for your gifts. The first thing to keep in mind is that to claim a deduction for your donations, you have to file a tax return in which you itemize your deductions. Here are a few other things to consider, according to the IRS. Regardless of the amount of money you give, you have to have a bank record, such as a canceled check or a letter from the charity that proves you made the donation. If you give away clothing or household items, they generally have to be in good condition to claim a tax deduction. If you are donating property, you may generally deduct the fair market value.

If you are rushing to make a year-end gift, don't worry. Your gift counts for the year in which you made it. Even if you charge your donation on your credit card but don't have to make the payment until next month, it still counts for 2014.

The same applies to a check that is mailed by year-end. One last thing, charitable donations have to be made to qualified organizations in order to claim a deduction. You can go to www.irs.gov and use the agency's "Exempt Organizations Select Check" to see if the group you give to is qualified.

And no, you cannot deduct the money you give to your grandchildren's college fund. The money you might have given to help with someone's rent is also not deductible. You cannot deduct contributions made to specific individuals.

If you're going to a holiday charitable event and you receive something as a result of your contribution such as merchandise, food, or other goods and services, you can only deduct the dollar amount that exceeds the fair market value of what you received.

 Push your giving percentage. As the economy has improved, Americans gave more last year, according to research by the Giving USA Foundation and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Look at what you gave in 2013. Before 2014 is up, see if you can give more.

I hope that this year and for years to come, you are financially able to challenge yourself when it comes to your giving. One of my mantras, taken from Luke 12:48, is to whom much is given much will be required.

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Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.