Editorial Policy

Donate a dollar in the checkout line? Why I say “no”

Allie Johnson

October 31, 2013

You’re in line at the grocery store, you swipe your card to pay, and the cashier — or PIN pad — asks if you’d like to donate a dollar or more to charity. What do you do?

If you’re paying with plastic, it can be especially tempting to say yes without thinking, because it makes you look like a good person and you don’t have to dig a $1 or $5 bill out of your wallet.

But I always resist the pressure, and here are six reasons why:

  1. I feel put on the spot when I get hit up for a donation, with everyone in line watching, as I’m buying bread or dog food. I’m not the only one: Wall Street Journal columnist Eric Felten writes that checkout charity requests leave him feeling less than warm and fuzzy — and happiness is one of the perks of charitable giving, after all.
  1. I like to take time to research the charities I support, rather than just going with the one Publix picked that month. As personal finance site Kiplinger points out, it’s not exactly easy to check out a charity’s finances “while juggling the milk and bananas.”
  1. I don’t like to funnel my donations through a third party. I always wonder if the store takes a cut or reaps a big write-off at tax time. Charity Navigator’s guide, “The Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors,” recommends eliminating the middleman and giving directly to the organization of your choice.
  1. I prefer to donate to smaller, local charities rather than the national heavy hitters so well represented on the checkout charity circuit. As Trent Hamm, personal finance blogger from The Simple Dollar argues, supporting local organizations has several benefits: You get to help a smaller group with fewer resources and you can directly witness the impact of your gift. That’s why I’d always rather give funds to a local animal rescue group that needs money to save a local death-row dog than, say, The Humane Society of the United States.
  1. I think requests for donations in the checkout lane encourage mindless spending. Does it really matter if it’s a donation to a charity or an impulse purchase? The end result is the same: You’re parted from your money without planning ahead of time. And it’s not as if donation requests only happen once in a while. I’ve been asked for contributions at least three times in the past few weeks. And as Hamm of The Simple Dollar points out, it can be harder to track your donations if you make lots of small contributions.
  1. Finally, I gravitate toward helping causes in more personal ways. For example, I’ve found fostering homeless animals to be the most rewarding way I’ve ever supported a cause I care about. So, maybe you hold on to your dollar at the checkout, but you give an afternoon helping at a soup kitchen or building houses for families who need shelter.

On the other hand, I can see some advantages of donating in the checkout line. For one, I’m sure these campaigns are an excellent way to raise money for worthy charities from consumers who otherwise might not have donated. Giving this way is super easy — you don’t have to look up a charity, figure out how to give and even possibly write a check and address an envelope. And it’s pretty painless, too, since you’re usually asked to kick in just a small amount.

I can see why those who donate do, but I doubt I’ll ever start doing the same.