Personal Finance Smart Spending

How to Tithe When You Are Broke

Written by Beth Trach

The concept of tithing is a simple one: give ten percent of your income to the church to support its work. The word “tithe” comes from the Old English for “tenth,” and people throughout history have used that percentage as a benchmark of what should be given back to the community.

There are all kinds of examples of tithing as a social practice in both Christianity and Judaism, and although tithing in some countries and sects was mandatory, for the most part tithing in modern times is voluntary. You give what you can, with the ten percent amount serving as a benchmark for your charitable goals.

But what happens when you’re having trouble keeping your head above the financial waters? If you’re in debt, should you still be tithing, or would those dollars be better spent getting your own financial house in order first?

These are questions of conscience, of course, and there’s no single “right” answer for everyone — especially since coming to the conclusion that works best for you will depend on your interpretation of scripture and insights into your own heart. But if you are struggling to make ends meet and to care for your family on your current income, you may wish to consider a few alternative ways to give back to your church that won’t put your further into debt.

Tithing Products

In the Middle Ages, tithing didn’t necessarily mean giving cash. For a farmer, ten percent of income could easily have meant giving ten percent of the crop to the church instead, which would have supported priests directly as food or with money after being sold.

If you are in business for yourself, you might be able to tithe by giving away some of your produce, too — that is, the products you make. For example, if you are a seamstress who sells original fashions on Etsy, you could directly donate some of your products to a women’s shelter or group that makes sure needy people get clothing. If you are a woodworker, you could donate some of your stock of lumber and nails to build a new playground for the church or to make needed repairs. If you are a baker, you could donate cakes and cookies to the church coffee hour each Sunday.

It may be more difficult to tithe things to directly benefit your own church, but you may consider donating items to religious charitable organizations as a worthy substitute.

Tithing Skills

Many people work at jobs in which they don’t necessarily “make” something like the examples above. Still, you probably have skills that you use at work that could be valuable for your church. Consider donating these skills to your church to aid in its operations and take some of the expenses out of the church budget.

For example, if you are an accountant or bookkeeper, you could volunteer to tally the offering plate contents after Sunday services and maintain the church’s records of giving. Likewise, professional services providers like doctors and lawyers will also be able to donate their expertise directly to the church or to a charitable organization that helps the needy. Tradespeople also have wonderful opportunities to share their skills by caring for the church building and grounds for free.

Tithing Time

If you’re sitting there thinking that your job isn’t particularly conducive to tithing, don’t despair: You still have a lot to give! If you are drowning in debt or going through a rough period of unemployment, a heath crisis or some other struggle that has you living from paycheck to paycheck, you still have exactly the same allotment of time as every other person on the planet. So how will you spend it?

Consider giving ten percent of your time to volunteer at your church or another organization that furthers its ministry. When you consider that ten percent of your waking hours is roughly 90 minutes per day, that’s a whole lot of time to devote to helping others. This comes to about 10.5 hours per week, which would amount to a good, long day of volunteering each weekend. If that sounds like a lot, remember that the spirit of tithing is that you are giving a significant portion of your resources back to God — so it does come to a big chunk of your time. But if you can’t spare the money, you may be able to tithe by service.

Remember that volunteering doesn’t have to be physically demanding if you are unable. You can do seated work at church, or you can explore ways to work from home if you have trouble getting around — offering companionship or tutoring via Skype are just a couple ways to harness the power of the internet in your volunteering.

Tithing Things

If you’re in a situation in which your time already spoken for and money is tight, you may be able to tithe by sacrificing some of your possessions. Many churches have a need for household goods, either for cooking and cleaning in the church itself or for helping those less fortunate set up independent households. You may own many things that don’t give you much pleasure, but could be incredibly useful to someone else.

Take an inventory of your belongings and see which items would be most useful for others. If your church holds a charity auction or yard sale fundraiser, contribute these items to that cause to turn your stuff into cash for your tithe.

The Spirit of Tithing

At the end of the day, tithing is about making a gift to God the priority in your life. By that measure, your tithe — whether in the form of giving time, skill or possession — should come first in your planning. This doesn’t have to mean donating cash to your church before paying your bills, though. You can also make a personal commitment to volunteering that comes before other ways you might choose to spend your time.

And if you feel that you simply must give money to your church, that’s okay, too. Give what you can comfortably afford and combine your gift with some of the suggestions above. You can also designate your tax refund for the offering plate, or take on a side gig with the express purpose of using that extra income as your tithe. With some creativity and a generous heart, you can make a meaningful gift to God and your community.

About the author

Beth Trach

Elizabeth Trach is a writer and editor living in Newburyport, MA. She also sings in a band, grows almost all her own food, and occasionally even cooks it. You can catch up on all her adventures in frugal living and extreme gardening at Port Potager.


  • Well at least you offer the concepts of being generous with time and talents. Unfortunately most churches are only interested in cash. Tithing is an Old Covenant command and not for the Church. Give what you can. No pressure. No curse for not giving.

  • The first record of a tithe in scripture was when Abram tithed once to the King of Salem, Melchizedek, from the spoils of war (which included captives). Abram returned the rest, minus a small portion for his troops, to the King of Sodom. Some history buffs have noted that this type of tithe was like a tax and was an Arabic custom of the time. There is no record of Abram ever tithing from his own increase before of after this account. There is also no record of anyone else actually tithing until the Israelites, who were under Mosaic Law. (Ref Gen 14)

    The Israelites were commanded to tithe from the food produced in the land of Canaan. They tithed to the Levites, who in turn tithed to the priests. They also tithed to the needy and they tithed for a festival where they ate the tithe.

    Some speak of tithes being money, but there’s nowhere in scripture where God ever commanded a monetary tithe even though scripture from Genesis forward indicates the people traded with money (see Gen 47, Deuteronomy 14, Matthew 17, Matthew 22 for examples). The tithes God commanded were always food (Leviticus 27:30).

    Many err and don’t divide scripture correctly when they reference Malachi. They teach obedience in tithing carries a promise per Malachi 3:10. However, one needs to read Mal 1:1 and 2:1 for context. This was written for the Israelites and their priests, who were under Mosaic Law. The blessings of rebuking the devourer and curses in Mal 3:10 were for the Israelites – not the Church as we are not under the law per Gal 5 and other NT scripture. Additionally, Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13), so the curses don’t apply either.

    Many also err when they states the Lord calls US (the Church) to “prove Him,” in Mal 3. Again, this was not written to the Church, it was written to the Israelites who were under the covenant of the law. The Church is under a new covenant are we are free to give as we purpose in our hearts and not of necessity (2Cor 9:7); however, we reap as we sow (2Cor 9:6). And God does promise to care for our needs when we give (2Cor 9:8).

    Another error is think Jesus is speaking to the Church in Matt 23:23. Jesus is actually chastising Pharisees who are under the law. Note also that they were tithing food even though they certainly had money (Matt 17:24-27 and 22:15-22).

    In short, although we’re under no command to give any specific percentage of our income, scripture does encourage us to be generous and to take care of the needy (Matt 25:33-46). Further, God should always be first in our hearts and next to that we should love our fellow man (Matthew 22:36-40 and Galatians 5:14). If we place money before God, we are serving money and we cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).

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