Now is the time to use our resources to help those in need.

Every December, I share a spendy holiday restaurant meal with my mother and sister. It's a once-a-year treat this trio of otherwise budget-conscious women have always enjoyed. But last year, my mother wore the wrinkled creases of worry on her brow as we finished up and paid the bill. She was quiet for most of the ride home, until she said, "I feel bad. There are so many people struggling, and we just spent all that money on dinner."

She's right.

In Ohio last year, about 16 percent of families were living below the poverty line, up from about 10 percent in 1999. The poverty level is $23,050 for a family of four. The Homeless Families Foundation said some central Ohio family homeless shelters are serving twice as many families than they were designed to house. Child homelessness increased 38 percent between 2007 and 2010, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

Mom was right. Now is the time to use our resources to help those in need.

This year, we're making a new holiday tradition. We're skipping the fancy dinner. Instead, we'll have a homemade meal, then use the money we would have spent to fill wish lists and shoeboxes with goodies for others.

There are many opportunities to give. Operation Shoebox (operationshoebox.com), organized by Pickerington mom Sherri Snyder, assembles care packages for U.S. troops serving overseas. She's even gotten a few thank-you emails from those who received her boxes. "It was really cool," she said.

Operation Christmas Child (samaritanspurse.org/what-we-do/operation-christmas-child) has you fill a shoebox with age-appropriate toys and necessities such as socks and toothbrushes for children in 130 countries.

I'm a big fan of giving trees at local churches and service organizations. They have paper "ornaments," which bear the wish list of a local child or nursing home resident. I'm humbled by how simple and inexpensive their wishes often are, such as a bottle of lotion, a box of chocolates or a warm sweatshirt.

The Homeless Families Foundation (614-461-9247, ext. 116 or kgallegos@homelessfamiliesfoundation.org) has a holiday store, where homeless parents can choose new, free toys and children's clothes. You can donate cash or new clothes and toys until Dec. 13.

This year, my family has "adopted" three children through Franklin County Children's Services Holiday Wish (franklincountyohio.gov/children_services/news-and-events/events/holiday-wish.cfm), which supplies gifts to children in foster care. You can make a general toy donation or adopt a child and fill his or her specific list. The agency asks for the gifts by Dec. 6, so they can be delivered in time for the holidays.

Other "free" stores like this one pop up this time of year or run all year. Many take new and gently-used toys and clothes. Examples include The God's Child Gift Shop run by the South Perry United Methodist Church in Hocking County (740-877-8281), the Welcome Warehouse in Dublin (welcomewarehouse.org) and the Free Store run by the Maple Street United Methodist in Lancaster (740-687-6384). You'd be surprised what a gift a bottle of shampoo or a warm coat can be.

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.