There are a lot of ways to make a meaningful contribution one person (or family) at a time—right now—without spending much money.

We're living in uncertain times. The political tone is downright nasty and the future of everything from health care to tax deductions for charitable giving is up in the air. But when times are tough, it's even more crucial for people to live generously.

Living generously can encompass a lot of things. It can mean donating time and money to charity, of course. But at its heart, the concept is about more than money. It means finding ways to help leave some small corner of the world better than we found it.

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to make a meaningful contribution one person (or family) at a time—right now—without spending much money.

Here are a few ideas to get started.

Cheer Up a Child

Cards for Hospitalized Kids (cardsforhospitalizedkids.com) sends homemade greetings to chronically and terminally ill children in hospitals across the U.S. Make a card following their guidelines, then mail it to the organization. The program was founded by Jen Rubino, who became a “hospital kid” in 2006 at age 11 when she was diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder.

To write directly to a specific child, Send Kids the World (sendkidstheworld.com) has a directory of hospitalized youth who would like to receive cards.

One caveat: It's important to follow each organization's guidelines about what to say. For instance, Cards for Hospitalized Kids recommends phrases such as “Stay strong” and “Be brave” instead of “Get well soon.”

If you'd like to make an impact closer to home, consider assembling activity and craft bags or toiletry kits for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Learn more at nationwidechildrens.org/wish-list-gifts-to-make.

All of these are easy activities to do with your family, but they also make great service learning projects for local youth groups.

Help the Military

Many U.S. service members are stationed around the world, away from friends and family. Brighten their day with a letter or care package. Many groups make this easy to do, such as Operation Gratitude (operationgratitude.com/writeletters) and A Million Thanks (amillionthanks.org), which has sent more than 7 million cards to active duty military members and veterans since its founding in 2004. Or, assemble a care package for soldiers, veterans and wounded vets in the hospital. For details, go to operationgratitude.com.

Plant a Tree

Join the Arbor Day Foundation and get 10 saplings with a new $10 membership. Choose from a list of trees suited to Central Ohio, including flowering varieties, oaks, white pine, blue spruce, white dogwood and eastern redbud. Go to arborday.org for more information.

Columbus' Branch Out program aims to plant 300,000 trees citywide. Residents can register for a free seedling to pick up this spring. (Caveat: There might not be enough to go around. All 1,000 available in the fall were claimed.) For more information, go to columbus.gov/branch-out.

Homeowners might qualify for a rebate through the GreenSpot program by planting a recommended tree in Columbus or select suburbs. Find the list of available incentives at greenspotbackyards.org/participate.

The Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District sells low-cost trees—bundles of five or 10 bare-root specimens are as little as $6—through spring and fall plant sales. The agency also sells perennial flowers for bee, butterfly and other specialty gardens in spring. For more information, go to shop.franklinswcd.org.

Other Ideas

I hope these ideas have kick-started your giving spirit. Of course, they're just a fraction of the nearly endless ways one family can make a difference.

While you're thinking about it, consider other easy activities such as giving blood. It's free, it literally saves lives and when you're finished, you get a snack. Also, don't forget to designate a local organization or school as a beneficiary when you use your Giant Eagle and Kroger loyalty cards, and online via Amazon's Smile program.

Remember, charity is like money: Small change adds up!

—Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseTrowbridg.