As a financial writer, I'm always on the lookout for signs that Americans are making good decisions with their money. Sadly, I haven't found many recently, but here's one: soaring gas prices, economic worries, and plummeting property values aside, Americans gave a record (subscription required) $306.39 billion to charity in 2007, an increase of 3.9% over 2006. It was a much slower rate of growth than we've seen in recent years but, all things considered, you have to be pleased that there was any growth at all. The data comes from the Giving USA Foundation, a reputable organization that tracks these things. Charitable giving accounted for 2.2% of GDP.

The data for 2008 won't be available for another year, but it's hard to see how people will keep up the giving growth: the same factors that made people more tentative in 2007 have only gotten worse so far: gas prices, housing, and the economy.

Here's my advice on giving, which may or may not be popular: if you're struggling to make ends meet this year, don't be afraid to cut back on your philanthropy temporarily. If you can't take of yourself, you're no good to anyone else in the long run. Too many Americans don't have anything close to enough in savings for retirement, a burden that will be placed on future generations -- so maybe continuing to fund your own IRA is the most important giving you can do in an economy like this.

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