How we could really pay it forward.

Photo used with Creative Commons License from user Michael Allen Smith

I know I’m supposed to like random acts of kindness. I know they are supposed to make me feel like we are all on the same team, cheering each other on and not caring about the recognition that goes with kindness. But they don’t. 

Today I read about the “Pay it Forward” streak that lasted for 11 hours in Florida. Instead of brightening my day, it made me want to hug the woman who ended the streak. The barista said the woman who put a halt to the 141 customer sequence “didn’t seem to understand the concept”. Welcome to my world.

I was also confused the first time the car in front of me bought my drink at Starbucks. 

“Oh,” I mumbled, “why?”

It is a nice thing to do, I learned, to buy someone’s drink when they aren’t expecting it. It also, I learned, is then expected that you do the same for the person behind you. So I did. 

The second time it happened I felt a twinge of guilt. Not only had I ordered a fancy coffee drink, but I had ordered a fancy breakfast sandwich to go with it! Of course I had to pay for the person behind me, and they had purchased the practical drip coffee that I should have ordered. I just made money off being high maintenance, I thought.

The next time it happened I was downright angry. The entire process doesn’t make sense to me. By buying coffee for the person behind you, you negate the entire “kindness” that is being directed toward you. Someone eventually receives the kindness (whoever breaks the chain) but then they are assumed to either be A) A jerk who hates kindness or B) they don’t “seem to understand the concept.”

The last time it happened to me I finally understood fully why this bothers me so much. The barista told me it had been going on for over 1 hour, so I reluctantly yanked out my money and paid for a stranger’s drink.  I pulled out of the drive through and immediately saw a presumably homeless man holding a sign within yards of the Starbucks I was at. I wondered how many of those folks who were so interested in “paying it forward” gave him even a second glance?

Here was a man who clearly needed help. Here was a line full of coffee drinkers who clearly didn’t. I was fully intending on paying for my fancy drink and fancy sandwich on this morning and every other morning I drive through to get coffee. Therefore I have had the conversation with myself about my current financial situation, therefore I have money to pay for it, therefore I don’t need help. 

And I get that it is still a nice seeming thing to do. Surprise someone. Give them a gift they never asked for. But what makes me angry, what makes me want to slam down my double-soy-vanilla-latte, is that we don’t help people when they actually ask for it. 

When people ask me what I learned from being a single mom for many years, my answer is always quick and blunt. I learned to ask for help. Which is different than learning to accept help. Accepting help is hard, but it is also inevitable. We all need help sometimes. ASKING for help can feel downright impossible. Probably because we tend to not listen when people actually do say they need help. 

It is easier to look the other way. It is easier to judge how they got in that situation. It is easier to fund a fancy coffee for someone in line at Starbucks. It is difficult to listen to a person who has had to ask for help. 

But it is way harder to ask. Whether the asking is for a ride to the store, two hours of child care, or money to make rent. Whether the asking is for social services, for mental health resources, or for a free meal. No matter how big or small, how slight or monumental it might seem, asking is really hard to do. 

So don’t buy me coffee and feel like you did something nice. If you really want to help someone, if you really want to start a kindness revolution, give it to someone who needs it. Better yet, give it to someone who asks. They deserve coffee after what they’ve been through. I deserve the hefty fee for my fancy drink that I set out to pay. 


  • HELLS YES. You going through a Starbucks, what the f**k you need a pay-it-forward for??


  • First of all, I’m a little jealous because no one has ever bought my coffee at Starbucks…so maybe I just need to go more often. BUT, more importantly, excellent point, thank you.


  • I had much the same reaction, I think I would feel a little weirded out that some random person I don’t even know now knows exactly how much money I was planning to spend on my morning fix….seriously, if you know what I ordered and how much it cost i feel like I should at least have had the opportunity to say hello. I am weird though about my personal business being mine though and freely admit I can take it overboard at times.

    I love your point though and thought the same thing, instead of buying someones $5 plus coffee while don’t you give that 5 bucks to someone who may not otherwise be able to eat today…..yeah I know its not as cute and fun.

    the subject burns me because its not how it started , it started with something like the mother trying to buy her kids gifts for Christmas in a lay a way and almost losing them all cause she at the end simply not being able to afford them until someone stepped in. It started with a child in a grocery store eyes downcast because she knows there is no money for anything fun while her mom try’s to feed her on what they have until someone steps in and makes the child’s day a little brighter. Its tarted with the the homeless guy trying to eat and the person who takes a minute to buy him a sandwich. It started with the car broke down on the side of the road and the person who stopped to help. It started with a pair of shoes for someone who didn’t have any or they was just to worn to count ,with a meal for someone who was clearly struggling, with a dollar given to the person ahead of you in line that miscalculated something.Its tarted with a blanket given on a cold night, with a smile for a person who’s world just crashed.

    It starts with a conversation overheard on a bus where a mom asked her young child if he ate lunch at school because they had no money for dinner, telling him she was sorry and she would be getting paid soon while another mom sits nearby listening and thinking of the fridge full of food she just bought for hers, down to her last 5 dollars but suddenly thankful again suddenly, how the little things she was planning to by herself with that 5 dollars no longer seems important. she pulls the cord to get off the bus and on the way out smiles at that mother and without a word hands her the 5 hoping that she could convey with a look and small gesture of kindness all the things caught in her throat ….how she hopes that mother knows that as she was helping with the money she was also thankful for that reminder

    It started pure and is being tarnished by gimmicky nonsense , that makes me very sad because I have lived on both ends and while I always fed my child good healthy food that often times meant I went without for the day, I will never forget the small things like that dollar at the store or the stranger who brightened my daughters day nor will i forget the haunted look of pure gratitude mixed with shame as I handed another what she clearly needed for her child more than what than I did.

    Pay it forward and simple acts of kindness is about humanity in its purest form not buying a stranger a freaking latte and I for one will not take part in gimmicks…it simply takes more than that for me to feel like parting with my money. your overpriced coffee is not a worthy cause, the child eating dinner or the stranger with the broken dryer and no more quarters at the laundry mat does so much more for me


  • I love your point of view and your story made me smile. I have never heard of the ‘chain’ of paying it forward. It should be random, and not expected.

    I wrote a post about buying food for someone on the street. It was a spare of the moment act. Not planned or expected.


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