Thoughts on the guy who ended the Starbucks ‘pay it forward’ line

So this morning I saw a headline about a guy in Florida who purposefully refused to pay it forward and ended a run of over 450 people. Okay, I admit it. My initial reaction was – what a jerk, it wouldn’t have killed him to keep it going, I mean, he was going to buy his own coffee anyway, right?!

Then I read the article, which incorporated his statement on why he refused. And now, I kind of agree with him. Yeah, someone did something nice that got it started. And the whole idea of paying it forward is wonderful. But when it’s mostly peer pressure and no one is actually being helped, then where is the benefit except to the person that generously starts the chain? 

I understand from the article that the guy who ended it was in the drive-thru line. Probably not a lot of homeless people use the drive-thru to buy a cup of coffee. And if someone has to resort to living in their car (thankfully, I never have, so I’m speaking from a place of not knowing), I would imagine they would not go to Starbucks for overpriced coffee. I get that Starbucks isn’t about just a cup of coffee – it’s an experience. I’m just saying that if you’re having to live in your car, you probably want the cup of coffee and not the experience, and will therefore go elsewhere. You probably wouldn’t get in line at the drive-thru and hope for a cup of free coffee. 

But let’s backup a little. Like the guy said, when the barista informs you that your coffee was paid for already and asks if you want to pay for the next person’s coffee, it becomes a peer pressure situation. 

This is far from the first time we’ve heard about paying it forward at Starbucks. And while I’m sure it started out with the best of intentions – to bring a smile to someone who isn’t expecting anything – I think it might have gone too far and is starting to become more of a socially expected situation, rather like tipping at restaurants even when you’ve had subpar service. I probably wouldn’t have been able to say no if I had been in that line. I would’ve felt bad about being ‘the one that broke the streak’. 

How about we go back to the roots of ‘pay it forward’ and honor the movement at its core by actually giving a leg up or a helping hand to someone who could really use it. For example, take that $5 you would have used at a Starbucks, where I’m pretty sure the person behind you also has $5, and go to a grocery store. Find a checkout line with an elderly person buying a large number of cat food cans but noticeably no human food, or a stressed-looking mom with all generic labels in her basket and a look on her face that you can tell is her calculating if she’ll have to leave something behind, or an exhausted looking blue-collar worker with only the bare minimum in his basket and a hungry look on his face. Hand the cashier your $5 and ask them to apply it to that person’s grocery bill. Now that’s paying it forward at its true meaning – being thankful for all you have and showing your thankfulness by helping someone else and giving them something to look up and smile about. 

Or maybe next time you’re at the gas station and run inside to by a splurge candy bar or energy drink, and you see that person counting their change and asking the attendant for $3 in gas. Maybe try giving them a boost and adding an extra couple bucks to their tank. 

I can’t help but feel using ‘pay it forward’ in this manner can have such a bigger, more positive impact on the world, than feeling obligated to buy the next person’s Starbucks coffee, when you’re fairly certain they can more than afford it anyway and might even be expecting you to pay for their coffee. Helping someone truly in need is good for them obviously, but it’s also good for you. It’ll perk up your spirits to know that you did a good deed and helped someone. Let’s get back to buying our own coffee, please.


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