Small Acts of Kindness, Big Results: Pay It Forward



Retirement Number retire earlyThe other day, I went through the drive-thru at Chick-fil-A, after a late night of facilitating Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.  I was a bit distracted as I was replaying the night in my head.  That evening’s topic was retirement and college planning, which is my favorite lesson to teach.  


While I’m usually introverted, the topic of retirement and college planning sparks something in me that brings about extroversion.  I find myself talking to everyone about their investments and some of the research I’ve read over the years and feel recharged afterwards, instead of drained.


The class went long, and I had to lock up.  I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I reached my car.  Because my hunger snuck up on me, all I could think about was getting a quick bite ASAP.  But then, something occurred that had never happened to me before.  


Best Chick-fil-A Sandwich Ever

The driver in front of me paid for my meal.  Even though my meal was only a couple of dollars, I have to admit that I was really touched and grateful that someone would be so considerate and kind.  Who knows, maybe it came from a Rockstar Community Fund contributor!


Either way, I thought to myself, let me return the favor by blessing the person behind me.  So I paid for their meal, which thankfully wasn’t a bus load of kids.  I’m not sure how well that transaction would have fit into our budget.  Regardless though, I was curious if the pay-it-forward chain would continue at Chick-fil-A after me.  Unfortunately, I didn’t stick around to find out.


1000+ Acts of Kindness

random acts of kindnessRecently, I read that the record for a pay-it-forward is over 1,000 transactions, compiled over three days at a Connecticut Starbucks drive-thru.  Can you imagine being an employee there and watching all those surprised faces knowing the driver in front of them paid for them?  I’d hate to be the grump that ended that streak.


While I was really excited to receive the free meal, it was an even better feeling knowing that I could brighten someone else’s day as well.  


Helper’s High

small acts of kindnessThis feeling that comes after doing something nice for someone else is known as the “helper’s high” among psychologists.  Researchers theorize that the sensation is due to a release of endorphins, feel-good chemicals in your brain oftentimes associated with an exercise high.


A 2008 study conducted by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton found that giving money to others lifted the happiness levels of the study’s participants, more so than if a participant had spent the money on his or her self, confirming the “helper’s high.”


Here is the even crazier part about random acts of kindness.  


It’s contagious.


Effect on Bystanders

A study done by James Fowler, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, found that if a bystander witnessed a random act of generosity, that they themselves would be more likely to do something similar.   “As a result,” Fowler wrote, “each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met.”


small acts of kindnessScientists refer to this chain of altruism as “upstream reciprocity”, but the layman’s term for this is the domino effect.


Recently I was at a BBQ restaurant when a well-dressed businessman saw three Army Rangers in line behind them.  He walked up to them and thanked them for their service and then offered to pay for their meals.  


As someone witnessing this act, his thoughtfulness struck me.  In turn, I felt motivated to do something similar when given the chance.  Wouldn’t you know, the next week I had the opportunity when two soldiers were in line behind me.  At first I wanted to chicken out, but I summoned up the courage, and lo and behold, I did it.  


Mimicking Behaviors

small acts of kindnessHonestly, if it weren’t for that businessman setting an example, I may have never worked up enough courage.  That type of example is what motivates others to operate in a similar fashion.


So why is it that when we witness generosity that it spurs us to do something generous on our own?  According to Fowler, we as humans often mimic behavior that we see.  This might explain why customers took part in the uninterrupted 1000+ pay-it-forward chain.


A survey of happiness in 136 countries, completed in 2010 at the Harvard Business School, found people, who are altruistic and financially generous, were happiest overall.


Paying for those soldiers’ meals was definitely some of the best money that I’ve spent in a long time.  Maybe if more people gave it a try, they would get hooked on the “helper’s high”.


My Resolve

My goal is to do some sort of act of kindness each day now.  This doesn’t necessarily mean monetarily, but even simply an encouraging word or a helpful hand.  My hope is that my small action would make a big difference in the course of the beneficiary’s day.


So readers, have you ever received or blessed a stranger with an unexpectant gift?  Have you participated in a pay-it-forward situation?  Share your thoughts below.

Mustard Seed Money

Welcome to the website. A mustard seed is a very small seed but astonishingly grows very large over time. My hope is that through your financial journey that your small investment in time, money and faith will grow beyond anything that you could ever imagine.


    • Thanks for stopping Daniel!!! I definitely agree it’s nice to stop and smell the roses rather than being hyper focused on FIRE all the time.

    • I have done a few random acts over the years. Once a guy at a bar was short a dollar on his drink, I gave the bartender a dollar to cover it. The drunk guy happenned to be European and said, “in the Netherlands no one would ever do that.” I all of a sudden felt elated pride in my generous Country.

      Also as a bike commuter, I have had two occasions where it was very easy for me to pull over to the side of a road, and push a car that was stalling. If you are driving a car this isn’t so easy as you can’t park anywhere like I can. I felt happy each time.

      We also tipped a few people who said they were short on money, or a very happy guy who got a tip from us for taking our picture in Mexico. He was a maintenance guy and I don’t think anyone tipped him before.

      Either way, we seem to always get paid back in spades.

      • Thanks for sharing Finance Patriot!!! Sounds like you seem to be in the right place at the right time to help out people. That’s awesome to hear and something I definitely admire 🙂

  1. Good for you! Should probably follow your lead on this “paying it forward”. Just not sure how. We rarely go out for dinner or coffee, but will find a way to 🙂
    Team CF recently posted…April 2017 Savings RateMy Profile

  2. Awesome – I love this.

    I’ve thought about the “pay for the person behind me” but then I always wonder how that works out. Do they have to write down the $$ info? Or do I leave a certain amount of cash? I guess cash would be the way to go (as a fellow D.R. fan). If it more than covers it they can put it toward the 2nd person back.

    Anyway… stuck in the details there. This is a great practice and one more of us should do on a regular basis. Thanks for sharing!
    Financial Coach Brad recently posted…Free Online Investment Returns CalculatorMy Profile

  3. I love reading the research on acts of kindness. It really shows scientific proof that we were designed to be thoughtful and generous. It is in human nature to be good people. It is nice to think about that when confronted with the horrors of the nightly news.
    Matt @ Optimize Your Life recently posted…Make Space to Be WrongMy Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by Matt!!! It is really interesting to see how we are really hard wired. I definitely wish the news balanced out one terrible story with one uplifting story 🙂

  4. Great stuff. I’ve done this a few times. I usually purchase gifts cards and give them to a cashier and have them pay for the next few meals/drinks. I did this at Starbucks at Christmas. I’ve also done this with my $20 Rockstar Community Fund gift card, and I match it, so I hand over $40 at a local hospital Starbucks recently to pay for others drinks. Love random acts of kinds!
    Brian recently posted…Work is a BurdenMy Profile

  5. I love that you paid for the soldiers’ meals. Our military does so much for us. In the beginning of 2015, we decided as a family to work on being better givers. The benefits have returned to us many times over. Whether it’s a simple smile given to a stranger or paying for a meal or giving a compliment to someone, those acts of kindness make the world a better place. Great post, Rob.

    • Thanks for sharing Laurie!!! That is awesome that you and your family are instilling in your family being an awesome giver. Sounds like something that will make impact for generations 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing Full Time Finance!!! That’s an awesome feeling to receive that gift and even better to share it with someone else 🙂 Awesome story!!!

  6. This is so wonderful! I haven’t had this happen to me in this way, but I’m sure it’s nice. I did hear about a guy who paid for a huuuuuge drive-thru order to keep the Pay It Forward chain going. He was all about it until his bill was $70! Apparently the people behind him were feeding a baseball team or something nuts lol.

    It’s nice to have someone else pay for you, but I do prefer other kindnesses that don’t pressure people into paying for other people if they can’t (what if you can’t afford the meal of the person behind you?). It can include anonymously leaving a gift card in a stranger’s mail box, donating the funds to a shelter, etc.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…What a Frugal Weekend! May 7My Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Mrs. Picky Pincher!!! I definitely agree it can put some social pressure if you really can’t afford it. Especially if you’re paying for a whole baseball team 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by Erik!!! That’s awesome how much you pour into your alma mater. I’m sure those students get a ton of wisdom from you.

      I checked the flavicon and saw a budding plant…but I’ll have to check with others to see what’s going on. Thanks for the heads up!!!

  7. People try to ignore it, but we are absolutely ruled by herd instincts. It’s why I despise mobs. The groupthink takes over and can pull good people along with it, sucking them down into a vortex of stupidity.

    Thus I tend to treasure good groups and institutions. They are worth protecting for the good they spread.

    As a Marine I have received the kindness and blessings of others regularly. It is a humbling yet empowering experience. It reminds the warrior their ethical savagery is valued by those they protect. The love is nice, but the duty is heavy.
    Jack Catchem recently posted…How to Double Tap a Police Pension With Social SecurityMy Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Jack!!! I definitely agree that the mob mentality is awful and is often times dangerous.

      BTW…thank you for your service both as a marine and an officer!!!

  8. YES! I love this! I started being more intentional about acts of kindness after the Rockstar Community Fund started back in December. I gave away that first gift card and was on a high the rest of the day. There’s no feeling like it in the world. Around Christmas time we had someone pay for our groceries. It brought tears to my eyes – good tears. It’s a glorious circle! Thank you so much for this post! 🙂
    Amanda @ recently posted…What would you do if there was no tomorrow?My Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Amanda!!! Isn’t it amazing how buying someone else’s groceries can move YOU to tears. I never thought giving would feel that good but it’s an amazing feeling 🙂

  9. Haven’t been the lucky recipient of this type of good natured fun, but I love the thought of it. I unfortunately am the guy who gets into the drive through and have to correct the fast food chain on the order as somehow they mix me up with the person behind me more often than not. Clearly I ordered 13 Big Macs, Cokes, and fries for myself….

  10. We participated in a Starbucks pay-it-forward chain last summer in Chambersburg, PA. It was really nice.

    But, the best thing that happened to us was at a Perkin’s in Hanover, PA. My wife and I were with our son and we were trying to figure out where to move. We were in a situation where I was relocating for a job and we were leaving a really expensive home in a very expensive area. God blessed us with a stranger picking up our whole breakfast tab. It was incredible. My wife and I wanted to cry (I believe she did).

    It really is the little things.

    • Thanks for sharing Dave!!! That’s awesome that someone picked up your whole breakfast tab. That must have felt like an incredible blessing!!!

  11. I’d pay to stand next to the drive thru cashier at Starbucks just to see each customer’s reaction and appreciation. I just feel like it’s human nature to feel good when we make others feel good….and that’s a great feeling. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t participated in a pay it forward situation. The closest I came was to pay for a friend’s toll on a highway whose car was behind mine.
    SMM recently posted…Are Colleges Teaching Personal Finance?My Profile

    • I definitely agree SMM that I would love to work the drive thru with all the surprised looking faces. Definitely something that’s would bring a smile to my face.

  12. This post made me so happy! So nice to hear that people are helping each other and paying it forward. My husband and I are huge fans of paying it forward, and like you said, in more ways than just monetarily. Sometimes even the smallest things can change a person’s day. I remember a time at work where someone was having a bad day and I just asked them if they wanted to go for a walk and grab a coffee. We talked for a few minutes and then headed back to our desk. At the end of the day she sent me an emailing thanking me for everything, and that the coffee break really helped her get through the rest of the day. As you say in the title, sometimes the smallest things can have the biggest rewards. Our big pay it forward goal this year is to start a small scholarship at our respective high schools that a student can earn at award night and use towards their college education. We figured it was a nice way to give back to our community and the younger generations.
    Courtney @ Your Average Dough recently posted…Is It Okay To Splurge?My Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Courtney!!! Isn’t it amazing how little moments like walking with someone to get coffee can have such a big impact in their day. I bet she went home and told a dozen people about that moment. I love hearing stories like that!!!

  13. I have never experienced anything like this before. Maybe because I don’t go to the drive through a lot. However, I think that it’s a great idea to show people in our society more appreciation and just to make someone’s day by showing a random act of kindness. Our society will be much more friendly if everyone just shows one act of kindness a day. Even once a week is still good.
    Leo T. Ly @ recently posted…Showing Your Appreciation For Mom On Mother’s DayMy Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Leo!!! I definitely think it would be really fun to see how society would react if more people were in the giving mood 🙂

  14. Small acts of kindness for others has great impact on your happiness. We feel like if the small acts don’t truly change the pace for your goals, then it is well worth the expense :).

    Awesome article – thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks for stopping by Master Duke!!! I definitely agree that small acts really aren’t going to change your FIRE trajectory but may go a long way for someone else 🙂

  15. I have never been in a pay it forward situation. I would keep the chain going if I ever found myself in such a situation. At the moment, I am coaching two families manage and pay off their debt. I am doing it for free and it has truly been a blessing me.
    Michael recently posted…cellsavers – My Cell Phone Repair ExperienceMy Profile

    • Thanks for sharing Michael!!! That’s awesome that you are able to coach two families pay off their debt!!! I am sure they will be eternally grateful 🙂

  16. Love this! Brings a smile to my face. The 1,000 pay-it-forward chain is so awesome. And definitely makes me want to show acts of kindness more often. 🙂

  17. Nice story, MSM! Love it. I participated in the #GivingCards with the Rockstar Community Fund when J$ and Nate launched the program in December. I matched the card value and gave it to an employee battling cancer at our local grocery store. This month I matched another card and donated it to a pet rescue. I also donate to the program monthly so others can get giving cards and get in on the acts, spreading the love. 🙂

  18. Although I don’t do an act of kindness everyday (OMG, can’t believe I just admitted to that!), I do try to do acts of kindness at least a few times a month. I appreciated when people donated to my Go Fund Me a friend hosted in my honor so I try to donate to others and to buy food for people and supplies for kitties in need. Great post!

    • Thanks for sharing Athena!!! The kindness of strangers is always so uplifting 🙂 Sounds like you are repaying the favor from your friends!!!

  19. This happened to me a few months ago when I was at Dunkin Donuts. I too was taken aback. I paid it forward to the person who was behind me in line.
    Dave recently posted…Become a NurseMy Profile

  20. Wow! I’ve never heard of that happening at a drive through before. That is awesome! Love that story. I’ve had that happen to me at a toll booth once but that was the only time I can remember. Random acts of kindness are so awesome.

  21. Always a good reminder for those that are so blessed to do more. It does feel good to help others. We talk about it all the time, but we know we could be doing more than we do. We always talk about having more time in early retirement, but you don’t have to wait to be generous with your time, money, or energy!
    Mrs.Need2Save recently posted…The Raging Mortgage DebateMy Profile

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