23 Easy Ideas to Pay It Forward

By Alice Garbarini Hurley · September 16, 2022 · 8 minute read

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23 Easy Ideas to Pay It Forward

Most of us know the term “pay it forward.” It is an act of kindness and giving, from passing along soccer cleats to the younger player next-door to volunteering in a soup kitchen as a way of giving back. It’s all about putting generosity into action and participating in a cycle of giving that empowers both you and others.

By paying your good fortune (financial, healthwise, or otherwise) forward, you both help others and may inspire people to also give what they can to assist others and lift spirits.

The United Nations lists 17 goals to transform the world. The positive actions have the potential, the UN says, to change our lives and our planet and “to enable all people to contribute to the betterment of the world.”

Need some affordable ways to be part of this positive change? Read on to learn 23 ways to do just that, including:

•   Gestures that lift spirits, from running errands to letting people take your place in line

•   Giving back to your community

•   Passing on meaningful possessions instead of tossing them.

Is Paying It Forward the Same as Karma?

The concepts of paying it forward and karma are similar yet different.

Paying it forward involves helping others without expecting anything in return, except the hope, perhaps, that the recipient might keep the cycle going, thus making the world a better place. You may also have heard of this concept called “random acts of kindness.”

The word karma, on the other hand, comes from the Hindu and Buddhist religious concept that a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence decide their future fate when reincarnated.

In everyday usage, the idea is that if we send the universe positive energy, also known as good karma, it will come back to us. On the flip side, bad karma is often believed to bring more bad events or bad luck.

Simple Ways to Pay It Forward

If you’d like to test-drive some pay-it-forward ideas, there are plenty of options. Here, you’ll find 23; notice how doing one can make you want to try another.

1. Letting Someone Go in Front of You in Line

This is a present to a harried parent with a sick child at the pharmacy or a driver merging into a crowded highway toll lane. Kindness is connection in a busy world and is applicable anywhere, from an airport restroom to Home Depot aisles.

2. Paying for a Stranger’s Coffee or Meal

At Starbucks, several hundred customers have kept drive-thru pay-it-forward chains going, each covering the tab of the customer in the car behind them. But you could also buy someone a java at any coffee shop or drive-through, or be kind and give the cashier money to pay for a full meal of another patron, just to make their day.

3. Sharing Your Green Thumb.

Tend the flowers in a public patch to give beauty to your town. Donate homegrown veggies to a food pantry, or leave extra zucchini, beans, rhubarb, and more by your mailbox for others to take for free. It could really help someone who is struggling to pay for groceries in a given month.

4. Donating Blankets, Pajamas, Socks, and Toiletries to Shelters

Unhoused families might move from shelter to shelter for available beds. Donate new blankets, PJs, socks, and unopened mini shampoos, lotions, and soaps from hotel stays for the gift of personal care.

Recommended: How to Make End-of-Year Donations

5. Leaving a Big Tip for a Server or Waiter

Servers and waitstaff are on their feet, catering to our whims (dressing on the side, hold the onions), and their base salary is generally low. Tips even the score. Yes, there are guidelines of how much you should tip, but occasionally, it can be nice to go a bit overboard. This is one of the fun pay-it-forward random acts of kindness: To surprise the server, slip them a generous cash bonus before you leave.

6. Returning Another Person’s Shopping Cart

This helps another customer in a crowded parking lot. Save them the extra steps and scoot their cart back once they’ve emptied it.

7. Sending an Email of Gratitude

Amid spam, advertising, and billing statements, a note of gratitude is a grace. Maybe it’s time to thank unheralded people like the school reading teacher or your family doctor for all they do every day.

8. Sharing Your Food With Someone

Are Costco multipacks too big to store, but you like the bargain prices? Share them with a friend or neighbor free of charge.

Recommended: 31 Tips for Cutting Your Grocery Bill

9. Learning the Names of People You See Every Day

Get to know the crossing guard, train conductor, and neighbor who walks her poodle by your house every morning. (Learn the poodle’s name, too.) This is a sign of respect and appreciation that says “I see you and notice you. You are not anonymous.”

10. Leaving Extra Quarters at the Laundromat

These shiny silver timesavers can be a real boon for the next person lugging in dirty wash and detergent.

11. Asking for Charitable Donations Instead of Gifts for Your Birthday

More and more kids and adults share this kind of gift request on Facebook and in party invitations. Money goes to good causes, from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to the World Wildlife Fund, rather than material gifts. Need inspiration? Spend a bit of time researching the best charities to support.

12. Helping Someone With a Task

Give a neighbor a hand raking leaves, shoveling snow, or with a work-related task, such as proofreading a resume or printing a document. Offering to help without any payment expected can deepen your bonds.

13. Writing a Recommendation for a Coworker

Leave a golden review on LinkedIn or write a glowing letter someone can take along when leaving a job. This can help them move ahead in their professional pursuits.

Recommended: Financial Moves to Make During a Job Transition

14. Writing a Message to Someone Who Made a Difference in Your Life

Did your fifth-grade teacher see in you skills other people missed? Did your first boss train you in a way that’s made your work life so much easier? A handwritten note or card sent by snail mail is one of the best pay-it-forward examples. You’ll probably make their day and then some.

Giving Away Items on Letgo, Craigslist, Etc.

Your daughter’s riding boots from all those lessons at the horse barn deserve a good home. So does the dollhouse your brother built her. Instead of tossing them in haste, post them on sites so someone else can nab them, like freecycle sites or Nextdoor or a local Facebook group. Reduce/reuse/recycle helps the planet, too.

16. Encouraging Someone Who Needs It With a Few Words

We all need some positive encouragement now and then. Say “You got this” to a parent who is job-hunting or “Good for you, walking” when you pass someone on a steep hill.

Recommended: 5 Ways to Achieve Financial Security

17. Leaving Coupons Next to Corresponding Products in the Grocery Store

That diaper coupon you can’t use because your baby is too big now? Leave the coupon on a package for another shopper. Same with any other coupons that could brighten someone else’s day.

18. Purchasing Extra Food to Leave at Shelters

When you go grocery shopping, add shelf-stable pasta, sauce, rice, nuts, boxed milk, nut butters, wholesome cereals, and canned fruit for others in need. You could also make a monetary donation to a shelter or other nonprofit.

Recommended reading: Things to Do with Your Tax Refund

19. Cleaning Up Your Local Beach or Public Area

Bring trash bags, gloves, and perhaps family members to help collect garbage that clogs our natural areas. You can also help keep plastic out of our bodies of water this way.

20. Running an Errand for a Busy Loved One

Is your sister a full-time nurse raising two kids? Once a week, drop off a heat-and-eat dinner or shuttle kids home from activities.

21. Volunteering Your Time

Whether you make it a regular or a once-in-a-while activity, give a couple of hours of your time. Help at church, the school library, the local soup kitchen, or town park and garden cleanups. Volunteering can prove to be a fun, free way to spend your leisure time.

22. Donating Blood

Sign up to donate blood or give platelets (The latter takes longer but meets critical needs.) You leave on a high, knowing hospitals, patients, and their families are waiting for your vital gift.

23. Giving up Your Seat to Someone

Do it on the subway, bus, or train. If you’re hailing a taxi and other people are waiting, too, why not let them get the first one? It’s a nice way to be charitable.

Banking With SoFi

Paying it forward can help improve our world, little by little. You might give money, time, skills, or all of the above. A random act of kindness in your apartment building, or even with courteous driving, can turn someone’s bad day around. Looking out for another person, not just for yourself, makes everyone feel better.

That said, it’s wise to take care of your money so you’re in a position to give back to others. A SoFi Checking and Savings account can help you do just that. When you open an online bank account, you’ll earn a competitive APY and pay no fees, which can help your money grow. You’ll also have a suite of features that help you track and optimize your spending and saving.

Better banking is here with up to 4.20% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.


How do I pay it forward at work?

In the office, treat co-workers to coffee and fruit as an act of friendship and gratitude. If everyone on your team is now remote, make a donation in their names to a nonprofit near company headquarters.

Where did the concept of “pay it forward” begin?

The phrase may be traced to the 1916 book, In the Garden of Delight, by Lily Hardy Hammond: “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward,” she wrote. There was a movie with the title “Pay It Forward” in 2000, and a Pay It Forward Day launched in 2007 in Australia and has been adopted by many counties as an opportunity to do acts of kindness.

How often should you pay for kindness?

The term “pay for kindness” is a misnomer. We do not pay for kindness. Rather, we can pay forward to others the thoughtful gestures and generosity we received by keeping the cycle going. And if we receive an act of kindness, we can repay it by doing one too.

Photo credit: iStock/Vladimir Vladimirov

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