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Why I Stopped Paying It Forward in the Drive-Thru

I have what may be an unpopular opinion about paying for the person behind me in the drive-thru. It’s not the “paying it forward” (or is that backward?) aspect that I have problems with. It’s what the practice has morphed into in the past few years.

Quite a few years ago, our local Christian radio station began encouraging people to “spread joy” during the first week of each month. Many people chose to do this by paying for the person behind them in the drive-thru lane (Starbucks, McDonald’s, wherever). My middle son was a young teen at the time, and we spent more than a little time together in the drive-thru lanes of fast food restaurants. When he heard about this new way to spread joy, he was all over it.

“Let’s do it! Next time we go to McDonald’s, we should do this!” The radio DJs talked up what a blessing we could be to others, to surprise strangers with a message that their bill had already been paid. My 13-year-old was 100% on board with this. Who was I to tell him that no, I didn’t want to bless others?

So we did it. While we waited in line, we talked about how the person behind us would feel and the ways that it might truly bless them. They might be having a really bad day, and this unexpected gift might remind them that someone cares, that they are loved by God. Or they might have just lost their job or be down to their last few dollars, and this unexpected gift might be a more practical blessing, demonstrating how God comes through when we need it most. We talked about sharing the love of Christ with a stranger in a tangible way, believing that God would bring just the right person behind us in the drive-thru for this moment.

I remember the first time we did this, the cashier was a little surprised, then happy to participate. My son was really enthusiastic about what we had done, and that meant at least as much to me as the blessing we had given to the man behind us.

At other times, we were the beneficiary of this type of kindness, once at Baskin-Robbins and once at Chick-fil-A. Both times almost brought tears to my eyes at this unexpected and entirely anonymous generosity. It was also a joy to share this with my children, that complete strangers had done this kind thing for us and wasn’t God good?

In the past few years, though, this “paying it forward” has morphed into something else. Today, quite often, when someone pays it forward in the drive-thru, it starts a chain reaction of everyone in line paying for the person behind them, and so on and so on. Cashiers start counting how many cars are paying for each other (we’re up to 8! now we’re at 15!). Customers realize what’s happening and ask the cashier how much is owed on the receipt behind them before deciding to participate in this game—a long chain of “blessing” from car to car.

But is it a blessing, really?

I know it might be fun—I get that. It’s fun to participate in a spontaneous group activity where you feel that you’re a part of something special, something bigger than yourself, and it may brighten a long and otherwise boring trip through the fast food or coffee drive-thru.

But is it a blessing?

Let’s say my son and I are sitting in the drive-thru and instead of being part of a one-time paying it forward, we become part of a paying it forward chain. Would I ask the cashier how much the person behind me owed? According to my daughter, who worked a drive-thru window for a couple of years, this is what most people do. Would I pay it if they owed $10? What about $50? That manner of thinking—“We can afford this, but not that”—isn’t why I originally wanted to participate in this.

What else would happen inside our car? Instantly, my son would have calculated how much our original tab had been, and then done the math to see if we had come out “ahead” or “behind” after paying someone else’s bill. I know this because I would have done it myself quite involuntarily—it’s the way my mind naturally works. The message here would have been, “It’s all just for fun, but let’s do the math anyway and see how it turned out.” Again, a seemingly harmless activity, and possibly beneficial to someone else (depending on how their math turns out should they choose to participate in the game). But is it a blessing?

I do know that the conversations with my son would have been very different if we had been in the middle of a chain of customers who were all paying it forward, and what a loss that would have been for both of us.

I haven’t paid for the car behind me in a drive-thru for in several years. I’ve written before about growing up poor, and the lingering effects of that even now in my adulthood. I think some of my discomfort with this trend is a result of that. I now worry that if I pay for someone behind me, they might feel obligated to “keep it going,” and I don’t want to be responsible for someone’s guilty or Scrooge-y feelings if they choose not to continue the string of payments. And my own happiness with an unselfish act would be diminished at the thought of starting this kind of chain reaction.

If I ever again find myself as the recipient of this blessing, I’ll feel gratitude to the generous giver and to God.  I’ll accept the gift of someone paying the cost for me, no questions asked, no further action required. I’ll share the story with my family with the message of, “Isn’t God good?”  I won’t continue the chain reaction game not because I’m too cheap or too cranky, but because I want to practice gratitude and experience mercy as it was intended. I believe this was the original idea behind this campaign, so for me, the buck stops here. In a good way.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Paying It Forward in the Drive-Thru

  1. This just happened to me for the first time ever when a young man behind us in line offered to pay our breakfast bill at Panera. It was just sn act of kindness and I had just buried my husband of 57 years the day before. I felt like God had sent this special young man to bless me and say everything is going to be alright!

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  2. Someone paid the bill at Steak n Shake for us and was gone by the time the waitress told us. It was my sons birthday so all of us were there. It was such a pleasant surprise. But I also understand what you are saying about the drive through. Recently a woman on Next Door social media platform stated that she didn’t like this practice because she just bought a sofa but felt obligated to pay for the people behind her who had a big bill she couldn’t afford. I think sometimes it is hard to accept a gift. Everyone commented on her post that it was truly ok for her to just accept the gift. But People do find it difficult to accept random gifts or even help when they need it. I wonder why that is?

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    1. I’m sorry that she felt obligated to pay a large bill when she was short on money, and I’m glad that people were encouraging her to just accept the gift next time. I also wonder why that’s so difficult for so many people … I do think that as a Christian, I need to not only practice giving, but also receiving. Thank you for your story, and I’m glad to see that maybe my opinion in this piece wasn’t so unpopular after all!

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  3. I like the idea but I also figure there are many fast food/eateries/restaurants who are having a difficult time staying open because they don’t have the workers. I like to tip them more than “normal” especially those who are struggling.

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