How does a pay-it-forward drive-thru chain work?

A Pennsylvania Starbucks reported a 160-car pay-it-forward chain from their drive-thru. But how exactly does that work and do you have to participate?

Every so often, a story spreads across the internet of a heart-warming pay-it-forward chain, usually at a Starbucks drive-thru. Someone inevitably has to break the chain – even when the barista tries to cover the gaps – and the question becomes, who is that terrible person?

The concept of pay it forward is simple. Do a good deed for someone else and then they feel inspired to do a good deed for another person and so on and so forth. In it’s drive-thru incarnation, this takes the form of telling the cashier that you would like to pay for the person behind you. Because the person behind you has already placed their order, the cashier can tell you what that is and charge you for it. Alternatively, you can give the cashier $5 and they will relay that to the following customer, who will then only have to pay the difference. In both instances, the cashier or barista will ask the person if they would like to pay it forward and cover the next person’s order. In Pennsylvania this week, this happened 160 times.

Drive-thru pay-it-forward chains are not without their haters. On one hand, it’s self-congratulatory. Everyone involved was planning on and/or budgeted for paying Starbucks prices for their coffee anyways, so you’re not really doing a favor for someone in need. Economically, the longer the chain goes, the longer the financial favor is deferred. Everyone just continues to pay for an order. Eventually, someone breaks the chain, usually either by saying thank you and taking the free drink or deferring the $5 and asking to just pay for their own drink. Maybe they only budgeted for a small black coffee and can’t pay for your venti Unicorn Frappuccino. People have their reasons and you’re not a bad person if you break the chain or accept the favor.

All that said, barring personal circumstances, if you find yourself in a drive-thru pay-it-forward chain, don’t be the “well, actually, ethically and economically…” guy. Do the good deed and then maybe find a more significant way to pay it forward too.