25 Frugal Ways to "Pay It Forward"

Photo: stevendepolo

We’ve all seen the movie where little Haley Joel Osment starts a movement that compels others to commit random acts of kindness. And after we watched “Pay It Forward,” we were all like, "I totally want to do that" — except we never did.

Now’s your chance. Here are 25 small, inexpensive ways you can do something nice for someone you know — or a stranger, even. The only caveat is that the recipient of your good deed should pass it on. (See also: Gratitude and Frugality)

1. Pay for Somebody’s Coffee

What a nice treat it would be if you ordered your coffee and the barista told you it was already paid for. To brighten someone else’s day this way, leave $5 with the barista and tell him or her to use that cash to pay for the next person’s joe. If there’s any change left over, they can put it in their tip jar. Two smiles, one stone.

2. Hold the Door Open

It seems simple, but I see so many people in such a rush that they neglect to hold the door open for another person. It only takes a few seconds, and the guy or girl on the other side will definitely appreciate it.

3. Donate Goods to Charity

Whether you're donating your closet clutter to the Goodwill or handing over warm coats and blankets during a drive, your surplus may be someone else’s saving grace.

4. Give Your Favorite Restaurant a Positive Online Review

So many people focus on the negative when leaving a review, so why not go to Yelp and sing the praises of your favorite place to eat? It’ll be good for business, and it’ll give the owner of the establishment a surge or happiness, however fleeting it may be.

5. Donate Blood

Your donated blood could mean the difference between life and death for someone who needs it.

6. Volunteer at a Nursing Home

There are many ways to volunteer, but I’ve always liked the idea of spending some time with the elderly. Many residents of nursing homes have been abandoned by their families, so your presence can cheer them up. You don’t have to do much, either. Chatting, watching TV, and playing games are all acceptable activities to help ease the loneliness of living in a nursing home.

7. Welcome New Neighbors With a Housewarming Gift

We used to see this all the time on TV, but do people really do this anymore? Resurrect an old tradition when a new family moves into your hood by bringing them a basket of baked goods or a small herb garden. You’ll start out on the right foot with your neighbors and perhaps gain a new friend in the process.

8. Let Someone Check Out Before You at the Supermarket

I have let someone who only has a few items in front of me at the grocery store, and others have let me go before them too. Unless you’re in a serious rush, there’s no harm in letting someone get out of the store before you if their purchase will be quick.

9. Send a Friend an Unexpected Gift

As part of my job I’m often sent CDs, DVDs, and books to review, and when I’m finished with them I pop them in the mail and send them to the friend who I think will be most interested in that particular item. You may not have access to this kind of media all the time, so think of other small things a friend might like to get in the mail and send them their way.

10. Bring in Breakfast for the Office

When I worked in an office, I loved when a coworker brought in donuts or homemade muffins for breakfast. Sometimes it’s nice to have a sweet treat first thing in the morning.

11. Offer Your Parking Space in a Crowded Lot

We’ve all been in this situation, especially around the holidays. You will totally make someone’s day if you actively help them get the parking spot you’re about to vacate. Just signal to a nearby driver that you’re about to leave as you’re walking to your car so they can swoop in for the win.

12. Make a Care Package for a Member of the Military

They’re risking their lives on a daily basis to keep America safe. The least we can do is pick up a few essentials and mementos from home to make their tour more bearable.

13. Provide Roadside Assistance to Someone in Need

My dad has stopped on several occasions to help a stranded motorist on the side of the road. If you’re particularly good with car problems or know how to change a flat in a flash, lend a hand to someone who’s currently not having a great day.

14. Give Someone Who’s Short on Change That Extra Dime

Have you ever been behind someone at the checkout counter who’s 5 or 10 cents short? If you’ve got the extra change in your pocket, hand it over to help your fellow consumer.

15. Offer Someone Your Seat

If you’re in a situation where there are more people than seats — I deal with this everyday on the subway — give up yours so someone else can relax for a bit.

16. Give a Homeless Person Your Leftovers

When you leave a restaurant with your doggie bag and you’re approached by a homeless person, give them your food so they don’t have to go hungry another night. 

17. When Someone Drops Something, Pick It Up

Don’t just stare at it. Lean over and get it for them if it’s close to you.

18. Pick Up Litter in Your Neighborhood or a Park

If you see trash in your local park, pick it up and put it where it belongs. We all need to pitch in to keep our neighborhoods beautiful.

19. Teach Someone a Skill That You’ve Mastered

I have a good friend who was kind enough to offer my husband guitar lessons for free, a gesture that is totally appreciated and not soon forgotten. If you have a teachable skill, impart your wisdom on someone in your life to make them a more well-rounded person.

20. Offer to Take a Picture for Tourists

When you’re on vacation and you see a couple trying to take a picture of themselves, offer to take the picture for them. Nobody wants a photo of smushed faces and huge foreheads.

21. Bring Your Friend’s Pet a Treat

We often think about the people in our lives, but what about the pets in our lives? If your good friend has a pet, pick up a treat for it. The pet — and your friend — will like you even more.

22. Pay the Toll Fare for the Person Behind You

Just like buying that cup of coffee for a stranger, paying someone’s toll fare will put them in a better mood. Hopefully a mood good enough to pay it forward.

23. Add Change to an Expired Meter

If you see an expired meter near your parking spot, add a little extra change to help that person avoid a costly ticket. 

24. Give Your Neighbor Produce From Your Garden

If you have a garden that’s produce more fruits, veggies, and herbs than you can eat, share them with your neighbor so they don’t go to waste.

25. Leave Unused Coupons on the Item at the Grocery Store

If I have a coupon for a food item that I don’t want and the coupon is about to expire, I leave it on or near the item for which it’s intended. It’s a nice money-saving surprise for someone else to find.

There are lots more small ways you can pay it forward. I'd love to hear your ideas. Let me know in the comments below.

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Meg Favreau's picture

If I like a stranger's outfit, I tell them -- mainly because I always feel so surprised and flattered when someone does that for me.

Guest's picture

In regard to no. 25, I wouldn't recommend it. I have worked at many retail stores and when we found coupons laying around, we'd throw them away. It seems like a nice gesture but they make a mess when you have a lot of people leaving coupons all over the place.

I am in firm agreement with holding the door open for others. I do it every time and most people don't even say 'thank you.'

Guest's picture

I gave a stranger (with wife and baby) $5 who was begging with a sign outside of a walmart. He looked exhausted but grateful for the money. Unfortunately the cops made him leave a few minutes later... I spent the rest of the day thinking about the guy and his family.

Guest's picture

I especially like the first one because it's a kind act at the beginning of yours and the other person's day. That type of start can really care you throughout the day.

Guest's picture

#7 - When we moved into our house 21+ years ago, the retired couple from across the street came over to meet us and brought a cake that she made as a welcome gift. She pointed out that she put the cake on one of her nice cake plates (instead of something disposable) so that I would need to return it and in that way we could get to know each a little better.

Guest's picture

Nice article, but #13..yikes! Don't ever stop for strangers on the side of the road. If anything, drive up and offer to call for help, without getting out of your car.

Guest's picture

Simply giving a smile and a "Hi, how are you?" to a person you pass on the street can brighten their day. You never know when someone needs another to restore a little faith in humanity, so when you're in a good mood why not try to put someone else in one too? I like that you included holding the door for someone- too many people just let it go without even glancing behind them.

Guest's picture

#`13 is VERY dangerous. I lost a friend 20 years ago who stopped to help a young couple with two small children who were stuck on the side of the road. It turned out the couple had abducted the children. They panicked and shot my friend in the head.

# 23 can be a bad idea too. Many municipalities have laws against this. You can get a hefty fine for doing so. So at the very least, make sure no one sees you doing it.

Guest's picture
Wild Bill

Based on these comments, I'm assuming 'GUEST' won't be 'paying it forward' anytime soon. What a sad disposition. I've helped several people stranded on the side of the road and they have been thankful.

Guest's picture

I believe in paying it forward. I have a family member that I help anytime they need me. Today to say thank you they brought me breakfast. It was a nice surprise that made my day. Sometimes the little things feel big when they are done just to be kind. I feel that if we can do something for someone else just to be nice then we should. This was a great article to start the weekend off with. Truly in joyed it!