Wednesday, March 11, 2015

5 Ways Better Than the Coffee Line to Pay it Forward

Locally there is a growing movement to “pay it forward”. For those not familiar, “Paying it Forward” is performing a random/spontaneous act of kindness for someone else with the goal to make this at minimum a weekly practice. While I like the slogan, there is a growing practice I see in the coffee shops related to “paying it forward” that concerns me.

People are giving between $5-$20 to a barista and telling her they want her to use the money to “pay for the next few guests' coffee.” I know there's good intentions.

My primary concern is that no one buying a $5 coffee really needs more money. I know everyone has his or her own struggles. Most people in this world could use more kindness. Money is not the best way to create community or provide kindness.

My second concern is more practical. The donor is giving money to a minimum wage employee to pay for another person's luxury goods. It seems cruel to hand someone who is most likely financially struggling money and tell them “this is not for you, this is for other people like me with disposable income”. I am certain no person offering to pay for someone's coffee means it like this. Still, the act of “paying forward” goes from being an act of reaching out and creating bridges to one that reinforces wealth barriers.

So what's a kind  generous person to do? Someone might have the money but not the time or the time but not the money. Fear not! I present you 5 simple ways to pay it forward on a budget.

1.Strike up a meaningful conversation with a stranger. People feel isolated. Next time you're shopping or milling about with other people get off the phone and talk to one of them! It can be as simple as opening a discussion on the weather. You might have observed some piece of clothing or product that you have in common with them or are curious about. Perhaps the person looks distressed and you can show concern for them from the start just by asking “Is everything ok, you look upset”.

You will be surprised how quickly the conversation may turn personal. This person may just need an objective perspective and who knows, you might have some applicable meaningful advice. Ask yourself this how many times could you have used no strings attached listener or even a friendly compliment? I know there are plenty of days I could use a kind word.

What's great about this idea is that it takes ZERO research and NO money. All you need is to have a few minutes to spare.

2. Spend a half hour to an hour a week organizing part of your home and donate the clothes, food, or other items to charity. This is the ultimate win win situation. I have so much stuff that I'm not using and probably never going to use.

On a related note, offer to help someone you know sort through stuff. Its more fun when there is someone to talk to while cleaning. Plus, I find I give away more things because a second person will say things like “I've never seen this before” or “when will you use this?” These questions when asked neutrally help me realize that no, I'm not using something and I'm not going to use said thing. So far, I've never regretting donating a single item, and I've always enjoyed the extra space.

This suggestion takes some research, donating items means there has to be a local charity that will take them. I've had great results googling for good places. There are also a ton of facebook yard sale and give away groups. Just take pictures, say it's free stuff, and set times for people to pick it up. You'll have a clean house and your items will have a second life with someone who needed them.

3. Follow a more hands on route and go to a local nursing home or a soup kitchen Sign up to work with underprivileged kids, sign up to help at the local unemployment office, offer to help at the local Veteran Administration, or offer to help at an animal shelter. This suggestion is by far the most labor intensive. First you would have to look up local programs, second you'd have to make contact to see what kind of help the group needed , and then you would have to show up. This kind of volunteering is not for everyone. Still, if you have a target group you want to help or a target skill you want to offer a little research will show you the best way to give back.

4. Give that money to charity. My favorites include Kiva, Doctors Without Borders, and Teach forAmerica.

I like Kiva because it only takes $25 to help someone create a business that should sustain themselves. The best part about Kiva is that the $25 is a loan/ When I get it back, I can invest it again. It feels amazing helping people become independent. I know by helping that one person, I'm helping a family and community too.

I like Doctors Without Borders because they provide relief to those in immediate need. They are often first responders to world disasters. They risk their physical safety, their quality of life, and go to some of the most desperate places in the world to help elevate the quality of life for the local people.

Teachfor America is dedicated to giving our most vulnerable students a lasting and meaningful education. This is an institution that changes lives. It gives kids both the skills to find their own opportunities and a path to a better quality of living. Children are some of our most exposed members of society. The best thing we can do to help them is provide the tools they need to learn and make informed decisions in the future.

Of course there are thousands of amazing charities and worthy causes your money could go to. This is a very easy way to make a difference and it can be as global or local as the charity you choose.

5. Put half the money you are offering in free coffees in the tip jar. I admit, this is my least inspired idea, but if you're really attached to buying someone's coffee as a random act of kindness then helping the minimum wage person by making an equally large tip is probably the best compromise. It doesn't solve the division between minimum wage and disposable income but it's a reasonable start.