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How to End a Pay-It-Forward Chain (Nicely)

Photo: Tim Boyle (Getty)

Tis the season for acts of charity, and if you find yourself in a drive-thru line, you may get roped into a “pay it forward” chain. The person in front of you paid for your order, you’re told. And if you feel awkward or guilty—after all, you placed your order, so you know you have the money—you can just pay for the car behind you and now it’s their problem. Fortunately, there’s a way to break the chain without being a jerk.

Pay-it-forward chains make life more difficult for the person working the cash register, who isn’t getting paid enough as it is. So if this happens at Starbucks, or anyplace else with a tip jar, accept the free drink, and then put the money you were going to pay into the jar.

No tip jar? At McDonald’s, put that extra cash into the bin that’s collecting change for the Ronald McDonald House. If there’s no handy receptacle for your money, or if you’re paying by card and the system can’t add a tip, set a reminder on your phone to donate to your local food bank when you get home. For the price of one person’s coffee or sandwich order, a food bank can provide several meals to hungry families.

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