What does "Pay It Forward" Mean?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 January 2020
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Paying it forward is a third-party beneficiary concept that involves doing something good for someone in response to a good deed done on your behalf or a gift you received. When you pay it forward, however, you don't repay the person who did something nice for you. Instead, you do something nice for someone else. For example, if someone changes your tire while you are stranded on the highway, you might shovel your elderly neighbor's walkway after a snow has fallen.

The concept was popularized in modern times by a 2000 movie Pay It Forward, starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. In this movie, a young boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, is given a school assignment that requires him to find some way to change the world. He develops the pay it forward concept, setting forth a chain reaction of good deeds.

One of the most important things that people should remember about this concept is that it should be done with a selfless spirit. This means that one person helps another without hoping for repayment or good deeds in return. In fact, there are some organizations that allow people to pay it forward anonymously, donating money or performing good deeds without hoping for recognition. As far as the receiver of the money, gift, or good deed is concerned, he or she is told only to do something good for someone else.


The concept has a firm foundation in history. Ben Franklin described it in a letter he wrote to Benjamin Webb in 1784, in which he wrote about his intention to help Webb by lending him some money. He did not want to be repaid directly, however. Instead, Franklin hoped that Webb would at some point meet an honest man in need of financial help and pass the money along to him.

Paying it forward doesn't have to mean giving a large some of money or expending a lot of effort. It could be as simple as holding the door for someone laden with bags or giving up a place in line to someone who appears in a rush. It could even mean spending a little cash on coffee for the person behind you in line at a coffee house. For those who have money they can afford to give, there are always people in need, but even the smallest, free gestures can make a difference.


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Post 22

Simple truths for living and making the world better.

Jesus said, "It is better to give than to receive" and "Treat others the way you would like to be treated."

Post 21

Post 17/anon353795 is correct: The Golden Rule is not synonymous with "paying it forward"; it is more expansive. "Paying it forward" is predicated upon you already having received of a good turn; it is reactive. The Golden Rule ('All things that you *want* men to do to you, you also must do to them') is proactive; it requires you to practice (Note: practice -- "All things" -- not random acts) the kindness you would wish to receive. "Be the good you want to see," is basically a reiteration. ("Paying it forward" instead suggests, "Be the good you see.")

Post 19

It kind of makes me sad. I'm old enough to remember when people did good deeds for strangers because this was a Christian nation and people knew about Christianity and lived by Christian principles. Now it appears that people are ignorant and misinformed about the Bible and Christianity, and yet repackaged Christian principles espoused by a movie seem good and novel to them.

Post 17

"Pay it forward" is not synonymous with "the golden rule", as anon351676 suggests.

Post 16

It is a biblical teaching and one of the greatest commandments in the holy bible: "love your neighbor as yourself and do him/her no harm"

Post 15

I have told strangers to pay it forward before after I've done something to help them. A few of them have given me puzzled looks, so I had to explain the pay it forward idea to them. Once they got it, a light really came on in their eyes, and they agreed it was a good thing.

Post 14

@seag47 – I understand what you mean. I've been stranded when my car broke down before, and just feeling the relief when someone stopped to help get it running again inspired me to always help others who are in need, because I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

The pay it forward concept is great, because it doesn't always have to be something that you actively set out to do. Just being the recipient of a kind deed can motivate you to be the kind person in the future.

Post 13

I've been inspired by acts of kindness from other people toward me. I never consciously think about how to pay it forward, but their kind acts put me in the mood to do something nice for someone else.

Post 12

I realize that this concept has been around for decades, but it wasn't until I saw the “Pay it Forward” movie that I really became aware of it. I think that many people in America could say the same.

It was one of those rare times when a Hollywood movie actually set a good example for other people to follow. There is usually so much focus on violence and sex, so it was refreshing to see a movie with a good idea in it that could spread among many people.

Post 11

Pay it forward is just a confusing way to tell someone to "Pass it on". Using the tire changing example, the recipient of the tire change says, "How can I thank you?", and is told "Just pass it on." This concept has been around for umpteen years.

Post 10

Good definition! And 134839, excellent point. Makes me crazy when someone uses this term when they are getting paid. How twisted is it to use it in that context!

Post 8

Excellent definition. I would only add, that you don't "pay it forward" if you receive compensation for your act. Unfortunately, too many people are using that phrase incorrectly because they are getting paid for "paying it forward."

Post 7

Thank you, i will use your explanation in the letter I'm drafting for the parents in my school, as we have adopted this concept this Christmas. God bless!

Post 5

your explanation blew my mind.

Post 4

Very clear and helpful explanation. Thank you!

Post 2

your suggestion is not exactly the meaning of pay it forward......

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