A stranger surprised me last weekend by picking up my tab at a restaurant, so I paid it forward to keep the good vibes going.  But I was surprised about how bad I felt afterward.

Pay-it-forwards show goodwill and generosity and can renew a person's faith in humanity, but after experiencing a pay-it-forward at a restaurant last weekend, instead of feeling light, breezy, and hopeful, I felt a whole lot of guilt instead.

What in the world is wrong with me?!  This was a great experience that gave my table warm fuzzies and put a huge smile on the server's face, but it left me feeling blah because it felt like I was stealing.  I don't think I paid it forward far enough.

Our bill had to have been over one hundred dollars because we had entrees, appetizers, and alcohol, but we never saw the total because the server didn't bring us the bill!  She had no need.  She told us the tab had been paid in full and she couldn't tell us who did the surprise good deed, but we owed nothing, not even a tip.

We looked around to see if any generous types happened to be watching our table for a reaction, but either the payer had already left, or wanted to be so discreet that zero glances or clues would be coming our way.  So now what.  We made contact with the server at the neighboring table and told her we wanted to pick up that tab.  She brought us the bill and we paid it, but it was only $52 because they didn't have alcohol or appetizers.  I bet the people who paid it forward for us were wishing they had gotten that bill instead.

3 Surprising Things About My Pay-It-Forward Experience

1.  Pay-it-forwards are not created equally.  The next bill might be more or less, but it's never going to be what we expected to pay for ourselves.  This seems obvious, but the real conundrum comes from how much that difference is.  If someone pays our big bill and we pay a little one, it feels funny.  My daughter said, "Well, it's the next table's fault for not ordering enough food."  Perhaps they would have ordered two extra burritos and some guacamole if they had seen the freebie coming.

2.  Paying it forward once may not be enough.  I was always taught it's better to be too generous than too stingy, and if paying one bill forward leaves a gap and I feel like I have something left over to give, it's probably best to find another bill to pay.  I haven't done it yet, but I'm planning to find a $48 bill to pay at a neighborhood shop to make up the difference.  Paying for someone's mocha lattes will make me feel better.

3.  Even in a pandemic, people are truly amazing.  I don't know if the person who paid my bill was filthy rich or strapped for cash after a job loss, and it doesn't really matter.  There's been a collective reflex to hold back, conserve, and pinch in the past year or so, and running across an attitude that is the opposite of that is cool as heck.

If the goal was to encourage a wider give, it totally worked.  Now I not only want to cover my own pay-it-forward gap, but I want to start over too by surprising another random stranger by picking up a pricey tab that could be considered a sacrifice.  This could go on for a while.

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