The Hill Life: Managing Expenses

When I moved into the private sector, my new job came with a few perks.  For the first time in my career, I have an office with a door, an assistant and an expense account.  But with these privileges comes great responsibility, something not all employees take seriously. 

So I thought that today I would talk about how to keep track of your expenses and some of the abusive expense account behavior I’ve witnessed in recent months.  Because while keeping track of receipts and expenses can be a bit of a chore, handing your assistant wadded up slips of vellum and then asking him to sort through it all is rude. 

Write It Down. Before I leave a restaurant/bar, I write the name of the person or people I met with and what we discussed on the back of the receipt.  Why?  Because my memory isn’t perfect and I don’t want to spend hours staring at an anonymous receipt trying to remember what it’s from.

Be Organized.  I keep two Rebecca Minkoff pouches in my purse: one for business expenses and one for blog expenses.  When I pay for something the receipt automatically goes into its designated pouch.  Then, when I get to the office, I put my receipts into a storage box that I keep on my desk, saving them until the end of the month.

Have a Backup System.  Before I put a receipt in storage, I like to add the details of that meeting to my Outlook calendar and categorize it in a different color (green, of course).  That way, when I go to put my expense report together at the end of the month, I know exactly how many receipts I should have and what meeting they are from.  This prevents confusion and protects me in case a lose a receipt or can’t read the meeting details that I wrote on the back. (The latter is FAR more likely as my handwriting was once described as that of a serial killer with Parkinson’s.)

Don’t Expense Stupid S**t.  I can’t say it any plainer than that.  It is not your Boss’s job to pay for your cold medicine, your daily 3pm sugar fix or the taxi you took to a non-work brunch on Sunday morning.  Trying to expense frivolous things or expand the definition of “work related” to abuse the system is a black mark on your professionalism.  And yet, people still try.

Trust me, the $1 you spend on that Snickers bar is far less important than being the cheap bastard who tries to expense a candy bar.

Be Honest.  Most employers have a vetting process for expenses, but in some cases, it isn’t very rigorous.  Abusing this complacency can be tempting.  Fudging the numbers on a receipt or expense report is stealing, plain and simple.  If/when you’re caught embellishing your expenses, your integrity will be called into question not just for past dealings but future ones as well.  So resist the Siren’s song of the free dinner, and just be honest.

This is particularly important if you work on Capitol Hill.  Look at what is happening with GSA, right now.  No oversight led employees to abuse the system, and now, the fate of the entire agency could be at risk.

Imagine what would happen if a reporter or a constituent got a hold of a Staffer’s expenses and learned that she charged taxpayers for a bottle of suntan lotion on a CODEL or a birthday dinner for a family member while on a staff trip?

Being honest about your expenses is important in the private sector because it speaks to your professional integrity.  But when you work for the government, you are a keeper of the public trust so honesty is even more critical.

Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping track of expenses?  Has someone you know ever tried to expense something really egregious?


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  1. Shannon says:

    Many years ago, when I was an admin for an upscale hotel, one of my supervisors would expense….wait for it….the 35 cents she spent to call in sick.

    I know little expenses add up, but, REALLY? A freaking local phone call is expense-worthy?

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  2. N.M. says:

    This is such great information. I went on my first CODEL last year and I kept receipts of everything (and ended up using almost none of my per diem). I was shocked when we got back that we didn't have to report our receipts or say what we'd spent per diem funds on. I know it's a big problem on the Hill with staffers abusing their per diems or pocketing anything extra, and while it's certainly the responsibility of every staffer to be honest and not steal, they could definitely impose stricter requirements to avoid that problem.

    Also, I work in tax policy and people are 56 times more likely to make tax “errors” on business expenses, which are self reported, than on information that is subject to withholding and third party reporting, like payroll wages.

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  3. Claire says:

    Thanks Belle, these are awesome tips! I have one to add: I happen to have an old credit card that I've paid off and don't use for personal expenses anymore, so I use that one for all of my business expenses. In addition to having my receipts on hand, I can look at my online statement and know that it's a complete list of all my expenses. I wouldn't recommend getting a separate card for this reason, but if you have one that's paid off it's a good way to keep using it (to bolster your credit score) without taking on any financial risk… provided you pay it in full each month and don't incur any interest charges!

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  4. Belle says:

    Claire: That is a good tip.

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  5. Liz says:

    In my former Administrative Assistant position, I had to sort through receipts and turn in expense reports for other employees on my team who traveled frequently. One of my co-workers would always have expensive business lunches or dinners at Tidewater Landing in DCA or IAD with industry experts, which seemed a little funny to me. It took me about a year to realize he was just getting drunk by himself before his flights. Another co-worker at the same non-profit was from France and would turn in his Trader Joe's food receipts to me for reimbursement, which included toothpaste and flowers for his hotel room.

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  6. BB says:

    In my first job in DC, I was responsible for filling out check requests for invoices and filing the expense reports for my department. Individuals would fill them in, but I would code, copy, and take to the finance department.

    Two of my coworkers were dating, but kept it a secret from the rest of us. There were questionable items–“working” lunch and dinner receipts with just their names, but the most egregious thing I saw was when one of their parents suddenly and tragically died, the other one submitted an expense report for the week-long, out of state trip to attend the funeral, including airfare, rental car, hotel, and meal charges. The explanation on the expense report was “to represent [organization's name] at [significant other's parent's name]'s funeral”, and it was approved by management, so it went through.

    Later, when they “came out” to coworkers, I thought back to that expense report, and how tacky it was to go to such a personal event on the company dime.

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  7. Whitney says:

    Claire's tip above about separate credit cards for business expenses is a really good one. I have a card that I put all transportation expenses on (air travel, gas money, Metro, etc.) and another one that I use for food/shopping/incidentals. It helps to be able to separate the “needs” from the “wants” when I have to cut back.

    Once, an employee for my company spent $6k on flights and registration fees for a “conference” in Hawaii and charged it to the corporate account. When the new COO was reviewing company expenses and found out that the conference was totally unnecessary to the employee's job requirements, that employee got fired. Then, the manager who had approved the charges on that employee's expense account ALSO got fired. It's not wise to play with the company's money, not in this economy, anyway.

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  8. CynthiaW says:

    Strippers. Yes, strippers. My husband used to work in the oil field industry and the sales guys would routinely expense strippers as “entertainment” expenses when out-of-town clients came in. Kind of made all the personal calls and texts that they made on their company-owned cell phones look like child's play.

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  9. Kelly O says:

    As an assistant, I will also suggest that if you can, keep your receipts for each trip separate. Part of my general planning for a business trip, however long or short, is to include an envelope labeled “RECEIPTS” with an itinerary and any travel arrangements. This way, every receipt associated with that trip can theoretically be tossed into the envelope and I can easily retrieve it when the trip is over.

    Another trick that worked with my most recent boss was keeping receipts in a specific place at his desk. Every few days I would go in and pick up whatever was in the envelope and add it to my reconciliation. That way if there were questions about his handwriting on the receipt, we were not coming back a month after the fact to suss out who it was, or what he meant by a certain note.

    April 18, 2012/Reply
  10. nancy says:

    All tips above are excellent. I currently work for a company where I have a company card for all expenses and mischarging a personal item can be a termination offense. I second the envelope system. My admin, bless her heart, prepares one for each of my trips with my flight schedules on the outside and everything I need inside. During the trip, I put the receipts in the envelope and make any notes she needs on the back of the envelope. The next day in the office, all I have to do is return the envelope to her.

    April 19, 2012/Reply