I need a better traveling system

So, I’m most of the way through my trip — if the weather doesn’t interfere too much I’ll be home tonight. It’s kind of, as it were, up in the air, but luckily I’m staying with friends, not in a hotel, so if I need to extend my stay a day or two it’ll be ok. Wish me luck 🙂Anyway, I’ve mostly had a wonderful time; the conference went well, and I’ve also been seeing a succession of people I love. (I’m in New York, where I went to grad school and lived for eleven years, so there are a fair number of people to catch up with.)

But OMG I’ve completely lost track of where my money is at!

The problem is, since this is a work trip, I’m being reimbursed for meals and expenses like local travel (subway etc.) So my plan was to put all that stuff on my credit card. I also brought about $50 in cash to cover whatever else came up. But being here’s been like a return to the bad old days of having no idea what’s going on. (Don’t be alarmed; we’re talking about $100 or so at most here, it’s not a big deal, I’m just trying to look at this as a learning experience so that in the future I can figure out a better system.)

There just keep being situations I didn’t anticipate:

1) The easiest to handle: restaurants that forget you asked for separate checks. This has happened once in an easy way to handle; my friend and I split the bill and I took the receipt and will circle what I had and get a reimbursement. A bit of a pain but fine.

2) No separate check, four people out to dinner and one of them forgot her wallet. For long and complex reasons, what ended up happening here is that one person put in cash, and two of us split the bill on our cards, and then split the cash from L (and covered the walletless friend’s meal since she got married and had a birthday recently, so we were all, don’t pay us back, please.) Again, I took the receipt, and I’ll get compensated for the meal I actually had, but I have more $$ on my card than that and I got some random amount of cash that I didn’t actually look at the amount for.

3) I’m staying with friends in lieu of a hotel. I bought them pastries as a host gift. I seriously considered submitting the bill for that to work (since it’s $30 vs the $1000 I would have spent on a hotel) but I don’t actually think that’s copacetic so I’m just going to pay the $30 myself.

4) Another no separate checks situation: out to dinner with a friend and I ended up putting the whole thing on my card and when I told her how much to give me I forgot to calculate the tip into it, so I got, again, some random amount of cash, paid more than I’ll get reimbursed for, and now I’ve spent the cash on…something? I’ve bought a gift and a book and paid cash for those, and —

5) I also have paid cash for a few things I’ll be reimbursed for — coffees or meals or tolls that are so cheap it feels silly to break out the credit card, but I did get receipts so will get a reimbursement for them.

6) A few men friends have insisted on buying me food/coffee, even though I explained it would be reimbursed if I paid for myself and really, I have a real job and everything (women do not seem compelled to do this, but some men are quite insistent) and I gave up and let them, but insisted on putting in some random amount for tip and to defray the cost, so most of the cash I had/received has ended up leaving my wallet without my having much idea where exactly it went.

The upshot of all of this is that tracking business and personal expenses simultaneously is hard when you’re going out to dinner with a lot of people and can’t reliably get separate checks 🙂

What I’m going to do this time is add up my credit card bill, add up my reimbursements I actually turn in, subtract one from the other, and pay the remnant from my travel fund. Like I say, I don’t expect it to be much more than $100 when all’s said and done, maybe less. But I need to think more about how to handle this stuff in the future because I’m absolutely sure all these situations will come up again when I’m doing these half business half pleasure trips. Ideas welcome!

[ETA: After I finished this, I went for a walk and realized that this is one big reason why I never had much idea of what was going on with my budget in NY. These were all pretty typical situations I was in a lot! I basically just took out cash when I was out of the last round, and when I had side income in cash, for example from occasionally babysitting, I didn’t keep track of it, just stuck it in my wallet until it was spent down. Granted if I’d really been focused I could have come up with a system and spent less, but the half-cash half-credit card splitting-with-friends thing is actually quite difficult to handle. Maybe next time I travel I’ll operate only in cash so that I’m never splitting a bill via credit card.]


39 thoughts on “I need a better traveling system

  1. Traveling and work expenses make it tough, but you have the right idea using a card/collecting receipts. I used to work for a beer distributor and would have to use my card to buy beer that was expired (or close enough for me to want to take it home and drink it) or beer that I broke. The worst part about it was having to pay off the balance and wait for the reimbursement.

    Perhaps if you travel again for work you can get ahold of a company credit card? They do exist and though they are reluctant to hand them out, I have had success in the past when I just straight up asked.

    Staying with friends is awesome, though you will be getting reimbursed – it is less that you have to pay off/carry until you actually get the check.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Staying with friends was great — I had a good time and was comfortable 🙂 Luckily my employer is very quick about turning around reimbursements so I don’t have to pay off the card until I get the $$ back. P.S. working for a beer distributor sounds awesome if you like beer, heh.

  2. This sounds a lot like why I don’t like cash! It can’t stay neatly where I want to spend it. It seems like all cash could be your solution, or no cash. Anything in the middle is just plain confusing!

    You brought up an interesting point about reimbursements though. You paid for your accommodations differently and saved your employer a ton of money. Seems a little rude that you won’t get reimbursed.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, sigh, but on the other hand they are paying for this trip that’s basically for me, not them (I was at the conference on my own behalf, not to do business for them — otherwise I would have been less careful) so it’s not so bad. But I agree I need either an all-cash or no-cash system for this stuff in the future. Keeping track of both is just too much.

  3. Sounds tricky! I would just make sure to ask for a separate check from now on.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, the real problems are the non-separated-check ones — but not every restaurant will do them, sigh.

  4. DebtFreeJD says:

    Here are my tips, such as they are, for getting reimbursed for work expenses: #1 Never feel silly about using your credit card for anything. I usually don’t carry any more cash than would be needed for an emergency cab fare. #2 Always ask for a separate check at the beginning of the meal, and it’s ok to tell the waiter you need it because you’re being reimbursed for work. #3 Carry a ziploc bag to put non-credit card receipts in. #4 It is painful, but turn them in the first day you are back, otherwise you’re never going to do it.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      This is all very handy! I am sitting at my desk right now with a whole pile of my receipts, already neatly organized by date, and about to hand them over to our admin 🙂 I think you’re really right that absolutely insisting on separate checks (I always ask, but they don’t always actually do it) is probably the right call. But I really need to figure out how to handle dudes who want to pay when I’m like, no, you don’t understand, if I pay my share I get reimbursed whereas if I just pay the tip or whatever I’m actually out of pocket!

      1. DebtFreeJD says:

        Dude, letting people pay for you sounds fine to me. Sometimes people just want to give you a present! That’s allowed.

        1. thesingledollar says:

          I guess! None of them are exactly swimming in $$, which is why I felt bad, but you’re right, they were just happy to see me after a long hiatus and wanted to do something nice. I’m just interested in the gender dynamic, really 🙂

  5. Chonce says:

    Having a cash only budget when you travel may be a good solution to help you track your money better. I like how you took some time to reflect on what it was about living in NY that allowed your budget to fall apart. It’s all a learning process though.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I’m thinking cash only may be the way to go — that way I can put X amount of cash in when I split a check rather than putting the whole thing on my card and receiving something back. I agree with you about the learning process! This overage really wasn’t a big deal, but I want to think about how to head stuff off in the future too.

  6. Leigh says:

    I don’t travel for work so I’m afraid that I’m not much help but I wanted to comment on how I can see, just how confusing it could get! Maybe cash is easiest, but I’m not a big cash carrier. Organization is the key but when you’re busy working/networking, it can get tricky. Let us know if you come up with a new method as I may be traveling in the future as I just started a new job.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Hey, congrats on the new job! And yeah, keeping track of all the $$ while also working is really hard — if I come up with more ideas I will definitely say something about it.

  7. Kristin says:

    When I have to travel for work, every night I would write down all my receipts in a small notepad and date everything for reimbursement and keep a running tally. This was really helpful, especially on trips that lasted for 2 weeks. Plus once the work trip was over, I already had everything organized and could turn in my reimbursements ASAP. Gotta get that cash back fast 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I already turned mine in, actually 🙂 (I don’t have to do the actual formal work — just get them in date order for our admin assistant — so it doesn’t take as long as it used to when I had to log everything myself.) The notepad is a really good idea — one thing that was unsettling to me is that I had no idea how much I was really spending for work stuff. I might have to try that.

  8. Elroy says:

    I worked for a company which specifically said in their travel policy that you could gift in lieu of a hotel room. Did you talk to your boss about the situation? I’m sure if you said, “I’m thinking of staying with friends, would it be ok for me to take them to dinner since I’ll be saving the company $1000?” I’m quite confident the reply would be yes.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I totally didn’t talk to my boss ahead of time! Next time I’m absolutely going to — you’re right, I’m sure she would have said yes. Since it’s all done at this point I’m not going to, but next time for sure. Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. Debt Hater says:

    I end up doing the “losing track of cash transactions” thing all the time and not just when I’m travelling. When I am travelling it always seems to be the tolls that I lose track of though. Was there a higher price on the weekends? Did I pay the exact same amount coming back?

    Then I go to do my budget and the amount leftover in my wallet is much lower than my spending shows. A lot of times it’ll pop into my head later and I can go back and fix it, but many times I end up just putting in a negative transaction to “reconcile” my wallet to the lower balance.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That’s why I don’t normally even try to keep track of my cash — I set an amount I’m allowed to take out and spend every week, and then I just keep spending it until it’s gone 🙂 This work-travel thing screwed me up, and so did the fact that cash was coming in from sources that weren’t me (like when people gave me cash for their share and I put the meal on my credit card.) Just need to plan for those situations in the future.

  10. Cash always makes it rough, especially when the bill gets split or other weirdness occurs. Although I’m pretty diligent about charging all the things and yet I still lose track of some of my expenditures at which point I have to break out the abacus.

    Sounds like it was a good trip, though!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      The bill-splitting is what killed me. It looks like I’m only going to have to take about $75 out of my travel account though so no real harm done. And it was a great trip, so it’s hard to regret anything 🙂

  11. ARBM says:

    I’m not sure that I am adding anything to the conversation here, but next time I would definitely check with your work on the gift thing for your friends. My work allows for a gift or paying for a friend’s dinner instead of hotel if you stay with a friend. I travel a lot for work, but I’m not often in a situation where I have the opportunity to have dinner with friends, typically it will be with work contacts, so one or the other will pay the whole bill and charge it to our work. I can see how it would totally add to the complexity of the situation though.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That’s actually a really interesting thought. In the future if this comes up I’ll ask in advance — this time, since I didn’t ask ahead of time, I’m just going to pay the $30, but I’d love to be able to do something bigger like take them out to dinner and in this case, the tradeoff of $1000+ for a hotel room vs. maybe $200 for a dinner with drinks and everything would have been totally worth it. Thanks for the idea!

  12. It’s common here for tables to get separate cheques and I think that that would solve a lot of these problems. Sucks that some restaurants wouldn’t give you a cheque, especially if you said it was for tax purposes or something.

    Sounds like you had a good trip though. Going out and spending time with too many friends sounds like a good problem to have!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yup! I’m so not upset about this very minor problem 🙂 Just thinking about how I can streamline in the future. It was a great trip overall.

  13. ah mixing business with pleasure when you are being reimbursed it always a good time. I imagine it’s tough when you are in the thick of things and enjoying yourself that the last think you’re thinking about is organizing everything down the the last penny. 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I did keep it on my mind but I’d forgotten how cash always starts flying around the table when people are dealing with the check! It’s hard to keep track of 🙂 I had a great time though so hard to care too much.

  14. NZ Muse says:

    The pastries thing is a little annoying, but it’s a small amount so I’d suck it up too!

    I occasionally travel for work and what generally works for us is never. using. cash. Always a card. (Might help to snap a photo of receipts/your circled portion of the receipt/bill as well if you’re prone to losing them. We have to keep them, then scan them into the finance system back at the office – usually do that as soon as I’m back).

    Those situations with tipping (especially with no separate bills) I have no advice for not being American!

    One of my best guy friends is the same way – always wanting to pay for stuff.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Tipping makes everything 10x more complicated — you’re lucky not to have to deal with it! Luckily I am quite good at hanging onto receipts; I stuff them all in my wallet immediately, no excuses, so I can pull them all out and hand them over as soon as I get home. And yeah, I think I have to go to either all cash or all card the next time I do this — it’s just too easy to lose track otherwise!

  15. My eldest daughter was in NYC on business at the same time you were. Cool! I just spoke with her about it last night, and there are so many similarities. She stayed with a friend whose heating had died to save $. But she also went to see Carmen at the Met. AND Les Mis. Hmmm…. I can’t blame her though. She made it through grad school debt-free and found a job, so living the life a bit is OK I guess. It’s so valuable to identify the trouble spots of personal finance, and you’ve done so in this post. Business mixed with pleasure. It’s a matter of building up multiple mini-strategies – and it looks like you’re on it!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Hah! At least my friends had perfectly working heat 🙂 I’m glad that she got a chance to sample NYC a little. I didn’t see any theater this time but I definitely did a lot when I lived there.

  16. CBuggle says:

    I can totally relate with this. I have a very hard time keeping track of receipts and remembering what I spent cash on, so I pretty much only operate with a debit card for personal reasons, and a credit card for reimbursable work expenses. It gives me a chance to use my credit card so that it’s not stagnant, and then it doesn’t eat into my spending account. I also pretty much insist that I pay for my own meal with my debit or credit card when out with friends. I think it’s rather irresponsible for people to go out to dinner and expect to lump their bill in with someone else, even if they are giving me cash for their portion. I just say, “It’s easiest for me if I just pay for my portion on my card.” I think my friends and I are all used to just paying separately.

    One weird work expense is gasoline. I get reimbursed something like 56 cents to the mile, but when I fill up my car, it’s never exactly the amount I’m going to spend on my work trip. Since the rate I’m reimbursed at is so much more than I actually spend on gas, I just call it a profit and put it into savings when I get the reimbursement check. Also, my meals are reimbursed at one lump sum no matter what I actually spend, so if I play my cards right I earn some extra.

    Cash is so inconvenient for me! I withdrew $20 yesterday because I went on a date and I don’t like being stuck with the guy paying the bill if we are at a cash only place. So I ended up spending the $20 on some random stuff that I can’t remember now and since there isn’t a line item for each of those purchases in my debit account, it’s kind of unaccounted for now. Oh well.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That is exactly the problem with cash! I’ve given up on keeping track of it — I just have a lump “cash” withdrawal every month and call it a day. I think your gas/meals strategy is exactly right. The per-mile reimbursements usually come out to be a better deal.

  17. Jason says:

    Oh, I feel your pain. This happens to me all the time, particularly when you want to be social and go out and plans and conferences (hope you are having fun by the way…it is good conference). I have a similar situation in April. However, at my place of employment they pay for my hotel and flight and I get a per diem per meal (and I always go over it). I know this might sound dumb and you are trying to be a bit more exact with your money, but this might fall into your miscellaneous categories. I just accept the fact that I am going to poney up some out of pocket expenses when I travel for work. I just consider it part of the job. Also, keep in mind that if you itemize your deductions that you write off some of these expenses! Technically, they are business expenses.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Oh, I so don’t itemize 🙂 I’m nowhere near where I’d need to be financially to make that make sense. It’s a good idea for the future though, just in case.

  18. Lol this is exactly why I hate cash! I always lose track of it! If I use my debit card only, I can login online (yeah I do this many times a day) and see where it went and where I’m at. If I use cash, good luck remembering where it went or keeping track of the receipts! Haha everyone hast their own system that works for them 😛 The good thing is that you know what does and doesn’t work for you.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, in this case it was also that I had these random amounts of cash coming *in* from friends…jeez! Too hard to keep track of!

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