It’s common, but not always fair, for companies to ask employees to pay work expenses upfront and get reimbursed later.
It’s common, but not always fair, for companies to ask employees to pay work expenses upfront and get reimbursed later, says Alison Green, a former manager who runs the work advice site Ask a Manager.
Green has fielded questions from employees who aren’t too happy about the practice. For example, one reader wrote that her slow-to-reimburse employer wanted her to front $1,000 to attend a mandatory conference, which would cause a financial hardship.
So what do you do when confronted with a similar situation? We’ll start with some overall guidance, and then offer 8 tips for using a personal credit card for work expenses.
First, get reimbursement policy clear
Before you ever buy even a coffee for a client with your own card or cash, get clear on your company’s policy about work expense reimbursement, says Jim Angleton, president of AEGIS FinServ, an issuer of business credit and debit cards.
“You can’t just go out and aimlessly spend without having that discussion,” he says. “Say, ‘Hey, I’m taking X to lunch at XYZ restaurant. Am I good?’” After all, if your company decides not to authorize an expenditure, you’re on the hook for those charges, he says.
Many companies put caps on spending for certain types of expenses, such as business lunches or parking, says Kevin Winters, a CPA and founder of CompanyMileage.com, which handles employee reimbursements. “You don’t want to learn that the hard way,” he says.
Some employees love the rewards …
In general, though, using your own card for business expenses might work fine if your financial situation is good, says David Weliver, founding editor of the personal finance site Money Under 30. “For someone with a healthy credit line and a couple of credit cards, it’s not a problem,” he says.
In fact, some employees love racking up the extra miles or points on their rewards cards, Green says. For example, San Diego resident Kerri Gois works in marketing for an Internet search company and attends about one conference a month in various U.S. cities. She pays for her travel with a cash back rewards card that she also uses for personal spending to maximize rewards, which she collects as a statement credit.
“It’s free money toward my balance,” she says.
… Others have limited access to credit
Maybe you have bad credit and can’t get a card or all your cards are maxed out. In those cases, covering a work expense can be tough. “Not everyone has the cash flow to be able to float these expenses upfront, and employers don’t always think that through,” Green says.
That was the case for Weliver, of Money Under 30, when he was in his early 20s and got a marketing job that required him to travel to conferences several times a year. Each trip cost an average of $1,000, and he often didn’t have that much available credit.
“Every time a trip would come up, I’d wonder ‘How am I going to handle this?’” Weliver says. Once, he was checking into a hotel and his card got declined. Another time, he asked a co-worker to pay for his room. “It was very embarrassing and stressful,” he says.
If you can’t cover expenses, talk to your boss. Keep it professional and don’t divulge personal details about how your ex drained your bank account or your dog’s vet bill left you broke. “If you come in with a whole sob story, it’s going to provide more opportunities for them to scrutinize you,” Weliver says. “Just say, ‘I’m not in a position to put this on my card.’”
Ask about alternatives, Green recommends. Maybe the company could give you a cash advance or prepaid debit card, make your travel arrangements directly or ask a manager to use her corporate card. The human resources department might be able to help, Green says.
|Using a personal credit card for business expenses: 8 Tips|
|1. Consider the company. When you pay for a work expense, you’re essentially loaning the company your own money, so think it through carefully. Businesses have gone bust with reimbursements outstanding, Angleton says, adding that some companies are new, small, have low cash flow and poor or no credit rating. He says: “If that’s the case, do you really want to use your card for their purposes?”|
|2. Consider a separate card. It’s best to apply for a rewards card to use only for business expenses, Winters says. “That makes record keeping really easy,” he says. With a dedicated card, you don’t have to wade through all your daily Starbucks visits to find the charge for a client coffee meeting, he says. You also avoid giving your boss a peek at your personal purchases if you have provide a copy of your credit card statement for reimbursement, Weliver says.|
|3. Don’t use a card with a balance. If you can’t or don’t want to get a separate card for work, avoid checking into the conference hotel on a card with a balance. The debt you’re carrying will negate the credit card’s grace period, so you’ll start racking up interest on work costs right away. “That’s definitely something to avoid,” Weliver says of charging a company expense on a debt-laden card.|
|4. Know work charges could affect your credit. In certain situations, charging company expenses on your own card might directly harm you, Green says. For example, if you’re applying for a mortgage, the big balance from a work trip that hasn’t yet been reimbursed could affect your credit utilization ratio, the amount of available credit you’re using, which could pull down your credit score. If that ups the interest rate on your mortgage, it could cost you thousands of dollars extra over the life of the loan.|
|5. Avoid using your debit card. If you plan to use your debit card for work, take extra precautions. Most hotels and rental car companies will place a hold, possibly for hundreds of dollars, on your card. “With a credit card, it’s a hold against your credit limit,” Weliver says. “With a debit card, it’s real money.” That ties up your own funds until the hold drops off. If you have to use your debit card, ask the hotel or car company the amount of the hold. You might not be able to get a definitive answer on how long the hold will be in place because your bank or credit card company policies also factor in, Weliver says. Using your debit card “is not ideal,” he says.|
|6. Keep great records. Write on the back of each receipt what the expense was for, when you incurred it and who you were with, Angleton suggests. Meticulous records are key for a speedy reimbursement, Winters says. And it’s not just for reimbursement: if you ever get audited by the IRS, you might need to show proof of the money you spent for work because reimbursements are not taxable income, Angleton says. Use a smartphone expensing app that allows you to snap a photo of each receipt, he recommends. “A smart employee will take a picture of the reimbursement check, too, and keep it in the app,” he says.|
|7. Get reimbursed as quickly as you can. If you buy a plane ticket months before a trip, ask if you can get reimbursed for the cost right away, Weliver says. Slow reimbursement may be the biggest employee gripe about fronting expenses. “If you don’t get reimbursed for six weeks, it can be a real headache,” Winters says. If you get hit with interest on your credit card because of slow reimbursement, it’s fair to ask your employer to pay the finance charges, Weliver says.|
|8. Pay your card right away. If you’re low on cash or lax about managing your money, it can be tempting to stick a reimbursement check in your bank account and spend some of that money, Weliver says. To avoid the lure of frittering away that lump sum, make a payment on your credit card as soon as the check hits your bank account, Weliver says.|
Play the game right, and using your own plastic for work might be a painless way to earn enough rewards to pay for your plane ticket for a well-earned vacation next year.