Friday, May 19, 2006

Ethics and the Per Diem travel allowance

I travel moderately often for work, and when I do, I have two options for my meal expenses: submitting receipts, or claiming a per diem. Therein lies my ethical quandary. The per diem is $40 a day-- and I never spend close to that.

I don't know if those of you who work for for-profit companies worry about this, but as for me, my employer is non-profit and I don't want to waste their money. So I feel bad claiming a $40 per diem for a day I spent $15 on food. On the other hand, I certainly could spend more, and shouldn't I get some benefit from choosing to eat frugally when many of my coworkers don't? On the other other hand, eating frugally is just my habit, so why do I deserve extra money that my employer could be using to carry out its mission?

(The other complication is that I'm terrible at keeping track of receipts, so even if I wanted to claim expenses based on receipts, I'd have a hard time doing it.)

My current strategy is essentially splitting the difference. For example, if I'm traveling for 3 days and spend a total of $50 on food, I'll claim two days per diem for $80. That way I pocket a little extra myself, as a reward for doing things like drinking water with my meal and picking cheaper entrees. But I don't claim the full $120 I'm entitled to for the trip, since that's much more than I spent. (The exception would be for very stressful trips in which I'm working much longer hours than usual-- I don't get paid overtime or get any other compensation for that work, so I sometimes take the full per diem as essentially a bonus. Of course, when things are that stressful, I often find myself spending more money on my meals anyway because "I deserve it"...)

I still question myself, though. Sometimes I think I should claim the full amount I'm due every time. Other times I think I should get closer to actual expenses, whether by submitting receipts or by doing some multi-trip "mental accounting" to be more precise about claiming for only what I spent.

What do you think? Is this something you deal with? If not, don't hesitate to give me advice anyway!


James & Miel said...

Great post. Glad someone is thinking of such issues. I work at a very large international development non-profit and we have the policy of taking the per diem instead of actuals. It's crazy to see the type of money folks make on per diem.

When the per diem might be $180 for food and the person can only find a hotel for $3 a day, you know they are pocketing a considerable amount. It's hard not to think how this could be contributing to the community they are working to develop.

calgirlfinance said...

I make between $100-$200/week on per diem. I'm lucky that I don't have to wrestle with these dilemnas - we have to take per diem per company policy. I honetly think of per diem as a bonus to make up for all the long hours I work.

Anonymous said...

I also work at a non-profit. We have a per diem of $40 per day per company policy.
But I was talking to this agency manager from the State of Texas. She said that the state provides for a per diem of $35 per day but they must submit receipts. If the receipts total less than $35, then the employees have to turn over the difference. And that the per diem is calculated on an hourly basis of $1.46 per hour. So say that you left on Monday at 8:00 PM for a weeklong business trip, you do not get $35 for the day but $5.84 (1.46X4hrs).

I don't think you need to feel it's unethcial in this case since the company policy dictates what you get as per diem. If you feel guilty about the extra money, give it to another charity. That way you know that the money is going to a good cause plus it's tax deductible. Or buy your boss, significant other, children, or nieces a surprise gift to lighten their day.

It's nice to know that I am not the only one who has felt guilty about a per diem.