My grandfather used to hammer Gerber baby-food jar lids to the underside of the shelves in his garage. Then he would use the jars to store all sorts of screws, nuts, bolts, and so on. He had easy access to whatever hardware he needed just by twisting loose the appropriate jar. Even as a 5-year-old boy, I knew this was the most anal-retentive thing I might ever see in my life—especially during the Saturdays he spent boiling the food labels off of the jars.
But as crazy as his idea seemed at the time, whenever he had to repair, install, or build something, he never spent any time looking for the right hardware. Therefore, I’ve taken a similar approach to managing my expense reports, only without the jars. I use envelopes.
Since I normally work three or four trips in a row (back-to-back), it was tough to manage my receipts from trip to trip when I finally got around to doing the expense reports. I have finally established a routine that makes expense reporting a snap.
First of all, I use one credit card solely for expensing items while on business trips. Nothing goes on this account that’s not “expensible.” I picked the WorldPerks Visa because it gives double miles when you book directly with Northwest Airlines, the airline I primarily travel on. I applied for the card and then promptly informed customer service that I travel a ton, so the card would be used in many states and countries. This is an important step because I didn’t want them to cancel the card due to “abnormal” activity. Then I asked for a credit limit that would allow for the maximum I could possibly expense in a month. They were happy to adjust the limit accordingly.
For every trip I take, I get a new business-size envelope and record the trip and the dates on the front: “Atlanta, 10/14–10/19.” I make sure the dates reflect the days I would use the card to buy something. I keep the envelopes in my computer briefcase that goes wherever I go. Every night before bedtime, I dump all of my expense receipts into the envelope. When the trip is over and the last receipt goes in, I put a paperclip on it to let me know that envelope is “closed.”
Tuesdays are always “expense report” days for me. If a trip is over on a Friday (which is my usual gig), the receipts should be reported to Visa by the following Tuesday; so that’s when I do my reports. The reports themselves are super easy because all of the receipts are right there in the envelope. When the report is finished, I write the amount of the check I should receive on the back of the envelope and seal it. My company pays expense checks through auto-deposit. I set it up so those checks go right to my Visa account. After the check is deposited, I file the envelope with all of the other ones from previous trips in case I ever get audited.
I think about my grandpa whenever I watch fellow employees drop a load of receipts onto their desks and complain about losing some, never having their balance right, and so on. Sometimes I feel like the “anal-retentive traveler” with my little envelopes in my bag, but things stay pretty easy and organized. When money is involved; I like it that way.