Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out of Pocket

On Monday, I discussed the difficulty of paying for certain research activities from grants. In some cases (e.g. postage) the easiest solution is to pay from personal funds. If I save a lot of time by paying myself, it's worth it to me to pay cash or use my own credit card.

Every April when I prepare my tax returns, I am aware that my non-reimbursed professional expenses add up to thousands of dollars each year. My husband typically has a similar amount. What are we spending all this money on? Stamps?

Professional expenses that I pay for myself (not from grants) include:

- Postage, photocopies, office supplies, computer supplies, peripherals, ink cartridges, printer drums, software etc. We used to be able to set up an account at a campus bookstore and purchase some of these things, but alas, those days are gone. I am not very good at keeping track of all these expenses, but I can figure some of it out from credit card receipts.

- Research expenses after a grant has expired; e.g. conference travel to present results of the research, or page charges/color printing fees for an article published after a grant has expired. In some cases I can deal with post-grant conference travel by also presenting results from research related to an active grant, or I can put the page charges on a related grant (or use the mysterious IDC funds that are allocated to faculty at random intervals). In some cases I just pay for it on a credit card and don't get reimbursed.

- Travel expenses not anticipated or not possible to budget in a grant. If I made a realistic budget that included travel to 1-3 national and international meetings and workshops for me, most or all of my graduates students, a postdoc, and some undergraduate research assistants, the travel budget would be insanely large. Therefore, for some trips I pay my own way. I can use frequent flyer miles for some travel (though this is becoming more difficult and expensive), and I can use ff miles to send some members of my research group to conference sites. Frequent flyer miles help, but using them comes with fees, especially if the ticket is for someone else. And then there is the cost of the conference registration (expensive), lodging (expensive), and per diem (food) for my research group. I don't tend to reimburse myself for per diem expenses, mostly to save grant money.

- Teaching materials. The supplies budget for teaching materials in my department ranges from sufficient to zero. When it is zero, my choices are to teach with incomplete and scruffy materials, or to purchase items myself. The amount of breakage and loss and general damage is rather impressive in some of the lab classes, so there is a constant need to replace some of the teaching supplies. If these are not replaced, the students are cranky, the TA's may be cranky, and my ability to teach well is compromised (as are my teaching evaluations). It is worth it to me to buy some items myself if that is my only choice.

- Professional society memberships, journal subscriptions, books.

- Costs associated with entertaining visiting colleagues, prospective students etc. (although these expenses are in a different category for tax purposes).

There are also some pseudo-professional expenses that I don't typically count for tax purposes but that are related to my professional activities:

- Expenses related to taking language classes. I have been taking these classes specifically because learning this language will help with some long-term research projects and international collaborations, but I don't have to take these classes in the same way that I have to do other research activities. As a faculty member and non-degree seeking 'student', I don't have to pay tuition (just a nominal fee), but I do of course have to buy textbooks, CDs, and other materials related to the language course.

- Expenses related to bringing my daughter to conferences. If my husband and I attend the same conference, our daughter comes with us. We pay her airfare, of course, and when she was younger, we paid for on-site child-care (if offered) for at least part of the time.

It all adds up somehow to thousands of dollars for each of us. With the exception of the teaching materials, some of the rest is quite reasonable to expect us to pay ourselves, though I do wish it were easier to pay for research-related travel. With the huge airfare increases this year, my travel budgets for existing grants are taking a big hit.


Anonymous said...

Out of pocket, but not out of mind, exactly. I am so happy that other professors spend pocket money on the lab. As you say, it is sometimes the fastest way to get stuff done. Everytime I do it, I feel like a chump and wonder if I am the only idiot voluntarily reducing my salary in the name of science.

Unknown said...

Hey, I'm not alone! I too tend to pay for lab stuff out of my own pocket, and I too was always wondering whether I'm being weird. Coming to todays `chumps anonymous' meeting has already helped.

Anonymous said...

even some students do's often much faster for me to just go to Target and buy epoxy or superglue or containers or whatever than it would be to order those from a vendor (especially when your labmate uses the last of the superglue and can't be bothered to buy some or order some and you need it immediately) and the trouble it takes to get reimbursed is just not worth the $5-$15, but it adds up over time

Anonymous said...

I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but if you go out and get some job offers, you can get yourself a position with a guarantee of a decent "slush fund" budget for this kind of shit, or you can leverage the offers into an improved situation at your current institution, including the "slush fund".

Anonymous said...

My graduate adviser also paid for some things out of her own pocket because funding was tight (in additions to working for free in the summers). Other MSP's didn't seem to do this, either because they had more grant money, or they didn't talk about it to students. I know that FSP's husband also pays for things out-of-pocket, but I wonder if it is more common for a FSP vs. a MSP to have to pay for work-related expenses out of their own $$?

Minos said...

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but it's also good to know I'm not the only one! This stuff does add up! I know, I should keep track of every farthing and deduct it, but dear lord, my time is valuable, too, and I just can't be bothered to hoard that epoxy receipt from Lowe's for a year!

Christie Rowe said...

I am in a similar position, but unlike other comments, I am pissed off about it... in this country there is a full 18-months between writing a proposal and doing the work. This has meant ~50% increase in costs for car hire and airfare and petrol and I have no other option than to pay it out of my salary. Worse yet - my graduate students cant live on last year's fees/expenses.

Anonymous said...

I do this as well--let's face it, it is so much easier to run to the hardware store for a screwdriver (for example) than to buy it through approved channels (with overhead, etc etc!) where I work, the men do it as often as the women. The most recent purchase of this type was sort of girly though--a 1/16" hole punch from a craft store :-)

As far as journal subscriptions and society memberships go, when I pay myself, I do claim them on my taxes.

Anonymous said...

Oh Lordy, don't get me started on this topic.

Just a comment on the travel - conference fees have gotten exorbitant in the last years. They are held at fancy hotels I can't afford and people are paid to professionally organize them and massive conference proceedings are printed that no one reads.

Conferences used to be small and focussed; you met at the university - rent-free; You needed a bit of money for organizing coffee and photocopies, but not the immense sums charged today.

I just got back from giving my first international talk on a topic that I have recently begun to do research in. I am only getting 2/3 reimbursed, because it is considered to be continuing education for me to listen to the other speakers, many of which gave really bad talks.


Anonymous said...

Get a credit card specifically for such purchases. NEVER use it for others.

Makes keeping track pretty easy.