Living Frugal With Other People's Money

Photo courtesy of elroySF

While working for my previous employer I had the opportunity to do a bit of traveling to meet with clients, or potential clients, to scope out business requirements for various software installations.  It wasn’t the greatest perk, as I had a wife and small child at home around that same time and rarely looked forward to being called away on business.  Still, it was infrequent enough that it make the job tolerable, and I did enjoy seeing new places and meeting new people.

One aspect I did not enjoy was dealing with the finances of corporate travel.  My employer issued employee credit cards for booking airfare, lodging and rental cars, and supplied a per diem advance of something like $30 per day for food.  According to their policy, meals enjoyed in the company of a client could be charged to the company credit card, effectively allowing us to pocket our per diem allocated to that meal.  Of course, it was popular to take advantage of these rules by inviting the client out to dinner with us every night.  One of our traveling partners once made the comment, “Is this not great?  We can eat all the steak and lobster we want, and pocket $30 doing it!”

Frugal Living is a Way of Life, Regardless of Who Is Picking Up the Check

These experiences made an impression on me.  After all, I knew someone was paying for it, and just because I wasn’t the one forking over the money I didn’t think it gave me the right to order whatever I wanted.  I normally stuck to pretty simple stuff–grilled chicken, pasta dishes, and on occasion the smallest steak on the menu.  My traveling team routinely ordered appetizers, huge meals, and dessert, and left a lot of it on the table.  Seeing that much waste made me wish others shared my frugal ideas, but it wasn’t the time to be a self-righteous frugalist.

Leading a Frugal Life By Example, at Work and at Home

I’ve discovered that finding success at being frugal in the office involves implementing many of the same techniques you use at home.  It should not matter if you are using your own money or not, because frugal living is a way of life, regardless of who is paying for it.  It is a way of looking at resources, financial or otherwise, and figuring out ways to maximize their use.   Would it be fair of me to go grocery shopping with your checkbook and load up on things I wouldn’t normally eat?

If your company put you in charge of redecorating a conference room, would you buy a much more elaborate style of furniture than the style you would buy at home?  Maybe.  I recognize that corporate America still puts a premium on looking sharp, but I think when taken to the extreme it actually hurts companies.  After all, if I am a potential client and I walk into a room decorated to the hilt I have to ask myself, “Who’s paying for all this stuff?”  Suddently, the bid from the modestly decorated “lean and mean” competitor down the street looks like a better offer.

I encourage everyone to find ways to be frugal at work.  Turn out the lights when you leave the office.   Install CFLs in table lamps (with permission).  Consider repairing or upgrading computer equipment rather than buying costly, unnecessary replacements.  While traveling don’t go overboard with food and entertainment just because you can. Remember, frugality is not something you can turn off and on as you please.  It is a way of looking at the world of finances through the lens of minimizing our own consumption, and our spending, in an effort to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

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