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.


  1. Great post! I agree that if we want to make frugality a lifestyle, we need to practice it all the time. And I think Matt (#2) makes a good point that this sort of thing is noticed by the higher-ups — especially during these times.

    Frugality is a way of life, I think, and if you are living a frugal life, you should live it ALL the time, even if someone else is picking up the check.

  2. I agree. It’s interesting that because some people see it as spending other people’s money, they just don’t care as much as they should. Strange how it’s one rule for their money and one rule for someone else’s money.

    Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if those people who ordered the huge meals and left much of it were the same people who spend more than they earn in normal life.

  3. FD,

    One other thing I would mention, is managers are not unaware of what people do out in the field. And if you are one of the people ordering the big meals and desserts, I do think it’s noticed. And when it comes for reviews or layoffs; it is foolish to think that management doesn’t take into consideration how you spend the company’s money. It’s not just about frugality, it’s about the overall health of your career.

  4. That’s so funny that you would bring that up…at our business, I have to routinely check the back bathrooms to see if the lights were left on – it seems that the same guys who are complaining about their huge Rent-A-Center bigscreen TV bills can’t remember to simply turn out the lights when they’re done. I was just talking to DH about this – I’m going to show him your blog right now. 🙂

  5. I travel frequently for work, and do not try to beat the system. I pick middle of the road hotels, cheap rental cars and spend time trying to pick a flight.

    You’re right, that money has to come from somewhere… And I certainly don’t want to not get a raise because of the overspending I did on a trip!

  6. I have such a hard time with this too. Just this past weekend I did a trade show and we had to grab breakfast really fast. They had a buffet and it was $17 per person and the company paid for that so we could eat $1 worth of food and it made me sick. No matter whose money it is, I am always very careful how I spend it. It does blow my mind how different it is in the corporate world.

  7. The few times I’ve traveled for work, I found myself doing exactly the same thing. I didn’t want to spend the company’s money frivolously as it will usually come back to bite you (either at raise time or at layoff time). One time I was out for training for a week and had a $35 per diem. I took advantage of the continental breakfast provided by the hotel and ate a reasonable dinner at a restaurant almost each night. For lunches though, I picked up some bread, a jar of peanut butter, juice and some bananas for lunches. Sometimes I just ate my leftovers from the night before (usually pasta as some of those plates are just overflowing with the stuff!). By the end of 7 days I basically had only spent less than half of my food budget. That felt pretty good as I did need the extra money at the time.

    To play a little devil’s advocate, sales people are a little more free with the lunches/dinners and so forth as it does make a client feel special when they get a free meal and aren’t constrained to a budget. It does bring in the sales. In most industries, it is almost expected to be wined & dined by a prospective vendor, though many people take far too much advantage of it.

    On the subject of food waste, I just think that far too many people waste food as a normal habit anyway. It sickens me to see people whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs and just throw away enough food for me to have dinner for free.

  8. Wasting food really winds me up even if it’s in a restaurant and it isn’t real food. Maybe it’s because I’m a gardener and know how much work goes into each bite of that eggplant or potato. I talk to each plant and have a personal relationship with my food, which makes harvest time kind of weird but somehow I get through it.

    Also, is it me or did some animal die in order for a piece of meat or fish to be on my plate? I always think that the least I can do is to eat it, and to do otherwise would be disrespectful to the animal.

  9. @Miranda: Matt did make an excellent point, and it was an angle I didn’t think of originally (thanks Matt). In lean times executives are looking ways to cut back, and going all out at a company treat has been deterimined to be highly unpopular with shareholders. To David’s point, yes, there has to be a little “wining and dining” because let’s face it, that’s what some clients are looking for. I guess where we can help make a difference is by not being “that client.”

  10. Did I write this post and not realize it?? I must have because every single thing, from the job description to the frugality with the company’s Gold Card could have been written by me. Nobody wants to be the party-pooper, but showing a responsible lead in fiscal matters at the office is admirable. Just don’t carry it to the extremes of bossiness or showiness (look how green I am!) or even the bosses think you’re a huge pain in the neck.

  11. When I travel for business with my company, which isn’t too often, for food they offer $35 per day to cover breakfast, lunch, and dinner ($7, $8, and $20 per meal). However, we don’t have to show receipts for our meals, the $35 is automatic as long as you are out on business during our companies fixed “meal times.”

    If I spend more than $35 its on my own tab, and if I spend less than $35… they’re still going to reimburse me $35 anyways. I normally wouldn’t spend $20 at dinner for just myself, but I figure I might as well eat $20 worth of food for dinner, instead of just taking the free money.

  12. I am my own boss (self-employed) and there are times when I justify the expense of, say a $17 breakfast buffet. I would do so if I were totally stressed about an upcoming presentation and didn’t have time to think about where to eat. I would want to be focused on the work ahead. The $17 isn’t just for the food. It keeps you from having to plan, shop, cook/prepare, and clean. It is there when you need it and a great selection of food. That said, I usually do not go to these things as a piece of banana bread and a milk from the coffee shop (usually present in the hotel) is enough for my breakfast! One time I was at a hotel that offered a $25 per person breakfast buffet. And that was about 8 years ago. I didn’t go because that was just price gouging. I guess I sound ambivalent on this but my short comment is: there’s a time and a place for expensive breakfast buffets. 🙂

  13. My primary employer gave me a credit card to use for gas, which is great. I still fill up at the least expensive gas station I can find and don’t drive when I don’t need to. He recently discovered I was doing that and told me I didn’t need to. Nevertheless, that’s how I’m made and I don’t want to stop. Someday I’ll be paying for my gas myself again and I don’t want to get out of the frugal habit!

  14. 19 months ago I started this new job, which was a whole new entity startup within an existing business. The boss and I went shopping in the “big city” for the office set-up and supplies. He saw how frugal I was shopping and actually got after me saying that I needed to buy more (and fancier)than I actually thought I needed. I think he appreciated my frugalness, but at the same time he wanted the office to ‘look sharp’ for when we had DEQ, EPA, ODA meetings there. The one thing we really argued over was the glass topped cherry wood 3 piece desk with matching cabinets. He finally convinced me that it was ok to have such a nice piece of furniture as it was the floor model, had a few scratches on it, and was greatly discounted… to a lesser price than other desks actually. He has been very happy with the desk as it is ‘showy’… and I have been happy knowing that the price was not as bad as one would expect 🙂

    @Squeaky… I always ask for a doggie bag – and clean not only my plate into it, but my companions, if they don’t mind 🙂
    I’m right there with you on the veggies from my garden… thanking each one and trying to make sure I use them all up or preserve them so nothing goes to waste. And yes, my kids were raised with the same notion that my grandkids are now learning – some animal gave it’s life that we might eat, and therefore, there is to be no waste of it. When I butcher, I even go so far as to pressure cook all the bones down for the broth and marrow which are great in soups/stews/scrapple, and the meat scraps off the bones that are good in the same.
    I think it’s a matter of having respect for all living things.

  15. I respect and appreciate your position, however I would like to make a couple of points. As an executive, I can tell you that the company does not mind if you spend money within reason. Yes – you shouldn’t go out and order the most expensive item on the menu just because it’s there, or stay at the most expensive hotel possible. However, as long as you stay within your company’s travel policy, no one will complain.

    Further, I think that it is very legitimate to consider these relatively small expenses as perks companies give to employees who are forced to spend time away from their family, friends and the comfort of their own homes.

    I am not saying waste money, but there is no need to go to extreme lengths to save the company $10 on dinner. That is unless you know that your company is in financial difficulty.

  16. What a great post. I love it when being frugal and being green overlap. It’s not just about saving YOUR money, it’s about not being wasteful.

  17. I agree with Tim and Shadox:

    I always order what I would have ordered if I was paying myself, but I don’t feel too bad with whatever the cost is.

    I’m traveling for business, away from family and friends, spending my own off hours for the company. It’s not in anyone’s interest to quibble about a meal that is less than what I get paid for an hour of work.

  18. Where I worked they broke the per diem up per meal. So, you could either claim the per diem, or put it on the credit card with a client, but not both.

    However, there were a number of no receipt available expenses one could claim. Skycaps & bellmen & valet parking tips for instance. a number of female employees regularly claimed, and since I knew their eating habits ran toward picking up yogurt & fruit at the free hotel breakfast buffet, & similiar for lunch, though not free, I felt it was reasonable. If nothing else, the assistance they required had to do with health & safety.