Pay it backwards

Recently, I had two weird reimbursement experiences. The first was getting a check reimbursing me for travel to a conference I attended over two years ago (it seems the check got lost in the mail or something). The other was getting a letter from a school I spoke at requesting that I return some money that they gave me by mistake (I assumed it was an honorarium, but as the letter stated I was “not entitled” to it). Both of them are annoying situations for different reasons, but what amused me was that I got some money back that I assumed I had lost forever, and immediately I lost some money that I assumed was mine.

As one does, I shared this grievance with my facebook friends, and of course many expressed sympathy and amusement, and some advised me not to give the money back (I am giving the money back, in case you are from the University That Shall Not Be Named, I haven’t decided what to do if you’re not). Others even suggested that maybe this was a “dishonorarium”: if your talk is really terrible, you should pay the school that invited you.

But one very insightful suggestion came from my friend April (who has her own badass blog): “I’d be really interested to read a good piece on academia’s weird reimbursement culture. I’ve known a good number of students who turned down professional development opportunities because they couldn’t front more money on their credit card because they were still waiting on reimbursements from months or years ago.” Now, this blog post is not my “good piece on academia’s weird reimbursement culture”, but more of a call to start this discussion.

I remember when I was a grad student and I owed a ton of money on my credit card for exactly this reason. Or I got dangerously close to overdrawing my bank account. It’s not that I didn’t have the money, it’s that I didn’t have it right then. I still pretty much wait until I get reimbursed before I buy another plane ticket, but that doesn’t always work out. Especially when you have a grant (or your students are traveling with your grant), it’s weird that you still have to wait some time before getting paid back rather than just paying from a special account.

I guess the problem is controlling that you’re using the money for the “right things”, instead of buying yourself a new pair of shoes or something. So I guess it comes down to the fact that we need to prove that we have already traveled, report what we spent money on, and then the grant or school says “ok, you get your money back”. But there is probably a better way to do that? I know some friends of mine have a work credit card and they can use it for these kinds of things, and then their grant pays for it. Shouldn’t we have something like that for grad students too? And postdocs? And do we?

Anyway, I just thought I would pose the question to you, dear readers, and see what you think. How do you feel about our weird reimbursement culture? Are there better ways to do this? Should I give the money back? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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