Ah, the dreaded expense report. You have the best intentions with every business trip. You really do. But then reality sets in. Missed flight delays, grabbing a cab in a developing nation where receipts are only a suggestion, solving an unexpected client crisis during the only available receipt scanning time youíve had all week . . . all of these things come crashing into your elusive dream of expense report bliss. Just how do you stay on top of it?
If youíre a self-employed freelance travel writer, keeping track of expense report receipts can be even more critical. Especially when thereís no guaranteed baseline salary every month to cover the cost of those moderate incidental credit card expenses you used to be able to forget to turn in. Here are twenty-five tips and resources to help you streamline your record keeping, maintain order and well . . . build a better expense report.
Rather than focus on the actual format of the expense report (since everyone has their favorite format anyway), these tips deal more with documenting the expenses and the logistics behind making that happen.
Professional hobo Nora Dunn literally uses her pants pocket when keeping track of expenses on the road. While there are times on the adventure travel circuit where thatís your only option, it helps to have some other options in your professional bag of tricks when it comes time to handle your mounting stack of paperwork. Some of my favorites are from Franklin Covey, like their classic, wire-bound value pack of plastic inserts. It includes a zippered pocket and other types of inserts suitable for including with your day planner.
I like this solution because it fits in with typical business travel so nicely. I usually have my day planner on hand, so shoving those incidental receipts into a clear pocket where I can easily spot them later works for me. The same principle applies to their expense envelopes, which are also available to fit your favorite size of planner. For busy, backpacking journalists on the go, they also offer a wearable shoulder strap with pockets, enabling you to easily grab business cards and store receipts at the same time.
2. Credit Cards
I know many people prefer cash and debit cards these days, but Iím of the opinion that credit cards have their place when it comes to business travel purchases. First of all, they provide a clear record of purchase when a receipt is either misplaced or too faint to scan well. Also, if you file your expense report on time, youíll be able to receive reimbursement before any interest starts accruing without ever having had to dip into your own personal funds.
3. Edit Grid
A free, web-based spreadsheet service, Edit Grid allows you to document your travel expenditures from anywhere, completely streamlining the expense report process. It even works collaboratively, in case you are traveling with a group for an extended period of time.
Designed for corporate expense report filing on the go, Concur has pricing options for small, mid-range and large businesses which allow for automated approval when staff members will be traveling for some time. Submitting documents from your smart phone is the ultimate in speed and efficiency.
Free for up to two people, Expensify is an online service that generates your expense report by pulling credit card purchases, calculating mileage and even supporting the capturing of receipts from your smart phone. It works with Quickbooks, and pricing for more than two people starts at just five bucks per month.
6. Pro On Go
While thereís a fee for this service, Pro On Go claims to eliminate the necessity for manually entering expense report data. It allows the creation of custom spreadsheets, integrates purchases made with your credit cards and will even back up your report data on their company servers.
7. Cloud Storage
There are numerous places you can do this. One popular choice is Mozy, which offers a simple-to-use backup service for those people looking for a way to make sure their files are secure from the road, and also in case of power surges and failed hard drives. Mozy Remote Backup can also be used for travel photographs and other personal documents as well.
8. Mobile Scanning
In addition to grabbing a few minutes on the scanner in the hotel business center, you can also incorporate a mobile scanning and software system such as Neat Receipts, which pulls your captured receipts and business card data into your favorite spreadsheet program where you can then build your expense report.
A software and storage service thatís free for up to fifty captures a month, Capturengo lets you snap images from your smart phone of business travel receipts to incorporate into IRS-approved reports. Unlimited use will sink you nearly one hundred dollars per year, or you can wait until the next month to scan extra receipts and business cards.
10. Jot Not
Looking for scans that you can save and print like actual documents? The Jot Not Scanner Pro – MobiTech 3000 LLC app from iTunes just might be what youíre looking for.† It uses the camera on your smart phone to capture clear images of documents youíll need for your contact database, expense report or even your project management files. I also like the signature and faxing apps Jot Not has available, as they are perfect for solving logistical paperwork hiccups from the road.
11. Google Docs
Similar to Edit Grid and also free, Google Docs allows you to collaborate on the spreadsheets necessary to prepare a proper expense report no matter where you are on the globe. It also saves your executive assistant from having to double document your paperwork, since the information will already be in the system.
12. Expandable Clutch
This oneís for the ladies. Liz Claiborne makes an expandable clutch you can purchase at Penneyís when they have those great $10 off a purchase of $10 or more coupons. It holds two check books and has tabbed folders for receipts, coupons and more. Itís dressy enough to use on its own as a clutch purse, but can also be shoved in a larger tote, day pack or media bag for use as a large wallet. When youíre on the fly and donít have time to stop and take a picture, these are a great way to go.
13. Time Blocks
While many people are uncomfortable working in smaller blocks of time, the truth is if youíre going to be a successful road warrior, you need to find a way to GET comfortable. Scanning receipts and taking anecdotal notes for your corporate expense report are actually well suited to this adjustment. As long as you are shoving receipts into the same location, and that location is easily reached when your luggage is packed, you can get cracking on data collection and note taking in between flights, waiting at the train station, or during a lunchtime picnic in between sightseeing excursions.
14. Receiptless Transactions
Developing a personal system of dealing with receiptless transactions for things like porter tips and cab rides in developing countries where a paper trail is more of a suggestion will go a long way towards itemizing all of the incidentals on your expense report that youíre entitled to be reimbursed for. If you carry a notepad or envelope, you can jot these things down as they occur. If digging through your bag for a pan is too inconvenient, try using the voice recorder function on your smart phone. Yes, youíll have to sit down and document it later, but at least youíll have a record of the expense as it actually occurred.
15. Be Traditional
If youíre still pinching pennies on a vintage cell phone, then scanning as you go may be nothing more than a dream. However, by using tape loops or even two-sided sticky craft or scrapbook squares to put all of your small receipts on a single piece of paper is better than dealing with them all individually when you finally do reach a hotel with a business center. That way, youíll only have one paper to scan and email back to the main office. Hey, high tech isnít for everybody. If keeping things simple and in one location fits your style and mode of (possibly windy) travel, then by all means do what works for you.
Maintain awareness of your credit cardís billing cycle to avoid unnecessary interest charges prior to expense report reimbursement. Filing spreadsheets loaded with business travel expenditures after your due date will result in fees you likely wonít see returned to your bottom line.
17. Other Bills
Hotel receipts and car transport records arenít the only things you need to keep track of for a thorough expense report. Cell phone bills documenting long distance sales calls or invoices from pet sitters can add up to big bucks, particularly for those who frequently jet out on business trips. If you are on the road for the long term, get digital copies of incidental checks related to your trip and explore online statements for other bills that may contain valid, reimbursable expenditures.
18. Automated Tolls
Rather than have to keep track of smaller toll receipts with open windows creating breezy drafts, consider automated accounts for toll roads you travel on often. Youíll have a simple record of the expense without having to stop at every single booth along the way for paperwork verification.
19. Voice Recorder
You can use a separate device, or simply choose a smart phone with a voice recorder built in, as suggested above for receiptless transactions. This can be more helpful for your expense report than you might think, as anecdotal records are often required of business travelers when necessary costs fall outside of the expected, traditional line items.
20. Be Systemic
Chaos may reign supreme on the road, but do your best to maintain systems and procedures for documenting expense report items. For example, come up with a tried and true mileage maintenance system, and consistently use the same space for receipt storage. Having systemic routines will make the difference between getting it done and falling behind.
21. Electronic Filing
Letís face it. Some people just donít fit into the traditional expense report documentation mode. Spreadsheets and smart phone apps simply arenít for everybody. If that sounds like Iím singing your song, consider setting up a few trip-or-client-specific folders on the hard drive of your traveling laptop or via cloud storage. Itís at least a way to keep notes and scans categorized until you find time to stop, catch your breath and start submitting paperwork in a format youíre comfortable with.
22. Create a Checklist
This is a great way to make sure you arenít forgetting any valid items to include on your expense report. While individual checklists will vary from traveler to traveler, a fair number of items will overlap. Things like tips, cab fare, tolls and business lunches are common, as are mileage, on-the-fly postage and hotel laundry for extended business trips.
23. One Note
Particularly well-suited to creative types and executives on the fly without personal assistants to synch up all of their software and smart phone apps, Microsoft OneNote allows the saving of a variety of file types into specific project folders or areas. Audio files, scans, images and text documents are all fair game, and easily accessed for later use and collation through the OneNote program. †For those business travelers who are halfway to techie but still cling to traditional note taking and information collection.
If you like the idea of paying a small monthly fee to have a variety of file types stored per topic and accessible by computer, web and smart phone, then you may want to check out Evernote, a monthly service for creative types on the go. You can keep all of your expense report items in your account, along with information and imagery related to other projects you happen to be working on.
The preferred spreadsheet software of many an office, Microsoft Excel will keep expense report data under control for the main office, and easily accommodate the sales force of a small to mid-sized business.
Bottom line? Thereís more than one way to skin an expense report cat. If smart phone apps rock your world, then thatís the way you should roll. If the pocket and voice recorder combo is what you need until you can get in front of a traditional scanner and web-accessible computer, honor that. The most important thing is to maintain consistency with your paperwork and submission routines. Do you have any other favorite resources and tips for building a better expense report? Share your wisdom and favorite products below.
Photo Credits: iStock
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