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Career Tips

How to master the art of expense reports

by Brought to you by ACS Career Navigator
July 1, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 21


Hands hold several receipts.
Credit: Shutterstock

Travel is returning to pre-COVID levels, and so too are travel expenses, and the expense reports that come with traveling for work or school. Filling out a form to get reimbursed, or logging expenses into an app should not be difficult, but understanding expense policies can save you a lot of time and stress—and maybe even some money.

Know before you go. Do you know your organization’s reimbursement policies? Should you book flights and hotels directly, or does someone else handle the logistics? Should you use an organization credit card, or pay out of pocket and get reimbursed?

If waiting several weeks for reimbursement is a problem, ask if your organization can pay conference fees or airfare directly; maybe you can submit one expense report for those items, and then another later for meals, hotels, and other travel expenses.

If you travel often for work or school, a separate credit card is something to consider as a way to keep those expenses distinct from personal ones. Avoid incurring extra credit card fees, as those will not be reimbursable. Even if your organization provides you with a credit card, you must still complete an expense report and include details of your expenditures.

Are food expenses reimbursed at a flat rate per day (which may vary depending on the city of travel) or for exactly what you spend? Is there a limit? Do you need to save all receipts, or only those over a certain amount? Are alcoholic drinks reimbursable? Is use of your personal car reimbursed, and at what rate? Most US organizations use a mileage rate set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Knowing all this will allow you to make more informed decisions while traveling.

On the trip. Ask for receipts, and save them all in one safe place. If your employer does not provide an expense-tracking app, take photos as backup. Make note of the dates, the purpose, which parts are reimbursable, and of anyone else you paid for. Completing your expense report daily, will make things smoother on your return.

How you handle your reimbursable travel expenses says a lot about you. You don’t want to be seen as the person who tries to squeeze every penny out of the budget, but you also don’t want to miss out on claiming legitimate travel expenses. When in doubt, consult a colleague or, if you’re in the US, the IRS regulations direct which travel expenses are deductible or allowable.

After your return. Complete your expense report and submit it to the right person as soon as possible. (In the US, the IRS requires reports to be filed within 60 days.) Make sure to use the correct and most current version of the app or form.

Find out if the refund comes with a paycheck, as an independent deposit, or as a physical check. And ask whether reimbursements are made on a particular day of the week or month. If so, waiting a day to turn in your expense report may mean you wait an extra month to get your money.

Travel for work or school can be fun and highly rewarding. But the price of having someone else pay for your trip is that you have to follow their rules—or you might unexpectedly end up paying for things yourself.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published monthly in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to


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