3 Money-Related Career Truths I Learned The Hard Way

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A year ago, I finally landed a job as an international marketing assistant. After six months, my boss planned a few business trips for the last quarter of the year — to Germany and South Africa. Needless to say, I was super excited about the opportunity to travel, meet new prospects, and, of course, fill my social media accounts with rage-inducing pictures of beaches, monuments and gorgeous meals.

When I first started to go on business trips for my current job, I thought this was a great deal as my employer would be covering all the food, transport and housing expenses. Getting paid to travel — something I have always loved — and not have to pay for anything for a week or more seemed like an amazing opportunity, both professionally and financially. I live in Paris with a junior-level income and student loans to reimburse: being able to avoid using my credit card for a while felt like a relief, and I’m not ashamed to say it. However, when I travelled to Berlin, Johannesburg and Cape Town over the past few months, I quickly realized that I had been oh-so-wrong thinking that business trips were a way to escape financial pressures.

My boss asked me to advance all my expenses for the Berlin trip with my credit card. It put me under a lot of stress, since my beloved rectangle of plastic has a very low payment limit. So, when I went to South Africa two weeks later, I politely asked for a travel advance. I was given $530 for a week-long trip — and this had dramatic consequences for my finances.

I’m quite bad at following my expenses (though thanks to sites like TFD, I’m improving). That $530 in my bank account gave me a false feeling of security. This particular feeling has always been my personal financial nemesis, and as a result, I ended up spending way more than I actually had and went over budget. Once I’d handed in my invoices and receipts for my travel and living expenses, it dawned upon me that I had to pay back my employer the difference: my bank account saw red as the overdraft kicked in.

I admit I was pretty dumb, but keeping an eye on your budget can be tricky with international credit card operations, as transactions can take up to five days to actually appear on your account. These delays, combined with an 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. work schedule, make the budget-following process much harder than it usually is. However, I can now honestly say that there are a few important lessons I learned from starting to travel for my work and having to manage the whole money-for-business-trips thing.

1. There will be unexpected expenses (that your employer won’t pay for).

For me, these came mostly before the trips. For the Berlin fair, I was scheduled to be on our booth every day. I knew I was going to shuffle and be on my feet at least nine hours a day, so I bought a pair of compression tights and replenished my stock of painkillers. I also bought a soothing cream for my legs and, of course, band aids. The total came to $52.

When I left for South Africa, I was asked by my boss to not check my luggage, which is actually great advice. I didn’t have a suitcase small enough to fit in the cabin, so I bought one for $30.

These are not expenses I could ask my employer to refund. I don’t regret buying the small suitcase: I’m still using it today, and I now realize that I needed one. The compression tights, painkillers and band aids where all used over the course of the Berlin fair. It might not seem much, but it’s still $52 I spent specifically for that trip, and that $52 wasn’t budgeted.

2. You will need an emergency fund.

I know: this advice has been given over and over again on TFD.

At the beginning of an international career, an emergency fund will be more useful than ever. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that relies on a travel agency, which has dedicated customer service available 24/7. If I need to change a ticket at the last minute, they will do it and charge the company afterwards. However, in small businesses and start-ups, processes might not be so smooth. If you’re stuck at an airport after missing your plane, if you need to pay for a surprise big dinner for a client, or if your company card simply isn’t responding, you might have to rely on your own emergency fund. This might seem scandalous to some, but after having worked with start-ups for a couple of years, I can assure you that it happens.

3. Frustration might cause impulse shopping.

Working extra hours is a pretty common thing during business trips. When I was in Berlin, I had to be on our booth at 8 a.m. to help my boss set up the decor. The day usually ended around 7 p.m. When I got back to the hotel after having dinner with my colleagues, I usually had to catch up on my emails. As a result, I didn’t see much of the city. The same thing happened in South Africa and Spain. The only touristic place I saw in Barcelona was the charming, but very little, street on which our hotel was located. I’m an easily frustrated person, and being sent abroad (to South Africa!) but unable to see anything apart from my hotel room and the airport was a very refined form of torture for me. I guess I was naive about all this. I never knew how little time you have for yourself during business trips, until I actually experienced one myself. Again, this may vary depending on your boss, your colleagues and the company policy. Each and every one will react differently to such policies.

My reaction was to splurge on useless items and souvenirs for my friends and family. Impulsive shopping is often a risk when you’re traveling. The worst reactions can occur if you don’t get time to explore the places you’ve been sent to. Since my last trip to South Africa, I made myself a promise: next time I have to travel somewhere for business, I will put aside a dedicated budget to spoil my loved ones and myself. And I won’t buy souvenirs at the airport.

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Business trips are a lot like vacations: a little planning and budgeting goes a long way. And if you’re like me, and work for a company that requires extra flexibility regarding travel, then you will have to be even more organized and thorough with where your money goes.

L.H. is a French writer living in Paris and working as a marketing specialist. You can find her on Facebook and her English language editor on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Samantha D

    I also travel a lot for work, and have for several years. I would suggest that you don’t think of business trips as vacations at all (unless you tack on an extra day or so for sight seeing). Unfortunately, getting to see the sights is very unlikely if you’re working long hours. It’s a good idea to completely understand your company’s reimbursement policies at the outset. What do they pay for and how much? Alcohol is one thing that varies for each company, know if you can expense it, and how much can be expensed. What are the rules on checking bags, upgrading seats, etc? If something isn’t set in stone, I would ask ahead of time what will and what won’t be approved. If there is something you want to do that you can’t have reimbursed, budget for it as you would a concert or night out at home.

    Another tip is to be ok with not seeing the sites and experiencing a place as if it were a vacation. Sometimes I feel bad for being in an amazing location and not using my little free time for site seeing. The truth is, if I’m at the booth from 7-7, or running from meeting to meeting all day, and am in physical pain from standing (the author is not kidding or over exaggerating there believe me!) it’s ok to chill in the hotel room. My goal is one nice authentic dinner per trip.

    Finally- make sure you get your credit card, hotel, and frequent flyer rewards set up to work well for you! Traveling for work means you’re off your routine and away from your family. Most companies in the US allow for you to keep your rewards as a result. Try to fly a similar airline and hotel chain as much as you can. If you are reimbursed for expenses, be sure to get a credit card with great travel rewards. I have earned a ton of miles, hotel stays, cash back, and even free airport parking.

    I definitely don’t mean to be a know at all but I thought I’d chime in as this is something I’ve gotten down after years of travel.

    • Lucille James

      Hi Samantha, you’re not being a know-it-all at all. These are all great advice, especially the “business trips are not vacations” one. I know realize that I should have talked with my sales colleagues way more before leaving, as they’re all frequently going on international business trips (more than the marketing team).

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