To Expense

People spend more when a company is paying.

Photo credit: Benjamin Horn, CC BY 2.0.

Expense account: an arrangement under which sums of money spent in the course of business by an employee are later reimbursed by their employer.

I first heard of the concept of expensing, as a verb, when I was in my early twenties. I was out with a friend to dinner, and she offered to buy. I half-heartedly pushed her offer aside, saying she “didn’t have to.” She just shrugged and said, “Why not let me? I’m not paying; my company is. I’ll just expense it.”

Her company would pay for her dinner? And also MY DINNER? What in the…? I thought companies paid for company operations, not the meals their employees ate to survive. I was reeling. I wanted to ask how she’d found herself such a sweet deal and how often she got to expense things and if she, too, was overwhelmed by the very concept, but I tried to keep it casual. “Yeah, all right, dinner’s on them.” I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t want to seem too interested, I suppose. I said thanks, and then I ordered another dessert.

Just kidding. I’m not a terrible person; I didn’t order another dessert. Instead, I said thank you and continued not asking questions aloud. What had she done to deserve this? Why would a company pay — ever — for someone’s food intake?

I was aware that my friend was destined for certain vocational success. She had headed straight into an internship post-college, and appeared to already be on a rung of a corporate ladder. I, too, had just finished college, but I was trying to figure out if I would apply at McDonald’s or Hardee’s. The professional world seemed too strange to me. I didn’t quite imagine I would ever try to penetrate it.

But things like this — the magic “expense account” that seemed to reward my friend simply for needing sustenance — this seemed like something to figure out.

It’s been a good while since then, and I have yet to expense a single item. I have held jobs in many fields, but none of them came with a personal meal budget.

However, my husband recently traveled for work for the first time. He went to a week-long conference, and lo-and-behold, his company had an allotted expense amount for him.

He didn’t find this out until the second night. This is why, if we were to look at his dinner expenses in graph form, we would find the following: a line stretching higher and higher as it moved through time. A line that reached straight for the stars.

Dinner Night One: $7.91

Dinner Night Two: $12.67

Dinner Night Three: $16.60

Dinner Night Four: $26.72

On the first night my husband had dinner, he was unaware that his meal would be expensed. His coworkers and travel companion informed him later that evening.

So, on the second night, now that he was aware that someone else would be paying his check, he increased the cost of his meal by $4.67.

On the third night, when he was even more comfortable with the idea, he increased the amount he spent from the previous night by an additional $3.93.

On the fourth night, when he was really cozying up to the concept that someone else would be footing the bill, he went ahead and spent an additional $10.12.

If we want to look at the big picture — comparing the first night’s dinner (when he was unaware he could expense the bill) with the final night’s (when he had gained some comfort with the concept) — he increased the amount he spent on dinner by a whopping $18.81.

I see this every day at my own hourly, no-expense-fund job at a coffee shop: people spend more when a company is paying. We don’t sell a ton of bottles of water, because bottles of water are expensive compared to a completely free glass of purified tap water. Most customers just ask us to grab them a cup from the tap—but when a car pulls up to the drive-thru and a well-dressed adult asks for a bottle of water, I know this means the credit card will almost always be a corporate one.

The corporate cards weigh more than the piddly, single-person owner cards. They shine more brightly. The corporate employee grabs their sandwich, their coffee, and a cool, refreshing, big plastic bottle of water for later—and then asks for the receipt. The receipt is the proof. They’re going to turn this expense in so that their company can pay for their pampering. There’s no way they are paying for all this themselves! If they were, they would have just gotten the coffee.

We take what we are given. We accept what we are handed. But we will take everything we physically can out of an outstretched hand. It’s maximization. It’s human nature. (It’s math, pure and simple.) We have been told to expense, and expense we do.

Kelly Green is a writer living in Iowa. She loves dogs easily, humans with some effort. She can be found at and on Twitter @kellygreeeeeen. (That’s six e’s, because her name is anything but unique.)

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