should you have to buy office supplies with your own money?

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A reader writes:

This past week, my boss’s boss paid a visit to our branch. He was telling me that he wants to see beverages, candy and snack-type foods available for when clients visit. He reminded me that corporate does not provide petty cash, and so I would be expected to pay out of pocket for these items, which I can then submit to payroll for reimbursement.

Is it normal for a company to expect employees to do this? I am already living paycheck to paycheck (and searching for a new job with a different employer). I don’t want to “loan” this multi-million dollar company any of my money. Am I being unreasonable?

You aren’t being unreasonable at all. These are office supplies. They should provide petty cash — or, better, they should just order this stuff using a company credit card, like they would with any other supplies. Are they also going to tell you that you need to purchase toilet paper and hand soap for the office and then submit for reimbursement?

Talk to your boss and tell her that it would be a hardship for you to make these purchases out of your own money and suggest alternatives, like ordering them online and charging them to the company. If you want to, say that you keep yourself on a strict budget. (You don’t owe an explanation, but offering one often softens these kinds of conversations.) And if your boss won’t implement any of your suggestions, explain that financially you simply can’t do this and someone else (like your boss) will need to.

One note: Even though you’re feeling irate, don’t take that into the conversation. Be polite and friendly; don’t make it adversarial. You’re much more likely to get a good outcome that way.

And a good boss would find a solution to this, because a good boss wouldn’t want you to feel personally burdened by the company’s expenses, and also wouldn’t want you to have to take on the awkwardness of having to push it.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey

    I don't think this is as cut and dry as Alison suggests. I think it depends on the industry and profession. For most jobs it would be unreasonable to pay for your own supplies, but some maybe not. For example, although it's not right, it's pretty much a given that teachers have to dip into their own pockets for supplies. I could also see some commission or other incentive based positions with similar expectations.

  2. Ask a Manager

    Except that they're agreeing it's a company expense — they're telling him to submit for reimbursement. They're basically saying "loan us the money and then we'll reimburse you," even though a "multimillion dollar company" surely has company credit cards that could easily be used. It's one of those things where they haven't thought it through from the employee's perspective, and they should.

  3. kristinyc

    If you do get approval to order online, try alice.com or (depending on where you live) freshdirect.com. We use freshdirect at our office, and get yummy food delivered every week.

    But yeah, it's totally unreasonable for them to expect this of you.

  4. Joey

    I know lots of sales reps that have to do this. I think it's a way to keep expenditures to a minimum. They have to be much more careful with what and how much they buy than if they could just charge it to the company. Its cost control.

  5. Jamie

    As I read this I am trying to imagine a scenario in which I would ask someone to do that.

    Nope, can't think of one scenario where I could bring myself to do it.

    It's outrageous and as Alison pointed out, unnecessary if a company is familiar with the radical notions of petty cash and credit cards.

    This is akin to some teachers going out of pocket for classroom material. It's unconscionable, but I can see why some chose to in order to serve their calling. Unfair but admirable.

    There is no greater good to be served here. I wouldn't do it, not even once.

  6. Jamie

    Joey's sales rep example is accurate and one I've seen in practice at a previous company.

    I don't like it, since you can keep the sales guys honest by auditing the expenses monthly. That stuff gets abused when lazy finance departments don't hold people responsible.

    While I don't like that practice – it's not nearly as egregious to me as the situation presented here, as long as they went into the job aware of the deal. Here someone who doesn't have a lot of disposable income had this foisted upon her after the fact – and for office supplies.

    There's no reason for that.

  7. Ruby

    The supplies being spoken about are food and beverages specifically for clients, and to be reimbursed (presumably in the next pay cycle). There should be no expectation that any employee purchase these items. If they are something the company wants to provide in order to present themselves a particular way, then they should purchase them much as Alison suggests.
    On the other hand, food and beverages for other staff – such as for birthday parties etc – may be paid for out of a 'social group' kitty or something that people buy into. That's always a grey area. Some companies have a culture of expecting the birthday-boy/girl to put on morning tea for dozens of people; others have a "morning tea kitty" that everyone needs to contribute to. That's a minefield, too!
    Then there is the lunch room with a "user pays" coffee system where people are supposed to contribute x cents per cup. Again, painful to police, but it's the culture of some workplaces.
    Supplies that an employee should pay for themselves: a specific preferred brand of pen. Any stationery item that is a personal preference. Any item appropriately used to "woo" personal clients (in the case of commission-based employees). And there are normally tax breaks that can be claimed for these expenses.
    I can see there are grey areas in some instances, but I don't think the situation as described in the original question is one of them.

  8. Jamie

    That birthday thing is a minefield!

    When I was new to the work force and on a temp job I was asked to contribute $10 toward a birthday gift for a supervisor. It was absolutely assumed I would do so and my refusal didn't go over well.

    I had met the person two days prior and she didn't even know my name. Immediately I did the math in my head at my hourly rate and realized that was 40 minutes of my salary before taxes – no way. I don't work for free.

    I wouldn't feel any differently now, at a permanent job where I like most of the people with whom I work. I've done things of my own volition – that's fine…but would resent the shakedown.

    Funny thing is I've worked in a lot of offices where it's the norm and I've never met anyone who didn't resent the practice. Everyone always wishes it would stop, but they go along with the herd in the meantime.

  9. Anonymous

    While it is true that some teachers dip into their own pockets for educational expenses, others regularly dip into their co-workers pockets to "help out" a student, a class, a special project, the band, the girls whatever team, the cheer squad…..I work as support staff in an educational setting.

    I worked out what it would total once for one month of donating only $10 to each small request, and it worked out to be over $200.

    Then there are the parties we have to just bring a potluck dish to. Teachers are way into parties.

  10. Jamie

    I have heard that about schools – that's one of the five million reasons I would make a lousy teacher.

    They should make rules about not soliciting for donations – put up a flyer with the information and let people do as they will. I hate to think of my kids extracurriculars being funded by shakedowns of the support staff.

    This should be part of those career tests they give high school students to help them figure out what jobs they're suited for. Those like me who get the shakes at the thought of a potluck or birthday lunch should just be shuttled directly into IT. After the company picnic someone tosses a bag of cheetos and a cookie into my cave (I mean office) and I'm a happy girl.

  11. GeekChic

    In the public library field (especially in the U.S. in my experience) this type of thing is extremely common. I used to pay for all sorts of things on my personal credit card and then get reimbursed.

    That said, I knew this going in and at each of the former places of work where this happened the institution had a list of people who were willing to do this. Staff volunteered – we were never asked by our bosses.

    Why didn't they just use a library credit card? Such a thing didn't exist and wasn't permitted by the municipal government (libraries in the U.S. are typically – though not always – a part of municipal government). So if they wanted to buy from a place that didn't take purchase orders then this is what they had to do.

  12. lar

    Many office supply companies sell snacks and bottled water (at a large markup, and not a huge selection, but good enough). I'd suggest tacking those purchases onto a regular supply order.

  13. Anonymous

    Absolutely outrageous. Any decent sized firm will have a petty cash float. Simply refuse to do it.

  14. Anonymous

    At my old company, not only was I expected to use my credit card for office stuff, but sometimes even to use it for my boss's travel expense (airtix etc.), since his company card was maxed out. And when I submitted my expense report, I had to submit copy of MY credit card statement, because they didn't want you to cheat on the receipt. Absolutely ridiculous policy, and I'm glad not to be working there anymore.

    In my current company however, my boss feels entitled to call or text me on my phone, which I bought and pay for the monthly fee. She makes 10X more than I do, yet the company pays for her phone and the monthly subscription.

  15. Anonymous

    OK, here are my thoughts.

    Yes, the company hasn't thought about it from the worker's standpoint, and they should. But has OP thought about it from the company's standpoint? OP needs to, too.

    Because for starters, what delivery service in a business-to-business transaction accepts cash? If you order candy from Office Depot, the delivery driver isn't going to take cash. So that isn't an issue of OP's company, but of the supplier.

    Second, a paper trail is essential to a well-managed company. Petty cash does not create a paper trail. Surely OP wants their company to handle their money responsibly.

    Third, as someone who has hefty regular reimbursables (and I DON'T work in sales!), it is really only the first outlay that comes out of your own pocket. After the first round, you get reimbursed and turn around and use that same money to pay for the next round. And then get reimbursed for that and use it to pay for the third round. It is just a revolving door that is essentially it's own separate account, that doesn't impact your own budget. And when you leave the company or the job, that first round catches back up with you and you get that back too. I think the wording OP (or AAM?) used in the heading of this post is a complete misnomer, since it implies that OP won't be compensated for their expenses. And that's clearly not true, from OP's explanation.

    So in conclusion, I don't think it is "completely" unreasonable. It is a hardship for OP but that doesn't mean it is an outrageous request on the part of the company. I suggest that OP approach his/her boss and suggest a strategy:
    –A fixed amount per week to spend on these things.
    –Reimbursement within no more than 2 weeks, so that OP isn't collecting interest on the purchases.

  16. Anonymous

    I also work in the public library field (Alison could do a whole new blog on asking a manager on library issues. It would be a wonderful public service.). The two systems I have worked for have each had petty cash available at each branch and certain staff likely to purchase items for work were issued credit cards by the library. And yet at one library it is policy for staff to provide Kleenex for themselves AND the public.

  17. Anonymous

    I agree with Jamie who said this is one of the reasons he would not want to teach. Me too! Regardless of whether or not this is common in some service professions, it's unfair and inefficient. Do we really need non-administrative staff worrying about snack purchases? Shouldn't these people be focused on the duties of the job they were actually hired to do? Just because teachers and librarians are mistreated in this way does NOT make it OK for this to bleed into the private sector. We should all be appalled that this is happening at all!

  18. Charles

    AAM;

    Many of the commenters here have already stated many good facts as to why this is not as "cut and dry" as many think it should be.

    The OP should take this issue up with her direct supervisor.

    If the OP is still expected to "loan" the company her own money here are a few options that she can take:

    1 – Refuse. Yes, that's right, just refuse saying that you cannot afford to do this right now. Put the ball back in your manager's court. If many co-workers are in the same boat it will be best if you all "stick together" on this. This is not the option I would suggest as you may be labelled as "not a team player."

    2 – Ask your boss to "loan" the money using his cash or credit card. Or ask all employees who are in the same situation to start a "kitty" for such expenses. This way the burden is not on any one employee.

    3 – This last option is the one that I recommend and have personally used – Get your own credit card for just such business expenses. Keep in mind that any company issued credit card is usually in the employee's name anyway, the employee is still responsible for ALL expenses on that card, it does affect her credit rating. Why not use that to your advantage? Get a card that gives "cash back" or gives airline miles. If it is a card issued to the employee through the company the employee does not get these perks.

    Just an FYI warning if you do get your own card – the annual fee may NOT allowed as an expense, check with your company beforehand. Monthly interest charges or late fees are not reimbursable unless the user makes a strong case that it was the fault of the company for not reimbursing in a timely manner.

  19. Anonymous

    The title of this thread is misleading. The OP was asked to buy this stuff and be reimbursed.

    We travel a lot and sometimes even the corporate card maxes out. When that happens, I dump the expense on my credit card, submit for reimbursement & put the reimbursement check toward the credit card bill. Make sense?

  20. Anonymous

    As a manager, when a situation arises that we need to buy stuff on our money and be reimbursed (we don't have a credit card or petty cash), I've always felt that I should be the one outlaying the money, not the staff.

    I do this partly because I make more money than they do, but primarily because if I, as the supervisor, ask them to outlay money, they may feel they cannot refuse to do it, creating a bad situation all around.

  21. Anonymous

    I used to work somewhere during my days in retail management and the district manager (who was horribly abusive in so many ways) used to scream at me for not going out every Saturday to buy balloons and other decorations to decorate the store and to "attract customers." I was supposed to pay for this out of my own (very shallow) pocket, and the company didn't even reimburse.

    This was not a small company, either. They were (and still are) quite a large retailer. That was an awful job on so many levels.

  22. Anonymous

    Regarding the comment above, I've never worked for a company where the company credit card appeared on the individual's credit report. My company-issued cards have had my name printed on them, and the statements came to me–which I noted up with which projects/account numbers to bill each expense to–but neither the card nor the payment history appeared on my credit report.

  23. Ask a Manager

    Yep, that's more typical — the card has the employee's name on it, but it isn't linked with that employee's SS# or credit report … because ultimately the company is responsible for paying the bill. Otherwise it wouldn't really be a company credit card, just your own credit card that you happened to use for business stuff.

  24. Anonymous

    I used to work for a huge global staffing firm, and no one below regional directors had company credit cards. I dealt with one very large account that had several hundred temps on site, and the client wanted some kind of attendance incentive. I came up with a program where anyone with perfect attendance over the time frame was put into a drawing for a $250 airline gift card. I was told to "just" put out the money and be reimbursed. I was already underpaid and barely making my bills, and just did not have the cash. On top of it, I was only using a debit card at the time – no credit cards – so I truly would have been out that money until the reimbursement came through. I said no way. The wind up was the client got really pissed off at the length of time it took for the regional to actually shell it out and get the prize awarded. Very unfair and demoralizing for the employees, and made us look bad to the client, but no way was I giving an interest free loan to this multi-billion dollar company. (I was upfront with the client as to why it was so delayed, too – they understood my predicament but boy did the regional get an earful…) One of the many reasons I am SOOOO happy to be out of there!

  25. Community Banker

    I work for a small bank. At the moment we do not have a company credit card. Most items can be purchased from Staples or WB Mason, where we have corporate accounts, but for other items I need to go elsewhere. Often I will purchase a computer part, or something else I need, with my own money and then submit a reimbursement request. For me it isn't a hardship, but for our Administrative Assistant it is. What I did was establish a checking account at our bank with a debit card attached. I then fund the account each month from a suspense account. The AA uses the debit card as needed so as not to place a burden on her own finances.

  26. KellyK

    I don't think it's an unreasonable request in general, especially if they have a timely reimbursement process. If someone has space on their credit card, it may not be a hardship at all, especially if they get points.

    What I think was unreasonable was the boss's boss singling you out and telling you that he expected you to do this, and assuming you would be able to. If for some reason they *can't* order things on line or pay in person with a company credit card, then they need to find someone who's willing and able to. Clearly that isn't you, and putting you on the spot was unreasonable.

    The fact that this is a new thing that the boss's boss wants to see happen also makes me wonder if payroll would blanch at reimbursing you for it.

  27. nicole

    I think that it’s an unreasonable request, and employee can turn it down w/o any explaination. unless you are self-employed (really being your own boss). employee has no obligation to pay for employer’s supplies out of employee’s own pocket. regardless of this being used or exploit by majority of employers. it’s just not right.
    employer is simply another way of asking “can I rob u blind?” lending money out has interests, is your employer giving u back the interests? of course NOT. then why would u wanna share your own money with your employer, even if it will be reimbursed.
    i will give u 1 good reason why employee shouldn’t do it and always decline it. what if they ask u to buy a computer, printer catridges, fan, a box of paper which cost u more than 100 bucks. and next day, he fires u and refuse to ackownledge you buying these thing or they said u didn’t buy it for the company, so they won’t reimbruise you. so now what? are you going to carry the computer back to your home? of course they will refuse it and said it’s company’s property . what if they said you gift it to them??? yeah, u surely got the receipt, but did u get the order in writing it’s for your company, not for yourself or gifting? no, all u have is a receipt. so are you going to file complaint about being robbed by your employer over a computer??
    many employer think once they hire someone, they can use them however they wanted to. commonly, use your cellphone as their own, ask u to use your own cellphone to take company’s product picture. ask u to make long distance calls w/o paying u back the minutes. CALL U AFTER WORKING HOURS. u have every rights to refuse to take the call. seriously. if they don’t pay u the time u work. don’t even do it. or they will just exploit u more and more.

    like me, my ex employer asks me to buy office supplies, even writeouts has to be paid out of my own pocket. i fired her for harrassement in the office (NY is employment at will state), she refused to pay my last paycheck (she said “she didn’t know i worked for her, just plently deny my employment) and the writeouts I bought and stupidly left in the office b4 i left (luckily it’s only 5 bucks) sure, i got the receipt, but am I get paid? no. you just never know when will they turn the ugly face at you. once u refuse to let them exploit u. their nice faces are GONE. i’ve seen it alot of them, and i m not suprised about it.

    you might think that “oh, it’s just a writeout, don’t be cheapstake” well, it starts with small items, like pens, writeout, paper, then u might find yourself become an ATM machine for your company later. buying office supplies out of your own pocket become your job duties. and they probably will blame u for not paying out of your own pocket first.

    next time, i will ask for agreement and surely won’t pay out of my own pocket for ANYTHING. btw, my ex-boss is the only one that ask me to buy supplies out of my own pocket, when i tell her to buy it herself, she ignores me and keep pressuring me to buy it my own. i worked for 3 weeks. she ask me to buy something once every 2 wks. i bought 2 items for her. 1 is reimbursed with 3 days late paycheck (1st paycheck). 2 one is the writeout which i didn’t receive money back nor my last paycheck. hell, no! i will never work for those jobs again.

    i can say, IT’S A SCAM. don’t fall for that. most company do HAVE petty cash or company credit. if they ask u to buy stuffs out of your own pocket. u better decline and run for the hill.

  28. Anonymous

    I have to print papers at home that I must hand into work every day
    My employeer thinks he does not have to pay for this.
    If I worked in the office, would I have to bring paper to the office?
    would I have to bring my own ink pin, computer ect.

  29. Nimato

    I need two set of fans in my working room , how i can write request letter to my boss?

  30. Sickand tired

    I work for a very large and cash rich company that requires all employees to purchase a newspaper everyday to check for competitor’s ads. We are not re-imbursed. Competitor’s only advertise on Weekends, but we have to purchase one every day. Is this legal. Nothing was disclised when hired.

  31. mel

    I deal with this all the time as an office administrator in a financial business. Being at the lower level of the office hiarchy should never mean you have to submit to office cultures that make you uncomfortable. I submitted a formal refusal to pay expenses out of pocket because of my discomfort with the procedure. I suggested a office debit or credit card if cash kitties were not a possible solution but polietly declined the responsibility of this becoming office norm. They no longer expect and I stood my ground on a small area that causes work place stress. Saying no can be positive, just watch how you word things and always be diplomatic even if your employer’s lack that ability.

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