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I don't get paid much as a TA. I wanted to go to conferences but all of them operate on a reimbursement system. Between flights, shuttles, hotels, etc. it can be up to like $1000 not including food. They offer funding but with reimbursement. I don't have $1000 in my bank account to pay with in the first place. Most other TAs I know are in a similar position.

Why do programs use a reimbursement system? I went to one conference where they reimbursed the flight and paid for the hotel. That was a month ago and I think my reimbursement check is still a ways away. Why does it take so long? Why not just buy me a ticket? How am I supposed to go to conferences?

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    They use a reimbursement system because if they just gave you $1000 there is no guarantee you'll actually spend that on going to a conference. – astronat Apr 21 '18 at 22:11
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    And they don't have travel agents on staff to buy a plane ticket for you. – Nate Eldredge Apr 21 '18 at 23:55
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    It's not clear who is doing the reimbursing here. I read it as the conference or organization sponsoring the conference, but the answers seem to be assuming it's your university. (I've personally received more help from conference organizers than from my own institution.) – ShadSterling Apr 22 '18 at 3:56
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    where I work you can get advances under certain conditions, and you can get reimbursed as you pay the various fees rather than all at once. It’s not the preferred option but it can be done when one asks nicely. – ZeroTheHero Apr 22 '18 at 23:59
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    I assume that you're not going "as a TA" but going as a PhD student. Ask your advisor! It's literally their job to give you advice! In particular, the department is likely to have ways of dealing with this. – David Richerby Apr 23 '18 at 12:29
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This is an unfortunate reality of life. I think at one point in grad school I had $5,000 in outstanding reimbursements because it took so long to process them. Many grad students don't have the liquidity to handle that.

You can, and should, ask whoever will reimburse you whether (i) they can book for you, (ii) let you use their payment card to book, or (iii) pay you in advance. It's often possible and there's no harm in asking. The situation is common enough that they will be used to such requests. For example, people traveling for academic job interviews will rack up a lot of travel expenses in a short time and will sometimes ask to have costs paid directly.

Unfortunately, some places have rigid bureaucracies that insist on operating through reimbursements or some other arbitrary policy. (I recently had a trip where they insisted that they book the flight for me, that I get the hotel reimbursed, and they gave me a per diem for food. Three different policies from one bureaucracy for one trip!) Ultimately, there is little that can be done about it if that's the case.

In the long term, the best solution is to save up a buffer to cover expenses like this. Alternatively, you could get a credit card or other loan to pay for it. However, that is more of a question for https://money.stackexchange.com/

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    I would also advise asking if there is a faculty credit card that you can use to pay for flights etc, or a possibility of getting an advance on the reimbursement (in my dept we can get 75% of the agreed amount beforehand). – astronat Apr 21 '18 at 22:13
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    @astronat - Great suggestion. // Another idea: get a credit card or take out a small personal loan. In the US, if you are a TA and have your paycheck set up for automatic deposit at the local credit union, and you can give the bank a letter from the department showing that your employment will be ongoing, you can get a signature loan. In fact, getting a loan or a credit card is a very good thing to do as a student, assuming you pay it off in full on a regular basis, since this is precisely what will enable you to build your credit rating, which you'll need if you want to buy a house later on. – aparente001 Apr 21 '18 at 22:22
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    @aparente001 I agree that it's good to build credit, but getting say a credit card, paying for a trip, and then hoping reimbursement is quick can be risky/costly sometimes. So having some liquid funds available is a good idea. – Anyon Apr 22 '18 at 5:55
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    @Anyon - This proposal is not intended as an either/or. // I don't see the risk. As for the cost, let's suppose the out of pocket outlay is $1000. If the interest rate on the card is 12% annual (I chose a round number to make estimation easier), then the monthly rate would be approximately 1%. If reimbursement is delayed two and a half months, then the cost to OP would be approximately $20. Important: set up the card to make an automatic minimum payment each month, drawing from the checking account within the same credit union, and *avoid using the card for other purposes. – aparente001 Apr 22 '18 at 12:53
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    @aparente001the risk lies in the the reality of a TA living hand-to-mouth. There is a risk that they won't be able to make the ever-increasing minimum payment until reimbursement is made, leading to late fees and overdraft fees. (If the foundation making the reimbursement is mis-managed or goes bankrupt, the reimbursement might never be paid.) – Qsigma Apr 23 '18 at 9:40
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Adding to what's already been said: since often there is no way getting around a reimbursement system, I would also suggest focusing on finding ways to be as frugal as possible where conferences are concerned, since you do have to cover your expenses initially.

My suggestions:

  • Not sure what field you're in and if there are many different conference options for you, but given the choice, opt for the nearby ones when possible. Choosing between attending a conference I'd have to fly to vs one I can just drive to, I always pick the latter.

  • Skip the student conferences – they won't count for much on your CV and probably not worth the cost.

  • If you're presenting at these conferences, try to double dip and squeeze in multiple presentations if it's allowed (in my field, the common rule is you're allowed only one single author submission, but 1-2 additional submissions as a co-author) – that way you can get a couple of presentations done at the cost of just one trip.

  • If you know anyone going to the same conference as you, see about sharing the costs (driving together, sharing a hotel room).

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    Great points! I have also stayed at hostels (in the US/Canada) during many conferences, and there are often many other conference attendees there, especially grad students. When I've chosen to stay in a smaller room (e.g. 4 people instead of a large dormitory) I've been more likely to have fellow conference attendees as my roommates. – cactus_pardner Apr 21 '18 at 23:40
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One quick way to get around this is to look for zero balance transfers or zero interest purchase credit card. A word of warning though: if you're not good in managing your money; do not try this as it could clock up more debt for you in the end.

This way, you can use the credit card's ability to pay off your immediate expenses (and maybe accrue some points before they reimburse you). I know it may be difficult to apply for credit card given your limited financial constraints but it is possible (depending on your country and specific circumstances) to apply for a basic credit card that has some promotional interest free period.

  • There is a risk that the TA won't be able to make the ever-increasing minimum payment until reimbursement is made, leading to late fees and overdraft fees. (If the foundation making the reimbursement is mis-managed or goes bankrupt, the reimbursement might never be paid.) – Qsigma Apr 23 '18 at 9:42
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    Indeed, that is why I flagged the risks in my initial comment - you do require financial discipline and it may end up a risker situation. Having said that, there have been people that I know of (including myself) that have done this successfully. – MHL Apr 23 '18 at 10:26
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Since asking doesn't hurt, just try to ask for an advance. At least at my university's reimbursement department, this possibility exists. You can submit a provisional travel plan (of course well sourced with some printouts of hotel& airfare prices and ideally signed of by your boss) and after the usual complaints they will advance you some or all of the money. After the trip you then submit the actual receipts and settle the difference.

Most of the times, people try to avoid this. After all, it is double the amount of bureaucracy and if you owe them money back in the end, they tend to want it ASAP. However for more expensive trips, this can be quite useful.

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I have been a teaching assistant in the past so I feel your pain. There were many conferences I wanted to attend and at that time, they wanted money up front and would only reimburse if you were an adjunct or faculty member. Fast forward to now; I have known several TAs join a group of teachers going to a conference and the University covered the cost. I know if you find a conference is coming, if you sign up early you get a discount. Some IT conferences that I attended, I was able to skype into it and pay approx. $100~$500 to stream video to my home laptop. I try to find conferences that are nearby - NYC for instance where I could drive and get my parking validated at a nearby hotel. Try checking prices for hotels near the conference though not where they take place, they may be able to offer you a discount, they know you have a choice. Best Western for instance usually offers a free breakfast and may offer a free shuttle to a nearby point near the conference location. Naturally, save all receipts - they could be used to reduce taxes owed as IRS recognizes them as professional development. If there is a conference that runs every year and you want to go, try finding a weekend temp job and working it only until you get the extra funds then giving notice and stay on their contact list if they need someone again, its a chance for extra money.

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    Receipts are great for reimbursement, and (actual) reimbursed expenses are (and were) ignored for US tax. Unreimbursed expenses used to be deductible only over 2% of AGI, and as one of the many changes in the 'reform' law last Dec. (TCJA'17), they are now not deductible at all. – dave_thompson_085 Apr 22 '18 at 22:36
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Apparente made an excellent suggestion in the comments about using a credit card or personal loan for up-front costs. I went to a conference with 3 friends in Boston by using my credit card with a $5,000 limit. We spent $2,200 for the flights, AirBnb, and food for 4 days. I was able to pay off my credit card before the due date, because I was reimbursed within 3 weeks.

The cool part is that I received about $30 in rewards points from the whole experience, so when we got back to Michigan I bought everyone a round at the bar.

In my eyes, as long as you submit your reimbursement paperwork on time and your department is reasonably quick in processing it, you should have no problem (or risk) in using a credit card. The very same logic applies to personal loans (or lines of credit at a credit union). If you’re making a graduate student stipend/salary, you should have no problem obtaining credit around $2,000, which in my experience is enough for you individually for even a week-long conference.

PS - this unfortunately doesn’t work in a lot of European locales, e.g. France, where credit cards aren’t common and loans are usually for big purchases (houses and cars).

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