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An example: I've been using some suitcase, mostly (but not only) for traveling to conferences. Gradually, the wheels have wore out, and in my last trip I was walking over some gravelly road for a while and they're now completely busted. There are also small tears in a couple of places. So, for a trip I took last week, I bought a new suitcase. Again, I'm using it for conference travel, but of course also for strictly personal use.

In your experience, is it customary/acceptable/possible to ask for reimbursement for this kind of expenses - products which travel-related, not specific to the conference you're attending, and suffer wear over time?

Notes:

  • I'm a post-doc in the Netherlands, so if you feel your answer is academic-seniority-specific, or country-specific, please qualify it.
  • I actually spent a lot less on this trip then other people from my research institute - less than half, since I didn't stay at a hotel but with a friend. So it's not as though I'm artificially inflating the bill.
  • I realize one answer could be "just try it / ask about the institutional policy and see what happens"; but I want to hear about norms and customs.
  • I'm not asking about the ethics, I think it's perfectly ethical for me to make that request and get the money.
  • The suitcase cost 60 EUR, to give you a sense of the amount of money we're talking about.
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    I'm highly tempted to close this as "too localized". You should simply ask your department administrator whether this is an acceptable charge. The answer will almost certainly vary between universities and departments. There's no "universal" answer here. – eykanal May 22 '17 at 18:54
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    I would just eat the cost and not ask for any reimbursement. One way to look at this would be to ask: What if you were a young student going to your first conference, and you didn't even own a suitcase? Would your school offer to buy you one? I've never heard of luggage being listed as a business expense, and it seems a bit outlandish to ask. It seems unlikely that a school would do this, and, even if they did, you might well lose some street cred just by asking. – J.R. May 22 '17 at 19:30
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    As everyone else says, this is up to the specific policies at your institution, but it seems like a very unusual thing to ask for reimbursement for. Especially once you've used it for any non-business use, regardless of the major source of wear and tear. If you had a institution-owned computer, you might be able to justify the purchase of a carrying bag for that computer (but not cash reimbursement for wear on a bag you purchased previously), but not for a bag that carries your personal items like clothing, etc. – Bryan Krause May 22 '17 at 19:54
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    I guess really, why are you asking here? Do you want people's advice from their experience, or do you want us to tell you "Oh yeah you can reimburse whatever you want!" so you can use it as justification when your institution is mad at you later ("People on the internet said it was fine!")? – Bryan Krause May 22 '17 at 20:48
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    I don't know about academia, but in industry allowable expenses often include a daily "personal allowance" to cover the miscellaneous extra costs of being away from home. How you spend that is entirely your own affair. On the other hand submitting a receipt specifically for the cost of a new case (unless the old one had been lost by an airline, or stolen from your hotel) would seem very strange, and would probably be refused, where I work. – alephzero May 22 '17 at 21:15
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This seems petty. You also don't account for wear and tear of your suit or shirt when you wear it at the conference. It's just one of those things you own in life, that wear out, and that you replace. The fact that you use a suitcase to transport your luggage -- in fact, the fact that you transport any luggage at all -- is your choice when going to a conference, and so it should also be your responsibility to replace it when the time comes.

All of that would be different if you were using a personal suitcase to transport things that are required for attending the conference. Say, if you were a vendor at an industry show associated with the conference, and you have to take product samples along. Or if your talk was on a new device, you took an example of the device along, and it would occupy a suitcase by itself.

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    With all due respect - your suggestion that taking a suitcase when travelling is some kind of "personal choice" suggests a very extreme opinion which is not in line with reimbursement policies anywhere that I know. You might as well tell me that buying food for 3 meals per day is a choice and my responsibility. Also, we don't account for wear and tear of clothes since those are: 1. very small amounts in terms of monetary worth, 2. difficult to quantity, 3. does not in itself involve money changing hands. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 22 '17 at 20:22
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    Sorry, but I agree with Wolfgang – a suitcase is a personal choice. (I went a long time without owning one: for a number of years I used my uncle's old duffel bag. Come to think of it, he probably gave it to me after he bought his first suitcase.) Moreover, you already have a suitcase, it just has broken wheels and a few small tears. – J.R. May 22 '17 at 21:05
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    @J.R.: Suitcase, duffel bug, doesn't matter, same difference... I could have been using a duffel bag which got ripped. If you're saying that a suitcase is a luxury item, and there's a distinction between reimbursements for luxury and non-luxury items - that's an interesting answer and I would ask you to elaborate. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 22 '17 at 21:14
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    @einpoklum - I won't elaborate except to say that I think your analogy between a suitcase and meals is a poor one. If my employer expected me to travel for three days and not eat, I'd find that unreasonable – just like I think it would be unreasonable for me to expect my employer would pay for my new Samsonite. – J.R. May 22 '17 at 21:25
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    @einpoklum -- the difference between meals, tickets, conference registration on one hand, and a new suitcase on the other is that the costs for the former are clearly associated with one travel only. Replacing a suitcase, on the other hand, is like new clothes: it likely accumulated tears etc over a number of trips, some of which may in fact have been personal. It may be true that the wheels came off on this one trip, but it's not unreasonable to assume that damage to the wheels has accumulated over years of use before. In other words, it's difficult to attribute things to one specific travel. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 22 '17 at 23:19
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You will have to check your local regulations at your institution. (my answer is based on my experiences at public US universities and companies)

Tax code may also be important in determining what items you can expense, both for yourself and your institution. For example, in the US you can deduct certain costs related to having a "home office" as business expenses. But if you play video games in your office after hours, the whole thing is void! Similar restrictions apply to other possibly dual-use items, such as a car (may be a business expense, but the rules for reimbursement change to those involving business use of a personal vehicle if you use it for anything that isn't business).

Tax law is relevant to expense reports because your company/institution is probably treating those costs as expenses, and therefore they are not taxed as income. If you use anything for personal use it becomes a type of income and must be taxed, even if your institution wanted to provide it. In that case, they would have to not only provide you with an expense reimbursement, but also add the amount to your income, withhold taxes as appropriate, etc (of course this system could vary greatly by country) - this all seems like it would be quite a bother, and if I were an administrator I wouldn't be too happy if a post doc, or full professor for that matter, made me go through all of that for 60 euros.

In my current institution's policies, there is a list of exclusions for business travel expenses. The item on that list that applies to your situation is:

Statement of Policy

Following is a list of expenses which are not payable/reimbursable with university funds. [...]

Personal items and services, (e.g. toiletries, luggage, clothes, haircuts, etc.)

I tried to find some information on business travel in the Netherlands, but I was only able to find information about allowed reimbursement amounts for transportation, lodging, and meals, which may suggest that those are the only categories commonly reimbursed, but it may also suggest that there is more freedom for specific institutions to set their own policies. Also I don't read Dutch, so I was limited to documents that were available in English.

If you had a institution-owned computer, you might be able to justify the purchase of a carrying bag for that computer (but not cash reimbursement for wear on a bag you purchased previously), but not for a bag that carries your personal items like clothing, etc. If this was permitted, it would probably be purchased for you or reimbursed the way you would be reimbursed for other types of equipment, not through the travel reimbursement procedures, and the bag would be institution property, so you would be leaving it behind with your business laptop when you leave the institution.

  • Ok, now this is an answer :-) ... it's interesting, by the way, since in my last workplace (which was a commercial company but in the research division) they did cover laundry for clothes, even though it's a personal service. I will definitely have a look at the tax situation. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 22 '17 at 21:18
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    Similar to @alephzero's comment above, my institution has shifted from reimbursing for specific expenses toward a "per diem" to be used as the traveler sees fit. In practice, it mostly goes towards meal costs and personal travel (like a taxi from a conference site to where you are eating, which is not normally covered because it's just so you can eat where you want). However, the traveler would be free to skip breakfast and do laundry instead. In other cases, laundry might be an acceptable expense when it saves money: i.e., on a long trip, laundry might be cheaper than a second checked bag. – Bryan Krause May 22 '17 at 21:27
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You tagged this as "etiquette." I will write an answer focused on the etiquette of the question.

Such expenses are part of the cost of doing business, as the accountants say. To take such a petty view (thanks for the great word, Wolfgang), makes you look like a nitpicker, not a team player, and not a scientist.

Haven't you got better ways to spend your time than nickel and dime your employer for every last bit of juice you can squeeze out of the lemon?

  • I'm not sure what you mean by "the cost of doing business". I'm an employee with a low salary and zero job security. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 23 '17 at 10:08
  • @einpoklum - I learned the term from listening to a radio interview with a finance expert, who was explaining that when a country pays interest on borrowed money, that's just a "cost of doing business." It turns out it is a standard phrase in the business world. I am not finding a good, succinct definition or explanation for you, unfortunately. This might make a good question on ELU SE. – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 15:58
  • What I'm saying is, that the "cost of doing business" is not supposed to fall on the low-pay employees, but on whoever is funding. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 23 '17 at 16:18
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    @einpoklum - Every individual has a CODB, a cost of staying afloat. This includes, for example, clothing appropriate to the job. – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 16:20
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    @aparente001 -- you're welcome with the word. And nice reply with the "cost of doing business". I think that's exactly the right term here. One could also have said "opportunity cost". There are so many aspects related to jobs that one can call that way. Your example of dressing appropriately is one. In fact, a hot shower every morning is another. Driving the car or using the subway to work is another: you just have to do it in order to have a good job; the alternative is to work for minimum wage at the corner store two blocks down the road. I would think a suitcase falls in the same category. – Wolfgang Bangerth May 23 '17 at 16:53

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