Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How much of your own money do you spend for a (new) lab?

Lately I started keeping track of how much of my personal money has been used for the lab and started thinking of all the reimbursements I never requested. Through some administrative breakdowns I was owed several thousand dollars in reimbursements for almost 6 months, which annoyed me to no end and made me more weary of "donating" money to the university. Then I took a business trip someone else paid for, and we stayed and ate at places I wouldn't even consider on my own dime.

I believe that you have to be very conscientious when spending grant money. As a postdoc, I have always been careful is finding the cheapest hotel and being thrifty, but I still used to turn in every single receipt for meals and transport, etc. When I started my own lab things changed. My PI salary was substantially higher, my quality of like improved and I started paying for things myself. Sometimes I bought he odd item our ordering department was giving me trouble for, but mostly I started paying for all my meals and transport during business trips, plus lunch for the lab and various celebrations. I justified it with the fact that it would be coming from my start-up funding, that I would be eating anyways independently of where I was, and I'd rather keep that money as long as possible for reagents and other things. However in the long run it adds up, especially when you go to a lot of meetings like I do. I didn't even realize until this year that I can actually detract all those expenses from my taxes, so I gave up more money than I thought. I started tracking all my business expenses for 2016 and in 3 months I'm already at $1,000 I do not plan to submit for reimbursement.

Now I'm starting to wonder whether this behavior is naive and hurtful. Why should I spend my own money? Why am I not saving that money for my mortgage or retirement? Is there really going to be a return for investing this money in the lab and my career?

I think this again goes back to the idea of considering the lab like a small business. As the owner I make all the sacrifices. At the moment I am not hurting for money and I could pay for all the things I don't get reimbursed. But a part of me thinks that every meal I save is a piece of a conference a year for now or part of someone's future salary. Yet, multiple people I know spend liberally for things like these. What is right? I would really appreciate if other investigators commented about this and how they go about it.


  1. From my own experiences, and from what I've seen of others, we look for the best reasonable options in all aspects (transport to/from airport, flights, hotel, etc) and then get reimbursed. In grad school, my univ had a per diem policy (that came from the PI's grant) so you go that amount irrespective of how much you spent. In the postdoc lab, people spent quite liberally and it came from the PI's grants, who was particularly liberal in their own spending! Occasionally, I do buy things from my pocket for the lab that are otherwise not worth the shipping costs or are unnecessarily expensive on vendor catalogs. Personally, those are the only expenses I pay out of pocket. Everything else I make sure to get reimbursed. That said, I spend a lot of time and effort to always optimize my lab orders such that I get the best bang for my buck. So generally I'm satisfied with how I spend my lab $$.

    1. Dear Diddly, that sounds like a good balance and I'm kind of sorry, I didn't really do that to start with. We have a very complex pre-approval system where every expense for every trip has to be pre-approved before we go and the numbers always look so huge, I started not charging my meals and transport. I do spend a huge amount of time on expense optimization also, so I feel that maybe I deserve to charge a $50 meal in exchange...

  2. I am very interested to hear your replies.

    My experience is similar in that as a grad student and postdoc, I generally submitted most travel receipts (transportation and food), although I often ignored little airport meals and such. Always mindful of choosing the frugal option if it was my PI's money (I admit to single hotel rooms on my fellowship money). I was also always a member of labs where the PI was generous about picking up the tab at lab outings and such. I always wondered if they paid out of pocket and I expect they did.

    Now that I have my own lab I absolutely have the same instinct to be frugal with my startup. It's like the same emotional relationship I have with my personal money, now just have two accounts in my head instead of one. The difference of course is that frugality in one is splurge in the other. Generates an odd kind of tension which is why your post really resonates with me. I'm sure the tension could be resolved if I made some thoughtful, hard rules and stopped making decisions that are mostly instinct.

    So far I have also been behaving just as you have, being far more lax about travel and other reimbursements (don't even get me started on expenses occurred in the big move) now that I am a PI. This affects not only how I reimburse myself from my own startup but the reimbursements I submit on other people's money (like an invited seminar), which is probably a result from developing a different habit of viewing what's "owed". When I take the lab out I pay and that's all out of pocket. Plenty of items that I can easily pick up in the real world I do so out of pocket, even though they are completely for bench use (never expensive equipment though obviously).

    "I think this again goes back to the idea of considering the lab like a small business. As the owner I make all the sacrifices."

    Well said.

  3. For real business trips (conferences etc) I save receipts for meals etc and declare everything (bus rides included) except for the occasional Starbucks. I figure that really comes out of the grant money I set aside for travel and one meal more or less is not going to mean you can fly someone out to a whole other conference that you might otherwise not have attended.
    However, I am right there with you when it comes to the money I spent at home. I pay for lab dinners/lunches out of my own pocket because, well, I am always working so when else would I spend the money? And I usually forget to ask for reimbursement for the small things (a calculator here, a hard disk there, the occasional stuff on Amazon when the purchase department is being difficult). I do make sure I always reimburse my lab members when they buy office or lab related stuff (storage bins, etc.) but then I always forget to turn in the receipt myself. I always figure that the time it takes me to hand in the reimbursement form is worth more than the money I already spent.
    My dad always gives me a hard time about that, saying work is work and he is right: all of this should come out of a grant. But for me it's a combination of being super thrifty with grant money and just not caring enough (even though I am super thrifty and on top of my money, which is also why I can always afford the little stuff here and there).

    By the way, I was just talking to some guy PIs who were a LOT easier with spending grant money than I was. Up to the point where they would hire people without having all of the money to cover their appointment. I am not saying it's a guy thing, but I think it's also a guy/girl thing (at least in part) - and here the girl thing isn't helping.

  4. Since my start up is not very large and I really need to watch my lab budget I use my own personal money for trips and lab meals when I take them out for some celebratory occasion. I have used my own personal money for actual lab stuff for things that in case I don't get tenure won't stay here so no equipment but definitely reagents that I need right away and I don't want to wait for the bureaucracy to order them for me. I do look at this as my small start up :) so as long as I am not breaking my personal bank and its going to help keep the morale up and the lab running smoothly I don't mind investing from my own pocket. But if I did have a larger start up or grant money coming in I would probably charge all lab stuff to that but I will probably still pay lunches and dinners with my lab people from my own pocket :)

  5. I pay for all group meals out of pocket. When I travel, I claim airfare, hotel (stay at the conference hotel, there is no need to be uncomfortable), claim per diem for food regardless of what I spend, and rental car/taxi if needed. Anything else I cover, but it usually isn't much [may be upgrade to more leg room, Starbucks (plural), etc.]

    I used to not seek reimbursement for trips when I first started out on the tenure track for the same reasons that the main post mentions -- to keep the money to fund students, their salaries and travel. But my husband snapped me out of it -- he says I am frittering away out family's money, which could go to kids' college or mortgage or actual fun trips with the kids. It's one thing to take stuff away from yourself to give to your students, but it's another when you view it as taking it from your family.

    So these days I spend moderately when I travel, but I do seek reimbursement.

    I think guys are (on average) definitely more selfish in this regard, as in many others. Here is an example. A couple of years ago, my college instituted these five-year professorships, where you can elect to get some money every year in a discretionary research fund or you can get a boost to your salary. I thought everyone would go for the discretionary research funds, that it's a no-brainer. Then I heard a male peer say, "Wow is that even a question? Of course I will pocket the money." To him, it's a no-brainer, too, but his default is that, of course, he comes first.