It’s getting close to the end of the year. You’re working quietly at your desk when a new email arrives from the accounting department. You gasp out loud at the subject line, and all your co-workers turn to see what’s wrong. Your cheeks flush as you admit that until this very moment, you had completely forgotten to file an expense report. The email says the deadline is today. The heat from your cheeks morphs into a feeling of dread that runs down your chest and into the pit of your stomach. Your company owes you a few hundred dollars, and at this time of year, you could really use it. Don’t panic! These simple steps can help you get control of your expenses.
Some organizations make it really easy to submit expense reports, even if they’re late. Having company credit cards that are tied to an expense reporting system helps tremendously, for example, but not everyone has that luxury. So take a deep breath, and follow these steps to get your overdue expense reports submitted as soon as possible.
1. Ask When the Real Deadline Is and Whether You Can File Late
Depending on when your organization sets its financial year and how it handles accruals, the deadline to file expense reports may have already passed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s too late to submit your receipts. Smart people pad deadlines. If someone tells you a deadline is end of day Friday, there’s a good chance that the real deadline is Monday morning or later.
Ask someone in accounting or your boss for clear details on the true deadline for expense reports and whether there’s anything you can do if you’ve missed it. Often there is. If you can file late, be kind and gracious to the people helping you do it, and bend over backwards to deliver exactly what they ask. Be detailed. Remember that they are doing you a favor. Do your best to return it by making their job easier.
2. Check the Rules for Receipts
If you’ve filed expense reports before, you probably know the basic rules for submitting receipts. But do you know the fine details? When filing an expense report long after the expenses were incurred, you may have lost some receipts. Find out if there is a policy, such as requiring receipts only for expenses greater than $10. Also ask whether you can show proof of payment by providing a credit card statement with the line item highlighted. These details can make a world of difference in the time it takes you to prepare an expense report.
3. Make an Outline of Items and Dates
Once it’s time to actually get started creating an overdue expense report, make a rough list of the major expenses you need to claim, such as items you purchased, travel, and client hospitality. If you’re only filing for one item or one trip, skip this step.
If an item on your list is an event, such as a client visit or a conference, jot down the dates. Then below the event, create an entry for each day, like this:
Conference X: June 1-3
4. Visualize Your Expenses
When piecing together expenses related to travel or events, I find it helps to first list the biggest expenses (flight, hotel, and attendance fees, for example) and then try to recall or reimagine each day to cover the smaller expenses. Do this below each day entry.
I like to make a rough outline for possible expenses, then fill it in as I remember them (steps 5-7 include a few tricks for filling in gaps when memory fails you). The outline should include as many of these points as are relevant to your dates:
- Starting location. Where did you sleep? Did you have any expenses at this place, such as Wi-Fi charges?
- Local travel. Did you go anywhere, and if so, how did you get there (car, taxi, car service, public transit)? How did you return? If claiming a per-mile fee for driving, what was the distance?
- Meals. Where did you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Did you buy any drinks, including bottled water and coffee, or snacks?
- Supplies. Did you need to buy anything expected or unexpected during your day?
- End location. Where did you end your day? What did you pay for there?
Often just asking yourself these questions helps you recall expenses you could have otherwise forgotten.
5. Flip Through Your Receipts
If you have a stack of receipts, flip through them now and match them up to the outline you created. There’s a reason I don’t do this step first. Sometimes receipts reshape our memory in a way that leaves out parts of the day. For example, let’s say you look at your receipts and see you had a quick breakfast at a coffee shop and later ate lunch at a conference venue. You now have a vivid recollection of those two events, and you’re ready to move onto the next receipt. But your memory may have omitted the $15 Uber ride between the two locations simply because you didn’t have a physical receipt to trigger the memory. It’s easy to forget details when we don’t have triggers.
6. Scan Your Calendar
A calendar can contain more reminders that help you create an accurate expense report. As you fill in your day, open your calendar and scan it to verify dates of travel and significant events. Certain entries might trigger your memory about expenses, as well as lack of expenses. For example, if a business partner sent you a calendar invitation for dinner on a day you were traveling, and she paid, then you don’t have to worry about searching for a receipt for your meal that night.
7. Peruse Itemize
Another great place to look for missing expenses is Itemize. Itemize is a personal finance app that consolidates all your financial transactions into one searchable website and app. With Itemize, you can filter all your credit card and debit card expenses by date, which might help you uncover expenses you forgot. In that example I gave previously about an Uber receipt, you could find the information by searching for the date in Itemize, which will make it easier to find the true receipt in your email.
I mentioned earlier that if you can’t find a receipt, you might ask whether you can submit a copy of a credit card statement highlighting the line item for an expense. Again, Itemize will help you here, because it will tell you which credit card you used.
8. Don’t Forget Tips and Parking
Two categories of expenses that are easy to overlook are tips and parking. Small tips paid in cash, like for hotel cleaning staff and bellhops, never come with receipts. Parking payments also might be in cash without a receipt. But they add up and are worth claiming if you made them.