Suggestions for Organized Receipts for Reimbursements (ADD Traveler)
March 14, 2013 10:01 AM   Subscribe

I have attention deficit disorder primarily inattentive, am a professor who travels a decent amount, and have trouble with being organized about submitting my receipts for reimbursement. I believe that it is caused by a combination of basic and deeper-rooted problems, and was wanting to know what you do to be organized about correctly getting reimbursed. This includes systems that you use to ensure that you have everything, where you keep receipts, what specific kinds of filing systems you might use while you're traveling so that nothing is lost, anything electronic (either hardware or an app), or even just the odd things that "just work for you".

Most of the following is only of interest if you find it interesting to hear how someone with ADD struggles to do basic tasks. I'm not sure you need the information to answer the question, in other words.

The longer explanation elaborates on "basic" and "deeper-rooted" things. Like I said, I have ADD-PI. Its manifestation for the narrow topic of submitting receipts is in the form of not remembering where I put receipts, failing to get the correct receipt from the vendor, and not having a system of submitting the receipts to our office manager. So I call this basic because I know it's just that something is breaking down between the time I make the payment to the vendor and the time that I'm to get my reimbursement forms to our office manager.

I should say that I don't travel a ton -- I probably take a 3 day trip (on average) every two months, and maybe one week-long trip once a year. It's almost always me traveling to another university to present research, though sometimes it's traveling to work with coauthors. I mention this because I think there are automated services that heavy travelers probably have access to that I can't justify, cost-wise. And I don't think it's necessary anyway -- these are solvable problems for me, and is just one example of many problems I have involving disorganization, impulsivity, and failing to properly connect the dots relating an action to outcomes over time.

All of this said (I'm already starting to ramble and failing to keep this post in check), I think that the deeper-rooted problems I historically had with regards to submitting reimbursements were connected to the overwhelming sense of embarrassment I felt about my problems with disorganization. I felt like such a failure that in combination with my own tendency to forget about submitting the receipts, and how disorganized I was with the receipts, I would just not turn them in and eat the costs myself. As flights and hotel accommodations rack up, and I'm not wealthy, this was itself another embarrassing problem as I now had to explain to my wife that I had "screwed up again", and so on.

Anyway, I'm doing better now. I'm medicated, I read extensively on ADD still, and have experimented with lifecoaches and therapists. I am more motivated to fix these historical problems, also, and so this is one I want to fix. We have an office manager, and so the first step was to come clean with her -- tell her that I was fighting a war inside my head and heart just to get the receipts to her, none of which made any sense if I verbalized it, and that any help she could give me was going to be disproportionally hugely valuable, no matter what it appeared like. She was (thankfully) awesome and has helped really fix this. (Things all went downhill once the department passed a new policy that reimbursements had to be in within X weeks of the travel. I still remember this wave of humiliation wash over me when I read that announcement, because it basically meant I was going to fail and badly. But things have gotten better since then, thankfully).

My workflow is much more organized than ever but merits a brief description. My workflow preferences seem to be simultaneously high(er) tech solutions and old fashioned solutions. So for instance, there's probably nothing I use more than Dropbox -- everything goes into Dropbox in fact. I am a heavy user and have upgraded to the 250GB. Best $200 I spent every year, and if something happened to Dropbox, I don't know what I'd do. I also use iOS devices a lot like my iPhone, iPad and Macbook. Since I keep losing receipts, I often will take photographs of the receipts immediately, and then move them to dropbox later. When I move them to dropbox, I move them to a "Reimbursement" folder and have organized subdirectories with the name of the trip and the date. I archive trips each year so that the subdirectory is clean. When I move pics into the folder, I will use that as an opportunity to read over the receipt, see if I can find the receipt, and rename the picture by the expenditure and its date. All of these seem to matter for reasons I don't fully understand -- but I think it has to do with my working memory struggles and how I've learned to direct my attention through hyperfocusing to correct for that. So simply going over the process of renaming the files seems to help me forget the embarrassment, and get excited about the process.

I also have opted to get a clean tan folder for every trip, attach several paperclips to the outside, write the name of my travel itinerary on the outside including the =arrival times, departure times, highlighter over the dates and times, and then store my receipts on the paper clips themselves. The problem is that there's several "moves" that are required to get the receipts to the paper clips -- like getting it out of my bag (which I may or may not have with me), and if I'm outside, trying to simultaneously put them in the clips without losing papers in the wind, etc. - and it's the fact that there's several moves that seems to be causing it to break down for me. So right now, I'm going over the receipts and I'm realizing that while this is the most receipts I've ever had (yay!), I'm missing several. And I remember it was because (a) I just forgot to ask for the receipt, (b) I asked for the wrong receipt [e.g., forgot to itemized receipts], and/or (c) I never put the receipt in here on the clips, probably because I didn't have my bag with me. Usually what I do is put the receipts in my wallet, and then TRY TO REMEMBER (Epic fail...) to put it in the folder later, but that just seems like I'm trying to fix a problem with another solution that has the same problem.

I feel like I need something like a folder that I really like -- something that I enjoy carrying around, in other words, and is attractive to me -- that is simple and functional. There's a simple place for my receipts, and that's it. Or I have some kind of tinier contraption, like a wallet just for receipts. I also sometimes take pics, but that makes me feel a little stupid when I am doing it in public, and I suspect my office manager will tell me they need the originals anyway.

So, that's it. What systems do you think I would respond well to? I think the answer is a simple "system" in other words, that may have a couple of purchases. But I think it's both, not either. That is, I have noticed that if I understand why I'm having these problems, then it helps address the humiliation I feel around the failures, and it helps me also come up with solutions that actually work. I've been gradually moving towards a solution on this, but still haven't figured it out, and so I thought I'd throw it out there to travelers, organizers, and so forth for advice.
posted by scunning to Work & Money (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This is seriously low tech, but I find an envelope works much better than clips. Would putting an envelope in your folder or in your wallet be an option?
posted by jaguar at 10:12 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, carry a 9x12 envelope with you. You can still write information on the outside. Shove receipts in. When the trip is over, tape the receipts to sheets of printer paper (chronologically, or by type, whichever the office manager likes). Xerox these sheets for your records.
posted by xo at 10:17 AM on March 14, 2013

This is kind of weird and wouldn't help with the embarrassment thing (although I find telling people that I'm doing something as a memory activity makes them not care), could you tape an envelop to your wallet? Alternatively, get a bi-fold wallet that has a separator in it. Cash goes in the front, every receipt generated during your trip goes in the back. You pull out your wallet every time you generate an receipt, so now it's just remembering that the receipt goes in the wallet or the envelop attached to the wallet.
posted by Hactar at 10:18 AM on March 14, 2013

I carry a dorky coupon wallet when I travel. Mine has 7 sections, labeled by day. For me, the paperclip thing would be recipe for disaster.
posted by BrashTech at 10:19 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm an envelope girl myself. I have a designated envelope for the trip, and I put the receipts in there as I get them.

Then, when I get back, the first thing I do, even before checking email, is organize them by date, and tape them onto plain printer paper. Then I do my expense report.

This takes about 15 minutes.

It's simple, easy and it's a great way to keep the receipts in one place.

This saved me a HUGE hassle once, when my wallet got lifted at the airport on my way home. When I got home, I showed the lady at the parking deck one of my receipts and she got my credit card number off of it, and away I went. (This was when they still put all the numbers on the receipt AND I was such a frequent traveler, so she knew me!)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:22 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Expensify is free, and if you have a relatively small number of receipts, it even OCRs the receipts and fills the forms out for you at no charge. All you have to do is take a photo with your smartphone app and the uploads happen automatically. You can also upload your credit card bill to match up with receipts to make sure you didn't miss any.
It's as good as any app I've tried for expenses, and way better than most.
posted by Jakey at 10:30 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't travel for work very often either, so my "system" is pretty bare and basic.

If a receipt doesn't make it obvious what it was for (e.g. timestamped in the morning from a Starbucks means "breakfast"), I scribble a note on the back. Then I put it in my wallet.

Once the day is done, I use the Evernote mobile app to take a picture of it and add it to the travel notebook for it, and tag it - that way I can easily sort categories like meals, hotel, cab, etc.

In terms of actually submitting receipts, I've taught myself to set at least one calendar alarm/reminder *before* I go on the trip for some date after the end of my trip.
posted by rtha at 10:35 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a secretary and recently outed myself as an Expense Filing Ninja in another thread. I don't know if any of my bosses had ADD or if they just didn't care, but I've had to face this on their behalf.

And using envelopes indeed works well. I actually figured out how to print a copy of one of my boss's itineraries directly ONTO envelopes for him to use - the itinerary had all the basic data about hotels, flights, meetings, and such, and the envelope was right there for him to tuck receipts into. We were using business-size envelopes, which a) sounds like the smaller thing you're looking for and b) can often be run through a standard office printer so you could also print your itinerary information onto it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:39 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been in charge of documenting expenditures and keeping track of purchases/receipts for three long, complicated field seasons in the developing world. I had to turn my receipts and accounting information in to our hard-ass, scary Financial Officer (and ultimately, the NSF) at the end of every trip. I almost never have technology access, so I keep it pretty analog. Here's my method:

1. Envelopes for receipts. You can keep as many separate ones as is convenient for you to both keep things separated, and not lose them. I usually go with one envelope/week and keep them in a folder that lives in my backpack/briefcase.
2. Immediately date and number each receipt.
3. Every night I enter the day's receipts with the corresponding number, itemized purchases, and money spent in a dedicated notebook (or - even better - into a Microsoft Word document).

When I get back from my trip, I tape each receipt to plain paper and put them in numerical order. I print out my receipt document and/or turn in my notebook with the receipts for clarification when necessary, and then I give it all to my department's financial officer. And then he gives me a hug for being awesome and organized and making his life easier.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:43 AM on March 14, 2013

I myself would go the high-tech route and bring a portable scanner with me when I travel. They've gotten very small and lightweight, and it's impossible to lose a receipt once you've scanned it and tossed it in your dropbox. There are also several scanner apps for iPhones/iPads that are supposed to be pretty good, and that would be even easier.
posted by zug at 11:03 AM on March 14, 2013

I apologize - I didn't read your whole post (I have ADHD too!) but I empathize, also being an ADHD-inattentive type who travels for work and almost always loses receipts or submits them late.

I think the key is finding an extraordinarily simple system that works for you. For me, that means travel receipts go in my wallet and they are the only receipts that do. I try not to take receipts from anyone else and if I have to, they go somewhere else. These days, receipts for most purchases are not at all necessary.

Submitting receipts is a whole nother issue. Luckily I have a wonderful admin coordinator in my department who nags me. Can you enlist someone to do that for you? (Not sure how it works in academia) If not, then aggressively setting reminders on your phone or computer might work. Maybe try setting the reminder when you plan your trip - ie, when you book the flights, set a reminder for two days after you get back.

This all takes some discipline, which is tough with ADHD. But I've found the key to ADHD organization is to minimize the discipline required by making things as streamlined as possible. Good luck!
posted by lunasol at 11:06 AM on March 14, 2013

I have ADHD, too. Hactar's suggestion (of just putting them in a pocket of your wallet) really appeals to me.

If you have trouble (as I do) with the filling out forms part of getting expenses reimbursed, hire an organized student to help you out for a few hours after every trip.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:07 AM on March 14, 2013

Use envelopes, not clips, for starters. Before you leave for the trip, get an envelope and mark it with the destination and travel dates. If you generally travel with a briefcase or other bag, put the envelope in there so that it's always with you. Put all receipts in the envelope immediately after they're given to you. (Or if you don't have the envelope on your person, put the receipt in your wallet and then put the receipts in the envelope when you get back to your hotel room at night.) That way all receipts are in one place, all the time.

Personally I find Expensify and other automated tools to be more trouble than they're worth; it's easier for me to just type the amounts into a spreadsheet and print out an invoice than use a tool, particularly anything that involves scanning the receipts. (This assumes you are allowed to submit your expenses on paper, i.e. without having to scan or photocopy the receipts anyway. I submit mine by just turning in the envelope of receipts and the spreadsheet invoice.)

If your problem is not losing the receipts (which using the envelope will take care of, if you do it right) but actually doing the expense reports and submitting them for reimbursement when you get home, then you should consider hiring an assistant. If you travel a lot, your expenses are worth a lot of money. You need to get them done, and if that means spending some money to do it, then you should do that. If you travel to high-cost locations on a regular basis, it's not hard to run up travel expenses that are close to, if not in excess of, your actual salary: you just have to treat submitting the expenses as a job responsibility that you are being paid very well for. In terms of money per hour worked, typing up your expenses and submitting them is probably the most lucrative thing you'll do all day. Viewing them in this light always helps me not procrastinate on them too much.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:26 AM on March 14, 2013

Response by poster: Expensify is free, and if you have a relatively small number of receipts, it even OCRs the receipts and fills the forms out for you at no charge. All you have to do is take a photo with your smartphone app and the uploads happen automatically. You can also upload your credit card bill to match up with receipts to make sure you didn't miss any.
It's as good as any app I've tried for expenses, and way better than most.

Wow. That is blowing my mind. I was already wanting to do the whole "take pics with my camera" anyway.

I'm looking up coupon wallets now. I think everyone agrees on the envelope thing. I used the envelope for a long time, but it seemed to give me problems. The folding and unfolding of it, jamming it into my pocket, and how huge it go seemed to be part of the problem. (But I have no idea -- me trying to figure out why I stopped using a perfectly good system is, I've since learned, pretty pointless exercise in trying to understand myself. For all I know, it worked too good and I got bored).
posted by scunning at 11:31 AM on March 14, 2013

I use Lemon, and take the pictures the moment I get a receipt. Not because I have ADHD, but who wants to hold on to a receipt? Even if I instantly put them in a folder or envelope, they still get lost. Plus, I had to send copies/PDFs of my receipts and Lemon cuts out the middle man.
posted by loriginedumonde at 11:55 AM on March 14, 2013

Instead of suspecting what may or may not pass muster with your admin staff that help with expenses, ask to sit down with them and confirm what is kosher and what is not (originals vs. photo, credit card statement ok proof if you loose receipt?, how long you chave to submit expenses, etc). Then you'll know what you really need to do. Admin staff are used to professors being a bit unorganized, my husband if a prof so I know!

A simple thing I do is to keep a pen with me and write KEEP on the top of important receipts. I have made it a habit to go through my wallet when I get back to my desk and tape the KEEP receipts to pieces of paper. Before I hand them in, I make a scan or copy so I remember what I submitted.

When I first started, I would use only one credit card on trips. That card goes into a pouch with a set amount of petty cash, and the outside of the zippered pouch would have a reminder to get an itemized receipt and a reminder of my per diem limits. I would keep my wallet tucked away and this pouch would be kept handy for expenses.
posted by dottiechang at 12:22 PM on March 14, 2013

I used the envelope for a long time, but it seemed to give me problems. The folding and unfolding of it, jamming it into my pocket, and how huge it go seemed to be part of the problem.

If you're only going for 3 days to a week your envelope should not get too big.

As for times when it is not practical to put a receipt in the envelope immediately. Come up with a way to remind yourself that you need to check the receipts in your wallet for anything you need to submit. This could be weekly reminder in your diary to just clear out your wallet and identify any receipts you need to submit.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:57 PM on March 14, 2013

Come up with a way to remind yourself that you need to check the receipts in your wallet for anything you need to submit. This could be weekly reminder in your diary to just clear out your wallet and identify any receipts you need to submit.

You said you have an iphone - does it have Siri?
"Siri, remind me to find the receipt for [hotel valet parking] on Monday" should do it.
posted by jacalata at 2:13 PM on March 14, 2013

Hi! Fellow paper-phobic ADDer here who is finally managing personal and small business paperwork with a lot less stress.

Yes, it's obvious that your disorganization in causing you a lot of anxiety and shame. One way that might help with this load is minimizing the number of times you think about or handle the materials. Create a simple routine, batch process at predictable times, and reduce or eliminate all other thinking or handling of materials outside of these times. The more times you have to handle something, the more often you have to think, to worry, and to potentially actually screw things up.

Your physical / photo / Dropbox approach may seem more secure -- lots of redundancy! -- but there also seems to be a lot more thinking and opportunities for worry and avoidance. Technical solutions are tempting, but look at the number of steps this involves:

1) Get receipt from cashier.
2) Take out your camera and take a photo. (Right there in the line up with the cashier, or do you move to another spot a few moments, minutes or even hours later?)
3) "Later" add the photos (not the paper receipts) to Dropbox. How much later? How often do you think and worry before getting to Dropbox?
4) At some point, while logged into Dropbox, you try to find the paper receipt. Where is it? Did you lose it? More thinking and anxiety, and more internal resistance to doing this damn job.
5) Rename the uploaded photos once you find and match the receipt.
6) Manage the files and folders on Dropbox -- how often in a day? A week? A month?
7) At some point a miracle occurs and you actually pull everything together and submit your expenses.
8) Yearly archiving of the subdirectory -- more file management.

You say going through this makes you more excited "by the process" and less anxious, but you are here anyway because your complete receipt management process still isn't working for you.

Here's a simpler approach. Imagine "DON'T THINK. DON'T PANIC." in between each step.

1) Get receipt and immediately file it safely in a regular wallet.
2) Move all receipts to a coupon wallet (nightly while on the road and once when you get home).
3) When you get home, commit to one specific date to do expenses.
4) Put all physical receipts (in that same coupon wallet) into storage.
5) On specified date, do expenses. Submit.


1) When you're on the road, put any receipt into a compartment in your real wallet immediately. It should zip or snap or fold over securely, but be very easy to get to as you wrap things up with the cashier. If you don't have such a wallet, buy a new one.

2) Also buy yourself a coupon wallet, BUT don't bring it with you during the day. Leave it in the hotel room, in a safe if you're paranoid.

a) EVERY NIGHT: Move your receipts into the coupon wallet so your regular wallet is fresh for the next day.
b) WHEN YOU GET BACK: Check your main wallet in case there's still any receipts there (such as from the ride home from the airport). Put the remaining receipts in your coupon wallet.

3) Write a note on a physical calendar in your office [see note below]. This is the date within X weeks that you will put together your expense report. You might feel ambitious and want to do it right away, but I would advise being relaxed and lazy, but not risky. Because Shit Can Happen, make this date at least one calendar week before your true deadline.

4) Put the coupon wallet in a safe, NON-visible place, like a folder at the front of your filing cabinet.

5) You will check your physical calendar every morning to confirm what you are going to do that day. On the correct day, when you have 30-60 minutes to spare, you will think about and handle the receipts for the first and only time since your trip. Submit.

Physical calendars: I am so easily distracted that I put very, very few things on my electronic calendar any more. This means that:

1) I don't get knocked out of workflow by pop-up reminders several times a day.
2) I don't continually postpone the next alert for hours or a day at a time, sometimes to the point where I mark both important and unimportant things as complete, or delay them to the point where I miss something important.

The only things that go on my computer/phone calendar are things that are truly time-bound, like meetings and appointments where somebody else is depending on me to be available at that exact time.

Everything else goes on the calendar on my wall, which gets checked every night when I make up my to-do list for the next day, which sets out blocks of time for these tasks. For example, I pay all my business bills, taxes and personal bills on two set days a month, and I have marked those days on my calendar for the rest of the year. DONE.

posted by maudlin at 7:27 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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