Spending your own money on work

I was in a car with some friends a few weeks ago and found out that one of them had spent their own money on conference fees. This triggered a discussion about what we’d be willing to spend our own money on, and as the discussion went on it became clear to me that we all had different ideas about what we’d be willing to pay out for. Some of us were OK with buying ourselves laptops for work, others would never do that. Some were willing to pay for trains, others not at all. The variation in attitudes fascinated me.

So I decided to carry out an informal survey for Scientists Are Humans to work out where we all draw our lines – if we draw lines about what we’ll spend on.  The survey got tweeted and retweeted quite a few times and after two weeks we had 121 responses.  This post is about what people said in their responses. I’ve left the survey up with a few extra questions so if you didn’t already fill it in you can take a look and still contribute.

Important caveat about the data:

This was an entirely unofficial and unscientific survey. It was circulated on the Scientists are Humans Twitter and Facebook pages, and so there’s a clear sampling bias. Some questions were multiple choice, and so we can present graphs for these. Others were textual answer questions so the data has had to be cleaned up by hand; I’ll make it clear where this has happened in the discussion.

Within the HE sector there’s an expectation that you will pay out for things and then claim it back, and many Universities are s l o w about refunds. So even when refunded, people can be out of pocket for months, sometimes by £1000s. Lots of people commented about this, on Twitter in particular. It’s not what this post is about, though. This post is about the money we spend with no expectation of return.

What will people spend their own money on?

The main bulk of the survey was a series of questions asking what aspects of work expenditure people spend their own money on. These were loosely grouped into four categories – food, travel, equipment, and fees or charges. Here’s the big chart with all the categories in it:

Things which over half the respondents have spent their own money on at some point are as follows: All kinds of meals and hospitality; travel for national meetings; fees for one-day meetings; memberships of professional bodies or societies; small equipment (<£50); laptops/computers; and books.  There is nothing, it seems, that some academic somewhere won’t pay for – over 10% have paid for article publication fees at least once, and over 30% have paid for large equipment at least once.

There was a free text box asking if there were other things that people spent on which weren’t in the list provided, and yes, yes there were other things. Lots of people buy stationery. Several people insure their own car for work use and can’t claim that back. Software licenses (Dropbox appears particularly frequently) and journal access fees also pop up more than once. Coffee/tea/cake/biscuits for the group is mentioned a lot, for general consumption, regular events e.g. “cake Friday” or for special events like vivas. Other research-related expenditure included protective clothing, supplies for growing plants, reagents, prescription goggles, article proof-reading costs, and visa costs for conferences. Some people spend their own money on student prizes.

And finally: a lot of people mentioned credit card fees whilst waiting for eventual reimbursement; not all of us have the cash to pay up front and then wait.

How much will people spend?

The questionnaire also asked – as a free-text answer – “Approximately how much of your own money do you spend on work stuff a year?“.

To get a summary table of this, a bit of data cleaning was required. Some of the answers here were easily convertible into a numerical answer – if currency was specified, a rough conversion in to £ was made. If a range was specified, a mid-point was taken. Some were impossible (“10% of income” is a meaningful answer but impossible to guess as a number; “£400 except for those years when I buy a new laptop” is again hard to guess; answers like these were omitted from the averages).  So given this fairly rough data cleaning I can now generate another chart – here are the averages, by career stage, of the amount of cash spent per year by academics:

What this doesn’t capture is the sheer spread of the numbers. Some people spend nothing. Some people spend £5,000 a year on work-related expenses.

Several people, in answer to this question, said that they couldn’t bring themselves to calculate their total; Others said that if work didn’t pay, then they would not pay, and if that meant missing out stuff then that’s fine.

We also asked for location, but with just 121 samples and a major UK bias there wasn’t enough of a spread to draw any conclusions or even draw any serious charts from this.


It’s hard to draw conclusions from a survey with the data flaws that this one has. I’m not going to let that stop me though…

In the UK at least, spending some of your own money on work-related expenses seems almost inevitable for academics. I think of my friends who went into industry and who get conference budgets and home offices funded by their workplace, and I have to admit I feel a little jealous. I realise that this isn’t always the case in industry, but it appears to me to be more common for the private sector to do this.

antique bills business cash
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In UK HE it’s also true that some of the richer Universities provide more cash to their staff. I remember being at an awards event with a prof from Oxford, who picked up the bill for 8 award winners’ food and drinks in a central London location with a breezy “It’s networking, it’ll be fine” – a move that would have caused my finance office to explode. This made me jealous, briefly, but upon reflection it’s worth remembering that when we spend, we’re spending public money or student money. So checks on things like alcohol consumption are just fine by me. I don’t mind paying for my own food, and claiming alcohol has always felt strange.

On a personal note it appears I’m pretty average. I’ll spend on my own food whilst travelling, and short trips, and small pieces of equipment, with a laptop every few years. This puts me in about the £350 bracket unless I’m buying a laptop – which is every three or four years and costs about a grand. So let’s call my outgoings £600. It’s quite reassuring to be near the mean – I still don’t like spending as much of my own  money on work, but at least I now know it’s relatively normal.

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