Paycheck Chronicles

Accounting For Travel Money

One thing that frustrates me as the checkbook keeper in a military family is keeping track of money that comes "through" our account for various expenses, particularly travel.  My husband travels a lot and I am forever asking him, "Do you still have a claim for your trip to Timbuktu?" or "We have a deposit of $217.  Do you recognize that?"  These transactions that just pass through our bank account can make the accounting difficult, whether it is a government expense, a Girl Scout cookie deposit, or the collection for a group gift you're organizing.

There are a couple of ways to handle this situation.  None of them are perfect but one might work for you.

  1. You can use a separate bank account for all money that is just traveling through your life.  I'm pretty sure that DFAS insists on depositing travel money into the same account as pay money, so you would have to transfer it over but that isn't a terribly big deal.
  2. You can keep separate sub-accounts in your general account.  I did this for several years and while it worked well, it also took a lot of time to reconcile the account each month.  If you have the time and interest in making the numbers match, this might work well for you.
  3. My mother-in-law used to keep two sets of balances in her checkbook, one for regular funds and one for travel money.  If I remember correctly, she used three colored pens (one for regular, one for travel, and one for the combined balance).  It worked for her and it might work for you!
  4. You can just let the money wander through your accounts without making a plan for it.  This can work if you keep an adequate reserve in your bank account and if the traveling spouses is able to put most of their expenses on their government travel card.  It works less well when the government card gets declined for whatever accounting problem and the expenses go on your personal credit card.  This option means that you aren't keeping close tabs on your spending.  If that is working for you, that is fine.  If money management is an issue, or you are trying to improve your financial management, this isn't a great choice for you.
The biggest problem that I find with most of these plans is that they don't easily account for the cash spent on trips.  I don't take a special trip to the ATM and say "here is your travel money, keep it separate from your other money."  Before each trip, my husband checks his current cash supply and gets more if he needs it.  That is an accounting failure on my part but I haven't figured out an effective way to deal with it.

I'm sure that some of the online accounting programs, like Mint, have the capability to segregate these monies somehow.  The only program I've ever tried in earnest, USAA's Money Manager, and its inability to deal with this was one of the reasons I stopped using it.  (We were mid-PCS and had thousands of dollars in TLA traveling through our account.  It kept telling me I had a travel budget of 94% of our income.)  I know that USAA is continually updating it's Money Manager program and I haven't looked at it recently; I'm sure this feature will be available soon.

If you are trying to keep tabs on how you spend your money, accounting for money that travels through your accounts is essential.  If you have a good system now, please share so we can all learn.  If you don't have a system, think about what would work for you and give it a try.  As we all try to make our money work to meet our own goals and priorities, keeping track of where it is coming and going is key.

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