Trip Trap – Can I pocket part of my travel allowance?

Q. My company pays a generous travel allowance for business trips. Although the allowance is enough for a nice hotel and good restaurants, I prefer to economize and pocket the difference. Is this ethical?

A. Some employers pay a fixed per-day travel allowance as an addition to salary, and do not request any accounting or receipts. In this case the money belongs to you, so there’s nothing wrong with economizing on expenses. But that doesn’t mean that you can sleep on a park bench and eat canned beans. Since your employer gives you adequate means, you must find lodgings which will allow you to be refreshed and look and feel your best for your business engagements.

Jewish law is adamant that the employee arrive at work ready and able to do the job. The Shulchan Aruch, which is the authoritative code of Jewish law, states: “A worker is not permitted to work at night and also hire himself out during the day, nor to starve and deprive himself and give his food to his children, because this causes him to be slack at work. For in this way he saps his strength so that he is unable to work for the employer with his full strength.”

In other words, even under normal conditions an employee has to make sure that he gets enough rest and nourishment to be able to work with full strength. On road trips this is even more important, because of the great stress due to intensive schedules, unfamiliar conditions, jet lag and travel fatigue.

Indeed, the Torah states that one of the miracles which occurred to the children of Israel in the Exodus was that “Your clothes did not become worn on you, and your feet didn’t swell, these forty years” (Deuteronomy 12:4). Our sages explain that this was a miracle because generally travel causes wear to our clothes and our body.

Therefore, if you get a fixed travel allowance instead of an expense account, there is nothing wrong with finding a comfortable, conveniently located hotel which happens to be inexpensive, or with finding a restaurant which serves nourishing and relaxing meals but doesn’t cost a fortune. But it’s wrong to accommodate on cheap lodgings which will cost you valuable rest and strength.

If you think your employer may be concerned that an inexpensive hotel will reflect badly on your company, obtain guidelines from your supervisor before your trip.

There is an exception to this rule for kosher travelers, who often find themselves eating supermarket food on road trips not out of a desire to economize, but because they can’t find a kosher restaurant. In this case, the food they eat is the best they can find, and is sure not to harm their appearance and performance. We learn this from the Biblical story of Daniel and his companions: When they declined to consume the provisions of the king Nebuchadnezzar because they weren’t kosher, the steward was worried that this would cost him his job (and his life) because the simpler kosher fare would sap their strength. But after a ten-day trial period he saw that they were fairer and healthier than all of their peers! (Daniel 1:8-16.)

So if your employer provides you with a travel allowance, use it in good health to find lodgings and meals whose quality and location will have you feeling, looking and performing your best. If they do, and they don’t reflect badly on your employer, you don’t have to spend every penny. Good luck on your road trip — and be careful to stay out of the lion’s den.

Important clarification regarding last week’s column:
Last week’s column “Trip Trap” refers only to a per-day travel allowance paid as an addition to salary, where the employer does not request any kind of accounting or receipts. It goes without saying that if company policy is that any unspent money needs to be returned, all employees are morally and legally bound to uphold the policy.

The main point of the column was not that the excess can be pocketed, which of course depends on company policy. The point was that in all cases the per diem needs to be used to the full extent necessary to make the employee fit for work.

SOURCES: Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 337:19. Yalkut Shimoni on Devarim 2:7.