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Interest-free loans

December 5, 2011

There are many impediments to going to scientific meetings when you have children, but one that should be easily overcome is having to pay for some or much of the conference fees and travel ahead of time.  I realized that this isn’t particularly specific to people with kids, but personally I can’t disentangle severe financial constraint from parenthood.  As a graduate student, I wasn’t rich, but I could usually swing being out a thousand dollars for a couple of months.  In fact, we are so cheap and we lived so below our means at the time that we paid off all of our collective undergraduate debt, consumer debt and then made a CD ladder and opened ROTH-IRAs, all on my awesome grad student stipend.

That CD ladder is long gone, our savings are decimated and every cent of my salary is already spoken for.   The only way for me to reasonably finance travel for conferences is with a credit card.  We never carry a balance for our normal purchases.  The only time we ever do is for these conferences.  I turn in my receipts immediately upon returning.  I understand that processing everything takes time, but it cost me $38 last time because the reimbursement check I was counting on arrived 2 days after that card was due.  With the new credit reporting laws, the credit card company has to tell you how much money you’ve paid in interest so far in a year and for me this year, it is in excess of $200.  This is on top of the additional costs incurred to keep the kids cared for in my absence – a meal out, or helping transport a grand-parent into town, or an hour or two of babysitting here or there to fill in the gaps.

I know that it is possible, but my experience is that I’m strongly discouraged from asking for advances – there seems to be some issue with submitting two expense reports for the same event that can be overcome only with great administrative difficulty and only under certain conditions.  The rules are not transparent and change depending upon where the money for the travel is coming from.  This is particularly true when there is some sort of travel award, or as is just starting to be the case for me, when the conference pays for you to attend as an invited speaker.  Unfortunately, this puts what is most beneficial to me personally and professionally at odds with each other; it is better personally to not have external travel support because it makes financing the trip more difficult since I have to give the university or conference an interest-free loan.  I want to say that those $38 are not that big of a deal, but for us, right now, they sort of are.

Anyone involved in offering travel awards for conferences, please consider freeing up those funds before the conference takes place (and mentioning that on your conference’s website).  These little things may weigh more that you might expect in the decision-making process of potential attendees.

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