Archaeology Hack #2: Save your Per Diem

Here's how I used per diem from doing cultural resource management archaeology to pay for a family vacation to hawaii(This is part of a new and ongoing series called Thor’s Day Cultural Resource Management Archaeology Hacks. Quick as lightning, these tips are designed to help you make the impact of Mjölnir on your next project.)

NOTE: This post came from a Facebook comment I received from an enlightened field archaeologist who reminded me of another way you can save what you’re making. Michelle Villa, thank you for the great advice.

My mother got remarried in 2012 and invited her children and new step kids to join these newly(re)weds on their honeymoon in Hawaii. At the time, I was working on a year-long, out-of-town cultural resource management archaeology project and had to make arrangements to take time off for the wedding and honeymoon. I also needed to come up with airfare for my wife, sister, young son and myself; as well as hotel lodging and car rental for a week on Kauai.

Where was this money going to come from? The answer: per diem.

Villa’s Per Diem Savings Principle

Last week, I suggested saving at least 10% of your income in order to start building a financial safety net and investment vehicle. Facebook commentators said that wasn’t enough, but I feel like 10% is a good start and, when combined with compounded interest, can still have a very positive impact over the long-term.

Saving your per diem is another way to build your nest egg. This is something I did not always do but came to learn the value of not spending your per diem in the process of saving for the aforementioned Hawaii trip. As long as your per diem is not greater than the maximum federal rates and your company reports your hotel lodging, you do not have to pay taxes on your per diem. (Check the GSA per diem rates for the region where you’re working) Companies do not have to pay you per diem and they can choose how much you get, if any, but per diem is a rare source of tax free money!

NOTE: I am not a tax professional and my statements are for educational purposes only. Consult an accountant if you want to know more about your per diem tax obligations.

A large number of archaeologists routinely save their per diem. I’ve known CRMers who have used per diem to:

  • Pay off student debt
  • Pay credit cards
  • Surviving winter unemployment
  • Buy cars/computers/cameras/ect.
  • Save for retirement
  • Make a down payment on a house
  • And, a host of other money-related activities.

In the Facebook discussion about starting a nest egg with your 10%, a CRMer with pretty sound fiscal advice suggested we should all only to spend one day’s worth of per diem and save all the rest. This is what I’m calling Villa’s Per Diem Savings Principle—named for the CRM archaeologist who clearly defined this strategy.

Villa’s Principle only works for projects where you will receive more than one day’s worth of per diem (If you were only getting one day of per diem I’m pretty sure Villa would recommend you save it all). So, if you are working out of town on a four-day escapade, the Villa Principle states you would only spend the equivalent of one day’s per diem and save the other three. It will be more of a stretch for a 10-day session but you could really get ahead if you pocketed nine days’ worth and lived off of one day.

How can you make Villa’s Principle work?

I can hear you now; “How can I only live off of one days’ worth of per diem for a 10-day session? I’ve got to eat don’t I?” I’ll admit I haven’t ever been able to survive off of one day’s per diem for a 10-day session, but it is very easy to save 4 or 5 days’ per diem for a week out of town.

All you really have to spend money on when you’re out of town is food (It is assumed that your company will figure out a way for you to have shelter and water). Alcohol and restaurant food are luxuries. Since you would have to eat if you were still working at the office in town, it is also assumed that you will eat while working out-of-town. Well, if that’s the case, why don’t you bring some of the food you have at home with you to the field and eat it there?

Villa’s Principle is easy to follow if you treat out-of-town work like an extended backpacking trip. If you are actually backpacking for work, this will be no problem. Plan each breakfast, lunch, and most of your dinners so you can bring most of your food from home. If you are staying at a hotel, find out if you will have what I call the Holy Trinity of CRM Field Lodging: internet, a mini-fridge and free breakfast. If that’s your situation, you’re pretty much set.

Sometimes preparing your food at the hotel will not be possible, but here are some tips for how you can save money by pulling it off:

  • Schedule what you want to eat for breakfast and lunch every day while you’re in the field. Get the supplies for these meals when you go to buy your normal household groceries. Bring this with you to the hotel where you will be staying while in the field.
  • Bring a hot plate or electric kettle to make home food in your hotel room (WARNING: Do not try to use a camp stove in your hotel room. Hotels do not like that. You could get your whole company kicked out for that. If you bring a camp stove, use it outside.)
  • Plan on eating dinner at a restaurant only once or twice per field session.
  • Don’t plan on eating breakfast or lunch in a restaurant at all.
  • If you’re staying in a hotel with free breakfast and you are not breaking hotel policies, bring some of the free breakfast stuff with you as part of your lunch. Fresh fruit, pop tarts, or a yogurt can really enhance your meal but don’t get kicked out over a $1.00 Yoplait.

I’ve even seen one of my co-workers eat coagulated biscuits and gravy from the breakfast bar for lunch. It was gross but I’m just saying forced frugality can take you places you never thought you’d go.

  • Do not assume you will get a fridge, even if the hotel says they have them. Your meals should be items that do not need to be refrigerated just to be sure.
  • Only bring one week’s worth of food (5-days maximum). This is just a suggestion. Your crew mates will not appreciate your stuff taking up all the room for personal gear just because you want to save some money. A small cooler and a bag of groceries are probably fine as long as there’s room for the field gear. It’s even better if you fit all the food into either the small cooler OR one grocery bag.

What about beer?

I didn’t forget. Alcohol can be a difficult thing to bring with you in the field because sometimes you do not go straight to the hotel before heading to the field. Possessing alcohol on certain clients’ property (mines and military bases come to mind) is against the rules. You could get in trouble for doing so. Some companies also have prohibitions against having alcohol in company vehicles, period. That’s a difficult work around considering a beer at the bar is more expensive than a drink in your hotel room, which makes crew members either drink and drive or buy beer at the store and transport it in the company truck “on the down low.”

In order to stay out of trouble you should try and figure out if it is okay to have alcohol in your company’s vehicles or in the project area. If you are not breaking any rules, try and figure out if your crew will be checking into the hotel before heading to the project area. If you guys will be going straight to the hotel and you will not be breaking any rules, it’s probably okay to bring a small amount of alcohol from home. Otherwise, plan on buying it after you get out there.

What if you’re flying into the project area?

You will probably not be able to bring all of your food and alcohol. Either ship it to the destination or just buy stuff when you get there. You may not be able to strictly follow Villa’s Principle, but this is what per diem was created for.

What if you’re hiking in to the project area and won’t have access to any amenities?

You won’t have anywhere to spend your per diem anyway. Don’t worry. Pretend like you’re getting paid to camp and act accordingly.

Use Villa’s Principle as a Goal

Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. Strive to only spend a single day’s worth of per diem and save the rest. If you can’t do that, just save as much as you can—at least 10%.

Without even knowing, I started using Villa’s Principle for six months in advance of taking my family to Hawaii. I was able to put away over $5,000 dollars of my per diem for our trip—more than enough for four plane tickets and a car rental (the hotel arrangements were covered by my mom’s husband’s timeshare account). I didn’t have to dip into my savings and we had the time of our lives.

If you work in cultural resource management archaeology long enough, you won’t be getting per diem because you will rarely be out in the field. Per diem is a gift to early careerists so make the most of it while you can.

Tell us about your per diem saving stories. Write a comment below or send me an email.


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