Spend management 5 min read

What is your company’s spend culture?

Patrick Whatman

Every business has its own spend culture. From day one, your processes and philosophies around expenses and payments build habits within the team.

Whether you’ve heard the term before or not, your spend culture is important. As we’ll see, it impacts your entire team to varying degrees.

For the average non-finance employee, it dictates how and when they spend at work. For finance teams, it concerns the level of control they have over spending, and whether they act as trusted business partners or simply police.

As a company overall, the culture you want to have will influence how you build your policies and processes, and will either give freedom and autonomy or create an administrative burden for everyone.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. All will be revealed.

To begin, you probably have a more fundamental question: what is spend culture, anyway?

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What is spend culture?

A company’s spend culture is an evaluation of the processes and policies that governs its operational spending. Are these formalised, easy to understand, and do people actually follow them?

It’s also a measure of how team members value company money, and whether they feel comfortable spending in the appropriate situations.

Spend culture is an amalgamation of several key factors:

  • Your company’s formal spending or expense policy
  • Team budgets (and how these are defined)
  • Employee attitudes towards company money
  • The accessibility of funds (when necessary)

Spend culture can be measured on a spectrum from unhealthy to healthy - we’ll explore this below. But you might also classify it using keywords like “restrictive,” “trusting,” “transparent,” “messy,” or “patchwork.”

It’s equally possible that your spend culture isn’t defined at all. If you have no expense policy in place, no expectations set, and it’s never discussed, your spend culture is TBD. And sadly, TBD is almost always unhealthy.

We’ll set out the key ways to evaluate your own spend culture shortly. But first, why should you care about any of this?

Why is spend culture important?

Company spending has a direct impact on more than simply cash leaving the business. Of course, this is hugely important, and your management, investors, and the tax authorities all want to know that you’re on top of it.

But bad company spending also hurts morale. For the finance team, poor internal processes make monthly closing a nightmare. They spend days on tasks that should only take minutes. And these aren’t fun tasks, either.

Employees also hate filing expense reports - a fact that everyone seems to simply ignore. And the more you rely on this outdated process, the worse your spend culture likely is.

Overall, bad internal processes tend to lead to struggling companies. And while some of these processes take a huge effort to overcome, dodgy spending isn’t one of them.

A healthy culture is completely achievable, once you know what your situation is.

Is your spend culture healthy?

healthy-spend-culture

Defining culture is really only helpful if you can put it in context of your own company. Is your spending in good shape? Can you even tell?

To help you make an evaluation, we’ve broken down spend culture into four “levels.” These are in order from least-to-most healthy.

Level 1: Basically non-existent

The lowest level of spend culture usually applies to companies who’ve given spend management no thought at all. This is common in young and fast-growing startups, and some family-run businesses.

  • The finance team is new and simply fills a support function
  • Most operational spend is “out of pocket” using expense reports
  • There’s limited control and visibility over spend - finance teams rely on physical receipts and monthly credit card statements
  • There’s no approval flow for payments
  • A very limited number of company cards are shared between employees
  • The spending policy is basic or doesn’t exist
  • Excel is the only real tool in place
  • Expense reports are filed through long, un-trackable email chains

Discussion

If this is you, is it time to panic? Honestly, it depends on your company priorities at this point. If the business is brand new and costs are relatively low, you have other things to worry about.

But if you’ve been around for a few years, have regular customers and revenue, and still haven’t even thought about your expense policy, that’s a problem.

Level 2: Still struggling

In this case, thought has been given to company spending, but usually from a “control and restrict” point of view.

  • Basic spending policy in place and bottle necked approval flows - for example, expenses must always be approved by the same trusted senior manager
  • High level of control thanks to stringent policies
  • Limited team autonomy creating lots of friction
  • Significant time spent by finance and operational teams on expenses
  • Using Excel and basic expense tracking tools
  • Still mostly manual

Discussion

“Control and restrict” is one way to manage spend, but we would consider this merely the minimum. Yes, financial controllers need to ensure that employees only spend when necessary and approved. So if you know how much money is going out, and you prevent spending on anything inappropriate, that’s a win.

But there’s so much more to spend than this.

Level 3: Good but not great

Here, businesses have put clear processes in place and take spending seriously. But there are still areas to optimise or streamline, and spend management overall can be disjointed.

  • Corporate credit cards are widely used
  • Spending policy is more flexible, but there are lots of payments that still fall outside it
  • Tools and technology give visibility, but these are fragmented and hard to manage
  • Lots of time spent aggregating data and reconciling payments
  • Finance teams lack full visibility and control of operational spending

Discussion

The biggest issue here is what happens after spending - all that admin. This is the situation for lots of companies which probably feel they have a great culture in place. You have a nice big finance team, so what does it matter if they spend days reconciling payments?

The big issue with this is that it’s simply unnecessary to spend major time on reconciliation. We have wonderful tools that’ll automate most of this for them, leaving time for more important, value-adding work.

And besides, the fact that reconciliation takes a long time makes it pretty clear that the culture isn’t as healthy as you’d hope.

Level 4: Healthy spend culture

A healthy spend culture is one where teams don’t have to worry about the mechanics of spending, and can focus on providing value to the business.

  • Full visibility over all operational spending in real time
  • Finance team is in control, while employees have autonomy
  • All teams can manage their budgets based on live data
  • The CFO and finance team are strategic partners to executive leadership
  • High level of automation, with most manual data entry eliminated altogether

Discussion

This may seem optimistic or even unrealistic to most businesses. But in fact, a small amount of modern technology can change your spend culture virtually overnight.

This requires two key elements: the first is easy (and safe) access to company funds for spenders. When payments come through clear company channels (and not out of pocket), there are fewer surprises and everything is simple to manage.

The second element is automation, of course. You need to move away from paper expense reports, email approvals, and anything else that requires extra back-and-forth for your team members.

And if you’ve done that, you can consider your spend culture to be healthy.

Where to from here?

As we explained briefly above, whether or not your spending is a problem depends on the lifecycle of your business. In some cases, it’s too early to really worry. But in most, there’s no such thing as “too early.”

Luckily, we’ve put spend culture on a timeline for you. This guide helps you figure out what level you should be at, based on the particular growth phase your company is in.

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Once you’ve read this, it’s time to consider next steps. And in most cases, you need to look for a good spend management tool. These tools help to automate most of the challenging, boring, and annoying aspects of company spend.

Very quickly, you’ll go from having no expense strategy to one that’s almost fully automated. Every team member will easily be able to follow the rules, and they won’t even have to think about it.

We consider this the chief goal of modern finance tools. We all know that most employees don’t really care about expenses and spending, so you can make compliance an automatic part of their day-to-day work life.

The result: a happy, healthy spend culture that sets you up for growth.

Further reading

For more on healthy spend management, take a look at these articles:

Spend management
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Patrick Whatman

Patrick Whatman is a content marketer and writer. He lives in Paris, loves music, and writes his own brand of cultural criticism for fun. Tweet him @mrwhatman where he mainly talks digital marketing, American sports and New Zealand trivia.