So you're sick of your company credit cards, and are thinking that purchasing cards (AKA p-cards or procurement cards) are a better option? Well you'd be right.
P-cards really are the best option for companies and employees needing to spend safely and easily. The trouble is, first you have to find a good provider. And you also need to create a spending policy that suits it.
This short guide is here to help.
This article is split into two short sections. In the first, we look at what makes for a good p-card policy - the rules (or better yet, guidelines) you should write down to ensure purchasing is handled well.
In the second section, we identify a few key factors to consider when choosing your p-card. There are many good options out there, but they're far from identical. So these are the things we think your p-card provider must offer to get the service you deserve.
So let's start with those policy principles.
P-card best practices
Crafting any internal policy is often more difficult than expected. You have to balance the interests of a lot of different parties, while creating something that achieves its main goal - that people follow it.
There are plenty of ways to go about creating a p-card policy, and you’ll of course have your own focus points. But despite this, there are a few keys to any good p-card policy:
1. Easy to understand and follow
This is of course the case for any policy document. If employees can’t understand what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to simply do what feels right to them. And that’s exactly what you’re hoping to avoid.
An easily understood policy document usually includes:
- Short, simple sentences. Try bullet points and leave lots of blank space.
- No jargon or acronyms that new employees won’t understand.
- Real-world examples to illustrate instructions or rules.
- Clear limits and boundaries with real number figures, if you have them.
Most importantly, know your audience. You’re writing for busy employees who frankly don’t care as much about purchasing card rules as you are. So get to the point, and explain how these rules help them.
2. Less is usually more
We’ve shared a nice list of company expense policy examples in the past, including the famous Netflix policy: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.” For companies confident in their teams, these kinds of very short guidelines are highly appealing.
Realistically, you’re going to want to add more than that to your p-card program guidelines. A few baseline rules and specific examples - as stated above - never hurt.
But in principle, shorter policy documents are almost always better. They eliminate a lot of unnecessary distractions, and employees are more likely to actually read them.
Set yourself the challenge of keeping it as short as possible - perhaps 1-2 pages. And not every possible scenario needs to be spelled out. Which leads us to the next point…
3. Choose principles over rules
We’ve used the word “rules” a few times already. With company spending, rules and limits are pretty hard to avoid. But if possible, choose guiding principles over prescriptive orders. These give more flexibility to employees, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll take advantage or get out of control.
At Spendesk, our own spending guidelines are built on principles rather than rules:
- Employees are owners of the company and their work
- Spend with the company’s best interests in mind
- Be smart - and be reasonable
- We trust employees to make the right decisions
- Get the basics right (attach receipts every time, fill out information in full, and use the tools provided)
So that’s the extent of our written spending policy, and it applies to purchasing cards, invoices, travel - you name it.
We do also have specific rules and limits on our cards, but these are managed in the tools we use. Which is why you need to…
4. Use smart technology to make p-card management simple
Next, we’re going to explore key features of the best p-card management tools. But if there’s one theme that should help to delineate between good spending practices and bad - including p-cards - it’s that most companies don’t use payment methods that were built for businesses.
They use corporate credit cards with no real connection to your spending policy. So it’s no surprise that employees fail to follow the rules properly.
But proper p-cards - complete with p-card software - let you set limits where necessary, and keep spenders in line by default. So you don’t need a long policy document; there’s almost no way for team members to spend outside of policy in the first place.
And as we’ll see, you can have this without overcomplicating things. The tools can still be easy to use and quick to set up.
Let’s look now at how this software should work.
Features of great p-card management software
Obviously, you’re going to need to choose a good p-card provider. And while the cards themselves will be familiar - they work like any debit or credit card - the management software can vary between vendors.
As you’re shopping around, here are some key features to look out for.
5. Individual cards for each user
The most basic issue you’re trying to overcome is the common practice of sharing company credit cards. As you’ve no doubt experienced, this is a slow, frustrating way to pay for things. It also creates serious credit card fraud risks for the company.
So the very first factor to establish is that every employee who needs to spend will have their own card - at least a virtual card per person (more on these shortly).
Key questions to ask
- Is there a maximum number of cards available with the plan I’m considering?
- Are there hidden fees that come with managing more cards?
- Will each card have its own limit and source of funds, or are they all drawing from one pool?
- Will these cards let me track employee spending easily, and will this make it easier to trust everyone?
These are really the p-card basics. If you aren’t convinced about any of these, you probably need to keep looking.
6. Easily-updated spending rules and limits
You’ll likely already have a company T&E spend policy. Which is important. But the difficult thing with written policies is that most people read them once - if that - and then carry on doing whatever works best for them.
A far better outcome is to have your spending policy baked into the tools your teams use. For example, you can tell everyone that they have a $50 travel per diem when they’re on the road. But what if their card only lets them spend $50 per day on food and incidentals?
This way, nobody has to know the rules by heart - the tools they use guide them through each payment.
Key questions to ask
- Can I set up and change spending rules easily, without needing help?
- Can these rules apply differently to different people?
- Does the p-card system let me monitor whether people actually play by the rules, without having to check up constantly?
- Is the process provided easy to follow for employees without too much training?
7. Built-in approval workflows
When employees want to spend over a certain limit, they need approval from a manager. This is pretty standard, whether you’re using a p-card or not.
And in most companies, this back-and-forth between managers and team members is stilted at best, with no clear record of approval being granted.
Good p-card providers let you track approvals smoothly within their system. When an employee needs to make a purchase, they create a request within the software. The manager is notified and can approve or deny. From there, the employee makes the payment, and provides the proof of purchase.
This entire data trail then arrives with the finance team, which can see exactly who approved a payment and why, at any time. (Which is ideal for spending in remote teams.)
Key questions to ask
- Can employees request funds within the platform, rather than by email or in person?
- Are managers notified whenever they need to approve a purchase?
- Can finance see these interactions whenever they need to?
- Is this full process easy to use for everyone involved? (Again, with minimal training.)
8. Automated accounting
Getting payment details into your accounting system can be a very manual process. Checking card statements, updating ledger codes, and searching for missing documents is tedious.
And lots of this work needs to be done multiple times.
With a smart p-card provider, payment details are formatted and ready to export to accounting tools whenever you like. The spender (usually a non-finance employee) selects the right accounting code at the time of payment. And details like the amount, vendor name, reason for purchase and receipt are attached at the same time.
So the finance team simply needs to do a quick check, and then export.
Key questions to ask
- Does this p-card software integrate natively with my accounting automation software?
- If not, can I customize exports so they’ll be easy to import to my ledger?
- Will employees understand how the various ledger codes work, so they get it right every time?
- How much technical help will we need to get set up, and will the vendor help us?
9. Virtual cards for online spending
For most team members, online spending is more common than travel, and is still difficult to manage as a company. Can you honestly say you know how many software subscriptions the company is running right now? Could you find out easily?
So on top of sleek, easy-to-use physical cards, your p-card provider must give access to virtual cards for online spending. These are safer, easier to track, and better suited to online spending than a company credit card.
Ideally, the vendor will offer single-use and recurring virtual cards. Single-use are exactly what they sound like: unique card details to use for one payment only. If the card details are hacked, they’re useless anyway because the money has already been spent. And the funds are only valid for the exact purpose they’ve been approved for - employees can’t use the money for personal purchases.
Recurring cards are perfect for subscription payments. Again, you’ll have unique card details (ie, not the number on your physical card), but this time the card lasts for the length of the subscription. It’s automatically topped up each month (or year), and again can’t be spent anywhere except with that exact vendor.
Key questions to ask
- Is there a limit to the number of virtual cards available on each plan?
- Are virtual card numbers unique every time, or do you have one virtual card per user account?
- Is it easy and quick to use the provider’s virtual cards online?
Choose p-card management software to suit your style
In the end, your p-card policy and the technology you choose should both reflect your company values. In our case, that means fewer explicit rules and an emphasis on trust. In yours, it might mean heightened security and stricter controls. And that's totally valid, too.
Look for cards and software that can deliver these outcomes without having to jump through hoops. Security, control, and trust aren't mutually exclusive, and there are great tools that deliver them all.
Since you're here, why not start with what we think are the best in the market. Learn more about Spendesk's p-cards right here: