Finance tools & tech 10 min read

P-cards: A guide to corporate purchasing cards for growing companies

Alfie Marsh

Companies are gradually learning that their classic, traditional processes are no longer up to the task. We've seen automation and new technology overhaul the daily routines of salespeople, marketers, HR professionals, and developers. 

And last but certainly not least, finance and purchasing teams. Finance has long put up with staples like manual data entry and paper receipts, usually too polite to complain. But no more. 

Today, we have better options. And purchasing cards are top of the list!

These smart alternatives to company cards all but eliminate the need for purchase orders and expense reports. They're fast, efficient, and even save the company money. 

But we'll get to all that. First, let's define what we're actually talking about.

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What is a P-card (or purchasing card)?

Purchasing cards let employees spend at work without having to go through the formal purchasing or accounts payable process. They use the credit card infrastructure employees  know and understand to pay on behalf of the company. 

For this reason, purchasing cards are a far more efficient way of dealing with smaller company payments than typical procurement methods. And as we’ll see, modern P-cards also provide certain functionalities that traditional corporate cards can’t, making them a better fit for the job. 

P-cards go by a range of different names: 

  • Purchasing cards
  • Procurement cards
  • Corporate charge cards
  • Employee debit cards
  • Prepaid expense cards
  • Business cards

Even if there are slight differences between some on that list, they’re all a more modern alternative to traditional corporate credit cards.

P-cards vs corporate credit cards

We’ve written several times about the problems with company credit cards. They’re hard to control, open to fraud, and for these reasons most employees can’t get their hands on them. 

And if your employees can’t use them, this creates a serious bottleneck for companies that want to move quickly.

All of these issues stem from the fact that company cards weren’t really created for companies at all. Early corporate cards were launched as a way to avoid the painful expense report process - if employees didn’t have to pay with their own money, they wouldn’t need to make expense claims.

So credit card companies simply offered the minimum viable product - essentially a personal credit card in an executive’s name - and we’ve been living with these ever since. 

In speaking with countless companies, we hear a familiar pattern over and over: 

  • They realize that access to funds is a blocker for teams, so they roll out corporate cards across the board.
  • This is too hard to manage and makes life tough for finance teams, so they roll this back.
  • They're basically back where they started: a few cards for key executives, but teams still can't spend when they need to.

And that's usually where it ends. Most companies just assume that spending is designed to be difficult.

Why P-cards are different from corporate cards

how-spendesk-uses-spendesk

For starters, corporate purchasing cards are designed for...corporate purchasing. They came about specifically because traditional company cards don’t work. So while they all have their differences, they usually have this in common.

And good P-cards eliminate those issues we mentioned above

  • They have built-in approvals and spending limits, so you don’t have the same fears over control.
  • Each card can be customized with its own spending rules.
  • Employees can even generate virtual cards to spend online, so there’s never a need to share card details on a Post-It.

Most importantly, they’re issued in the name of each individual user - rather than shared around. So you always know exactly who made each P-card payment and why.

Imagine how much simpler life would be if every employee could have their own customized company card. Those are essentially purchasing cards.

P-cards vs purchase orders

To deal with the corporate card bottleneck - and to create added oversight - the purchase order process emerged. This way, when employees need to spend company money, there’s a clear procedure in place and someone’s in charge

A formal purchasing or accounts payable process has its advantages:

  • The purchasing or finance department has visibility over all spending
  • Budgets can be tracked more easily than with corporate cards
  • Employees can find out whether their purchases are typical or acceptable
  • Impulse purchases are limited

But there’s still a major bottleneck. Now, if an employee needs to make a quick purchase, or even update a software subscription, there are extra steps involved. 

And your purchasing department has to respond to every small request. There’s significant admin where you simply don’t need it. 

Why P-cards are different from POs

Purchasing cards let the frontline employee execute the payment. There’s still oversight - they’ll need approval from their manager before the P-card payment goes through. But they don’t have to bug the purchasing team for every little thing. 

And all of that admin is now automated. When they request funds, their manager is notified and can approve or decline the request in a click. 

Once the P-card payment is approved, it passes to the finance team pre-formatted. So they can push it directly to their accounting tools. 

Corporate purchasing card best practices

P-cards come in a range of shapes and sizes, with a large number of purchasing card providers offering their goods. 

So how can you know that a particular purchasing card is right for your business? Here’s what to look for. 

Individually named cards

The simplest and most obvious criterion is that P-cards should be in the name of each individual employee - even non-managers. Because they’re more secure and easier to control (as we’ll explore), you should be able to give one to everyone who needs to spend without worrying that things could go wrong. 

The great part about having them individually assigned is you always know who made each purchase. Which makes tracking down receipts and matching P-card payments against budgets simple. 

Customizable rules and limits

Of course, if every employee is going to have their own card, you want to be able to set specific rules for each. For example, you might trust heads of department to spend with no fixed limit, whereas the average employee may be allowed $50 per month before seeking approval. 

Great purchasing cards even let you choose to prohibit payments for alcohol or gas, and they can be restricted while employees are on vacation or during weekends. And you can set up a list of pre-approved vendors if you want cards only for very specific use cases.

Built-in approval flows

If the main benefit of a formal purchasing process is oversight, then you need to achieve the same thing with your P-cards. So look for offers that include managerial or finance team approvals as part of the payment process. 

How this works

  • A salesperson wants to spend $2,000 on a new Macbook, so they make a request in the system. They don’t even have to leave their desk, their home - wherever they might be.
  • Their manager is immediately notified and can approve on the spot. 
  • The salesperson now has $2,000 available to them to spend on the Apple website. Crucially, this money cannot be spent elsewhere.
  • They make the payment, and immediately upload their receipt in the system.
  • Whenever suits them, the financial controller (or purchasing manager) can log in, see the purchase and the receipt, and push this data to their GL account. 

With this model, you have the desired level of visibility and control over spending, but the salesperson can handle their own P-card payment without creating work for everyone else. 

Accounting automation

If you really want to minimize work for the rest of the company, your P-cards should make life easy on your accountants too. Look for a provider that lets you set up supplier codes to match what’s in your general ledger. 

This way, when that salesperson or marketer pays for something, they can use the correct supplier name and code at the time of payment. It’s easy - they just choose from the list or create a new one. 

Then for accountants, all they have to do hit “export,” and your data in Netsuite or QuickBooks is automatically up to date.

Single-use and recurring online virtual cards

Today, companies are making more and more payments online. Which makes the idea of sharing the company card details all over the web a real red flag. 

virtual-card-details

Good procurement card companies let you create unique virtual cards for every online purchase. Aside from being faster than having to physically find the credit card every time, this means you don’t ever have to use the same card twice. If a site is hacked and your details are stolen, simply cancel that card and all your other P-card payments continue as normal. 

Great P-card programs go a step further. They also let you use unique, recurring cards for online subscriptions. Every card is different, again, but you can set specific conditions to allow the same card to be used for the same purpose and provider on a monthly or yearly basis.

And if you need to switch cardholders for any reason, this is easily done within the platform without cancelling the payment. 

Concrete purchasing card benefits

At this point, it pays to point out exactly why purchasing cards are such a benefit to most businesses. We’ve seen the practical differences between these and other spending methods, but what does that mean for companies?

Purchasing card benefits include:

  • Tighter control over company spending, without creating extra work for finance and purchasing teams.
  • Fast, flexible access to company funds when team members legitimately need to spend.
  • Clear accountability for payments thanks to individually-assigned cards.
  • Far lower rates of fraud due to unique virtual cards and individual accountability. 
  • Simple, instant receipt capture - usually with a mobile phone or PDF upload. 
  • Smooth accounting, with GL codes at the time of purchase.

The overall result is more efficient accounts payable, greater visibility over spending, and fewer security risks. 

On top of these global benefits, let’s look quickly at how P-cards help specific teams.

Clear benefits for finance and purchasing teams

Every finance team knows the constant hassle that comes with sharing company credit cards. You have to be to the keeper of the cards, which means every payment made requires a back-and-forth between you and the purchaser. 

But if employees have their own cards, this hassle is no more. Just avoiding those little Slack messages and phone calls is a huge time-saver.

Perhaps the bigger time saver comes from removing the need for purchase orders in the vast majority of cases. You’ll likely still choose to keep your official procurement process for large purchases - the kind requiring negotiations and the expertise of your dedicated teams. 

But there’s no reason to use purchase orders for every Amazon purchase, Google ad, or fruit delivery.

And lastly, the fact that payments are coded at the point of sale is an underrated success for finance teams. Reconciling payments and closing the books becomes an efficient and fast exercise. Which gives you more time for the serious value-added tasks you should be focused on.

More autonomy for frontline staff

The benefits for finance teams are enough on their own. But the other major winners with P-cards are the cardholders themselves - those staff making small online purchases, and the constant travellers. 

With access to funds, they avoid several time-consuming processes that frankly nobody likes. Everybody hates expense reports, starting with the team members who file them. And purchase orders are no better. 

This is the main reason why both of these processes are usually riddled with errors. Your marketing and sales teams don’t care about paperwork - they just want to pay.

And since very few companies give every team member their own card, they’re typically stuck with these less-than-ideal processes just to do their jobs well. Which is why P-cards are such a valuable alternative. 

Learn why every single employee at Spendesk has a company card. 

The CEO’s dream - a more efficient company

The clearest benefits are finance/procurement teams and your frontline staff, as we’ve just seen. But the overall improvement to business processes shouldn’t be ignored. 

Every company is looking for ways to increase efficiency and keep employees focused on the work that really matters. And filing purchase orders or expense reports absolutely doesn’t fit this aim. 

You can unclog these common bottlenecks and have the business humming along at top speed. 

And for CEOs that care about security, P-cards are the most secure way to pay - especially online. Those unique virtual cards eliminate the vast majority of credit card fraud - fraud that occurs at alarming rates with traditional company credit cards. 

Despite the feeling that the company card is safest locked in your own desk drawer, the number is inevitably shared around, and every time you use it online is another opportunity for hackers. Virtual P-cards really put your mind at ease

What is purchasing card software?

The final piece of the P-card puzzle is the software that powers them. Because although we can get fixated on the cards themselves - should they be credit or debit? Will they work overseas? - in fact the interface itself provides much of the value.  

This is the central hub that drives all of your purchasing cards. Every card is connected and controlled from the software, usually by your financial controller or CFO. 

Which means that, when looking at purchasing card providers, you need to think about more than just the cards themselves. You need a clear idea of what you expect from this software. 

What to look for in purchasing card software

Naturally, not all P-card systems are created equal. Some offer little more than your current bank, with an online login for one person just to track each payment.

But these cards are going to be a crucial business tool. And as such, you need a powerful platform that’s up to the task

The best purchasing card software includes: 

  • Individual logins for every team member. This sounds simple, but if your team can’t log in and track their payments and approvals, they’re flying blind.

    Look for tools that provide different levels of access. Your financial controller or CFO should be able to track every single payment, receipt, and approval. Your managers should be able to track just their own teams. And employees, just their own payments. 
  • Centralized control. You should think of your software as the control panel for your entire suite of cards. If you want to cancel or block them, change limits for every user at once, or add specific controls, you should be able to do this directly from your desktop.

    No need to call the credit card company or bank manager. And no need to make huge public changes to the company purchasing policy. The finance team should have the control it needs.
  • Virtual cards. We’ve explained the virtues of these above. Ideally, you’ll be able to create unlimited cards, either for single use or recurring.
  • Smooth accounting integrations. P-cards should give you better spend data than you’ll ever achieve with a traditional corporate card. And they’re easier to manage than purchase orders.

    This data is only truly game-changing when your P-card software interacts well with your accounting tools. Once the data is in the system, you shouldn’t have to change a thing. 
  • Real-time spending reports. The other big bonus of these cards is you have up-to-date spend information without having to investigate. By contrast, you often don’t know how much has been spent on the company card until you receive your next statement or update your records. And you may have purchase orders that haven’t gone out yet, but where the money is as good as spent.

    Purchasing card software gives you spending reports that remain up to date. The moment a payment is made, you can see exactly how much has been spent company-wide, and keep your budgets accurate.

Of course, there are countless further advantages and specific ways for companies to benefit. The key theme is that these cards are here to make life easier, replacing those tired old systems we’ve been leaning on for too long

Corporate purchasing cards are the solution we’ve been waiting for

This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s hard to think of a company tool that’s as common and also as flawed as the corporate credit card. As we’ve seen, these are an administrative nightmare, rife with fraud, and create confusion around the office. 

P-cards, on the other hand, essentially eliminate all three of these issues. They’re efficient, easy to understand, and allow all your teams to dedicate more energy to their best work

So which purchasing card provider should you choose? There are many good options out there, but we suggest investigating our own Spendesk debit cards. They’re flexible, fully customizable, and give you the control over spending you deserve.

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Alfie Marsh

Alfie Marsh is Spendesk's Head of US Sales. He helps growing companies create more efficient and effective spending processes, and move away from the traditional hassles of spending at work.