Government travel cards, also known as purchase cards or Integrated Card Management System (ICMS) cards, are charge cards issued to government employees for work-related expenses while on official business travel. These cards make it more convenient for federal workers to pay for authorized expenses without needing to use personal funds.
However, specific rules apply on what can and cannot be purchased with a government travel card. So can you use your government travel card to buy groceries?
- Government travel cards are strictly for business travel expenses only. Personal purchases are prohibited.
- Groceries are generally not allowed to be purchased with a travel card, with some exceptions.
- Exceptions allow per diem grocery purchases during long-term TDY travel over 30 days, or emergency essential subsistence purchases.
- Limits and restrictions apply to grocery purchases, and receipts are typically required.
- Misuse of a government travel card can result in disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. Proper training is key.
Overview of Government Travel Card Rules
Government travel charge cards are controlled by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) under the SmartPay program. They are usually Visa cards issued through major banks like Citibank or U.S. Bank.
Federal regulations and agency policies strictly govern the appropriate use of government card programs to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. The GSA SmartPay master contract sets overall rules for card usage that apply to all agencies and contractors.
In addition, each federal agency issues its own specific travel card policies tailored to that organization’s mission and needs. Individual government cardholders are responsible for complying with all applicable laws, regulations, and policies. Proper training is mandatory.
The core rule is that government travel cards can only be used for legitimate business expenses related to official work travel, known as Temporary Duty (TDY) Travel. They may not be used for any type of personal purchases at any time, even if you intend to reimburse the government.
Expenses that are authorized on travel cards typically include:
- Transportation (airfare, rental car, train, shuttle)
- Incidentals (baggage fees, amenities, tips)
- Fuel for government vehicles
- Conference fees
- Internet and phone expenses
So groceries would not normally fall under regular authorized business travel expenses. But there are some exceptions.
Exceptions Allowing Groceries on Government Travel Cards
The two scenarios where federal employees may be allowed to buy groceries using a government travel card are:
1. Long-Term TDY Travel Over 30 Days
For long-term temporary duty (TDY) travel lasting over 30 consecutive days, travelers may qualify for per diem grocery purchases.
Instead of receiving standard per diem for meals and incidentals, your agency may authorize per diem for “actual necessary expenses” during extended TDY. This allows expenses like groceries for preparing your own meals.
Policies vary on which agency employees qualify, what documentation and pre-authorization is required, limits on grocery costs, and how per diems are reduced if government meals are provided. Follow your agency guidelines closely.
For example, Department of Defense (DoD) civilians and uniformed personnel on long-term TDY can utilize their travel card for grocery expenses after 30 days up to a maximum $292 per week. Actual costs are reimbursed up to that cap.
DoD also allows for couching extended TDY into multiple shorter trips with certain grocery benefits. Other agencies like the State Department have different grocery purchase policies for long stays overseas.
2. Emergency Essential Subsistence Purchases
The second case where grocery purchases may be allowed is for emergency essential subsistence (groceries and meals) when certain conditions are met.
During times of emergency evacuation, authorized essential subsistence expenses “must be reasonable and necessary to meet immediate needs and subsistence requirements of temporary duty travelers.” This applies when normal travel card meal expenses are not feasible, such as:
- Evacuation due to natural disasters, terrorism, or civil unrest
- Medical emergencies while on travel
- Other crisis situations authorized by your agency
In these scenarios, travelers may utilize government cards for grocery store purchases within per diem limits to obtain meals. This applies to employees and dependents evacuated during authorized travel.
For example, during hurricane evacuations, the federal government has issued waivers allowing impacted travelers to purchase groceries for subsistence after mandatory evacuations. Receipts are typically required for reimbursement.
Restrictions and Limits on Grocery Purchases
When grocery shopping is permitted on a government travel card, keep in mind that restrictions and limits apply:
- Pre-authorization may be required – Follow your agency policy. Grocery purchases may need prior approval and orders.
- Documentation is needed – Save itemized receipts and provide to your agency approver. Photocopies may be acceptable with supervisor sign-off. Digital receipts are preferable.
- Stick to per diem limits – If your agency issues per diem rates for groceries, do not exceed the maximum allowance. Purchase only what is reasonable and appropriate.
- No alcohol purchases – Beer, wine, and liquor are prohibited on government travel cards.
- No entertaining – Groceries for entertaining or personal gifts may not be allowed. Check policies.
- Pay promptly – Reimburse grocery costs on your travel voucher timely to avoid late fees.
- Maintain prudent judgement – Only purchase essential grocery items during emergencies. Avoid appearance of wasteful or lavish spending.
Consequences for Travel Card Misuse
Because travel card misuse has been problematic for some government agencies, consequences for violating policies are severe. Depending on the offense, results of unauthorized use may include:
- Suspension or cancellation of accounts – Your agency may suspend or permanently cancel your card privileges.
- Disciplinary and adverse action – Violations can result in reprimands, leave restriction, suspension, demotion, or even termination.
- Financial liability – You may have to pay back unauthorized charges plus fees and interest. Your wages may be garnished.
- Criminal prosecution – If intent and fraud are found, you may be subject to fines or imprisonment for felony fraud.
Examples of travel card misuse include buying personal groceries, alcohol, entertainment, cash advances, and merchandise not authorized for your agency. Be sure to use your government travel card only as permitted to avoid punitive measures.
Steps to Use Your Travel Card Properly
To avoid misuse and ensure your government travel card is utilized appropriately:
- Review all rules and regulations from the GSA, your agency, and travel card issuer. Complete all mandatory training.
- Make sure you have proper authorization and orders for any TDY travel.
- Only make purchases for official business needs directly related to your TDY. No personal or family expenses.
- Save detailed itemized receipts, preferably digital, for every purchase.
- Submit your receipts and approved travel voucher for reimbursement promptly.
- Pay your travel card bill on time to avoid late fees. Delinquency can lead to disciplinary action.
- Contact your agency or card issuer immediately if your card is lost or stolen.
- Speak with your travel coordinator or supervisor if you have any doubts on what is permitted on your card before making purchases.
Frequently Asked Questions on Government Travel Cards and Groceries
Can I use my government travel card at any grocery store?
You may use your government travel card at any grocery merchant that accepts Visa. This includes supermarkets, warehouse clubs, convenience stores, specialty food stores, farmers markets, online grocers, etc.
Are there any limits on what types of groceries I can purchase?
Stick to reasonable, prudent grocery items for subsistence needs. This typically includes foods and beverages, essential supplies like paper towels, and over-the-counter medications. Avoid lavish, excessive, or entertaining purchases. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited.
Do I need a special government tax exemption for grocery purchases?
No. Your standard government travel card serves as an exemption automatically. Just present your card and state/local taxes should not apply to grocery purchases.
Can I use my travel card at restaurants for meals instead of groceries?
No. During long-term travel or evacuations permitting groceries, you must procure your own meals through grocery purchases, not restaurants. Restaurant transactions are not authorized.
How should I document my grocery purchases?
Save your itemized receipt with merchant name, date, items purchased, and total amount matching your card charge. Annotate receipts for your records. Digital copies are ideal. Follow supervisor guidance.
What if I accidentally use my travel card for an unauthorized personal purchase?
Immediately contact your agency’s travel card coordinator and arrange to reimburse the government. While disciplinary action is unlikely for a single minor offense, repeatedly misusing your card may result in cancellation or other penalties.
The Bottom Line
While government travel cards offer a convenient payment method for work trips, they may only be used for legitimate authorized business expenses. Groceries are generally prohibited except for long term TDY travel exceeding 30 days or certain emergency situations.
Improper personal use of government travel cards is prohibited. Cardholders must adhere to all applicable rules and regulations to avoid disciplinary consequences. With prudent use and proper training, government travel cards can streamline procuring essential goods and services during your federal duties.
The main points covered in this comprehensive article are:
- Government travel cards are strictly for TDY business expenses only, personal purchases are prohibited.
- Groceries are generally prohibited, with exceptions for long-term extended TDY over 30 days, or emergency evacuations.
- Restrictions, limits, and receipts required for grocery purchases. No alcohol allowed.
- Misuse can result in disciplinary action or criminal prosecution. Proper training is mandatory.
- Exceptions for per diem groceries over 30-day TDY or emergency essential subsistence.
- Must follow agency policies and GSA regulations for appropriate card use.
- Consequences for unauthorized use include suspension, termination, fines, and jail.
- Steps like keeping receipts protect proper use. Contact agency for questions before purchases.
- The bottom line is travel cards may only be used for authorized expenses, so careful compliance with rules is essential.