How to beat office collection overload

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lance Cothern remembers when he finally hit the tipping point with office fundraisers.

It was just last year, and the Florida panhandle manufacturing company where he worked had become a hot bed of collections activities. Then the firm passed around cards offering to skim a percentage of every paycheck for a particular charity.

“That’s when I drew the line,” said the 26-year-old accountant, who says he prefers to select his own charities. “I can’t support everybody.”

After all, it’s not just nonprofit drives that are making workplace claims on your cash these days. Birthdays. Going-away parties. Baby showers. Welcome-to-the-company lunches. Work anniversaries. Kids’ school sales. And on and on.

“It might be popcorn for the Boy Scouts, or cookies for the Girl Scouts,” says Cothern, who declined to identify his firm and also blogs about his finances at “Or you have to guess when a baby will be born, and give the proceeds to the parents. Or you pay up $5 to wear jeans on Friday, and donate the money to charity.

“I probably get a request like that every week or two, averaging in the $10-$20 range. It’s not cheap.”

It’s worse at holiday time. Roughly 74 percent of companies participate in year-end charitable drives, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, in Alexandria, Virginia. That doesn’t count the charitable causes that co-workers circulate on their own.

Workers also feel peer pressure to give gifts to their colleagues, bosses and underlings, with 12 percent of those who do give laying out $100 or more in workplace gifts, according to staffing firm Accounting Principals.

In the old days, companies often had entertainment budgets to cover costs for such celebrations. But in today’s penny-pinching workplace, such expenses more likely come straight out of employee pockets.

“Companies are not doing much of that anymore, and people are having to pick up the slack,” said Jacqueline Whitmore, president of The Protocol School of Palm Beach and author of “Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work”.

In one survey by the staffing firm OfficeTeam, 75 percent of executives reported that their employees were being tapped to cover costs like birthdays, retirements and anniversaries at least once a year.

But salaries have not kept up with the rising cost of cupcakes or the rising pace at which inter-office envelopes are sent from one cubicle to the next. Americans’ inflation-adjusted incomes dropped 7 percent from 2000-2010, according to the Census Bureau.

At some point, though, a line has to be drawn. “You do have to pick and choose,” says Whitmore. Here are some ways to do that without causing inter-office strife.

- Set a cap. Give yourself a strict budget to cover all office celebrations. That’s what Cothern does, limiting himself to about $20 a month. “I tell people that I have a budget for these type of things, and by the time they come around sometimes I have already spent that budget,” he says. “Most people tend to understand.”

- Take a leadership role. If you raise your hand and put yourself in charge of an office cash drive, you can set the rules. That’s how John Schmoll of Omaha dealt with the myriad requests coming his way, when he did back-office administration for mutual fund companies. “I always tried to lead things myself, in order to keep a handle on spending,” said the 39-year-old.

“Sometimes we would arrange a gift exchange with a low dollar limit. Or in collecting food for a local shelter, we would collect a very small amount from everybody, then I would use my Costco membership and go buy in bulk.”

- Go small. OK, so you can’t afford $20 for every little party or fundraiser that comes along. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t afford anything at all. Divvying up your contribution among more causes - a couple of bucks here, a few there -- will reaffirm you as a team player, without completely busting your budget.

- Innovate. Instead of celebrating everyone’s birthday, have a once-a-month birthday treat for the whole group, suggests Barbara Pachter, an etiquette consultant and founder of Pachter & Associates in Cherry Hill, N.J. “Otherwise, maybe you have 30 people in your department and they are asking for 30 different contributions. And that can end up being a whole lot of money.”

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Editing by Linda Stern and Dan Grebler)