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$66 per person a day for snacks?

NASA's overblown spending on a 3-day conference to train procurement officials contained some pricey personal-finance lessons.

By Karen Datko Mar 30, 2010 3:34PM

Question: How much did NASA spend on coffee, soda and snacks for a three-day conference in Baltimore to teach procurement officials how to determine a reasonable price for stuff they buy?


Answer: $62,611 total, or $66 per person per day -- some mighty pricey bagels, cookies and fruit.


This finding by the NASA inspector general, brought to light by The Associated Press, increases the sting I felt after figuring out I had underpaid my 2009 estimated taxes by $1,200. (No refund for me.) However, because we’re a personal-finance blog and not a government-waste blog, let’s put a PF spin on this and examine NASA’s spending mistakes.

The NASA inspector general report (.pdf file) focused on two conferences in particular, both held late in 2008:

  • The above-mentioned conference for 317 people cost $495,173, or more than $1,500 per person.
  • NASA spent $535,149 for an aeronautics conference in Atlanta for 650 people, including $58,415 for three breakfasts and one lunch for everyone there. Spending on light snacks and beverages was a comparatively modest $20 per person a day.

Among the inspector general's findings, from a PF perspective:


Stick to your budget. NASA rules allow $9 for breakfast and $13 for lunch in Atlanta, which would have totaled $26,000. “In addition, NASA could have saved nearly $50,000 if it had not included meals as part of the conference” and instead paid a per diem to the NASA employees who were among the attendees.


Compare prices. NASA officials didn’t follow federal requirements to compare costs of at least three possible conference locations.


If you can’t afford a vacation, have a staycation. NASA didn’t consider holding the conferences closer to where employees live so it wouldn’t have to pay for their lodging. It also didn’t properly consider using facilities owned by the government.

Track your spending. “Finally, NASA conference-planning officials and contracted event planners could not provide us with all of the supporting documentation for conference-related activities and expenses prior to completion of our audit work,” the inspector general report said.

Don’t rationalize your impulse buys. A NASA deputy chief financial officer said the snacks were purchased to keep the conference attendees from leaving in search of food.


He also said NASA would develop reasonable costs for future snacks. Maybe the procurement officials who attended the Baltimore confab can help.


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