Gifts for Natives: Financial Urban Legend?

I’m a big fan of urban legends, financial and otherwise. You learn so much about people’s fears, paranoias, confusions, etc.

Here are a few examples from Snopes:

  • U.S. law specifies that a creditor does not have to accept more than 100 pennies towards the payment of a debt or obligation.
  • The letters ‘JS’ on the U.S. dime represent the initials of Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
  • A significantly large percentage of U.S. currency bears traces of cocaine.

Okay, the first two are myths, but the third one turns to be true.

Anyway, I recently ran into the story that National Geographic expense reports included a line for “Gifts for natives”. According to the story, decades ago that was common, but an increasingly populated planet meant that National Geographic journalists & explorers no longer needed to give natives gifts, so it became disallowed as an expense, disappearing as a line item from expense reports.

It’s a great story. It’s so good that it falls into the category of “too good to check”, an anecdote so apt that one doesn’t want to find out if it’s false because it would be a huge pain in the ass to come up with a better one. Sometimes, however, you just have to check, damn it.

So … is it true? Did the National Geographic really have an expense line for “Gifts for natives”? I checked around, looked for an example of such forms, and couldn’t find it. I emailed National Geographic, getting myself into an amusing conversation with a senior communication person there who seemed to think he was being punked. After some back and forth, however, and after some consulting with an archivist there, the answer seems clear: No, there never was a line item for “Gifts for natives”. Yes, now and then people might have actually expensed some strange things, but it was never (I’m told) a formal line item.

Another financial urban myth bites the dust. Sorry about that. If you have more, send ’em my way.


  1. Reminds me of a favorite anecdote that highlights the chasm between sales and accounting functions in a typical company. The subject matter gives you an idea of how old it is:

    Salesman makes a trip to Chicago, and once he gets exits the station in the wind and cold, realizes he left his hat at home. Not wanting to suffer needlessly and arrive at his appointments a mess, he buys a smart but economical hat, and goes about his business.

    Upon returning to his office, he files his expense report for the trip, including a line item "1 hat, $20". A few days later the expense report is returned from accounting with a note: "Expensing of personal items is not permitted. Please resubmit without the hat."

    Later that day, accounting receives the updated expense report, complete with proper receipts and documentation, and minus the line item for the hat. The total amount of the expense report, is the same as previously submitted, and a note is attached reading: "Find the hat."

    There's probably a modern equivalent about – oh, I dont know – iPhone chargers, but who would believe it…

    • heard the same story with Raincoat… My version, while travelling in India during the winter used orniary black and yellow cabs (over a two week period generated about $50 in taxi expenses, but these guys did understand the meaning of receipt). Needless to say that when i presented the expense it was rejected.

      the following month went back to India, used hotel cars at $150 a day… claims department questioned my expenses — said I would have used a yellow and black cab, but since it would have been my dime… I used the hotel cars because they gave official receipt… the manager gave me a dirty look, but since he was the one who said my cheap taxi was not acceptable without receipt….

  2. Funny enough, in Canada and Australia pennies are legal tender only to a certain amount. My guess because some years ago some guy decided to pay his taxes with pennies…

  3. Where/how did they expense the bribes? (a very necessary and important payment in some parts of the world)

  4. Thank you smurchie
    Thanks for sharing valuable information.