Petty Cash

Policy Statement

This policy establishes the proper uses and administration of petty cash funds.  When other disbursement methods cannot be used, petty cash funds can provide cash to local units to cover minor expenses, such as reimbursement of staff members and visitors for small expenses such as taxi fares, postage, office supplies, generally not to exceed $50; petty cash may also be used for human subject payments of $100 or less. The University requires each petty cash fund to have an approved Custodian, who documents expenditures, keeps receipts, and safeguards the funds.  Wherever possible, local units should use other disbursement methods (i.e., HCOM, PCard) instead of petty cash.

Reason for Policy

Petty cash funds provide a convenient way to pay for small expenses, but keeping cash in any office entails risk of misuse or theft.  This policy provides procedures designed to mitigate these risks.

Who Must Comply

All Harvard University schools, tubs, local units, Affiliate Institutions, Allied Institutions and University-wide Initiatives must comply.


  1. Understand appropriate uses of petty cash. Petty Cash is usually the mechanism of last resort to access cash for payments, when other disbursement methods are impractical or cannot be used. Petty cash funds must not to be used as an operating fund, i.e., to pay invoices for goods or services, to pay salaries or wages, or to make advances or loans. Petty cash accounts may be used to make cash payments to human subjects in accordance with the Human Subject Payment policy.

    1. Typically, units should use petty cash accounts to fund ongoing human subject payments for projects that last longer than six months, and a Short-Term Operating Advance (STOA) for projects that last less than six months. See the Short-Term Operating Advances Policy for more information.

    2. Business units should evaluate their business needs and limit the petty cash account to the lowest amount that will meet those needs.  Generally, Harvard recommends that the balance of a petty cash account used for minor office expenses should not exceed $500; petty cash funds used for human subject payments or other unique programmatic purposes may be higher depending on a department’s specific needs, subject to Tub Finance Office approval.

  2. Designate a petty cash fund Custodian.
    1. Each fund must have a Custodian approved by the financial dean or equivalent (or designee). New Custodians and changes of Custodians must be documented on a Petty Cash Action Form and approved by the financial dean or equivalent (or designee). 

    2. Custodians must be Harvard employees.

  3. Establish the petty cash account. 
    1. To establish a petty cash account, business units must submit a Petty Cash Action Form signed by the Financial Dean or equivalent (or designee) and a Payment Request in HCOM to fund the petty cash account. Business units should attach the signed Petty Cash Action Form to their Payment Request as supporting documentation. 

    2. Before completing the payment request (using object code 0013), preparers should contact their Tub Finance Office to determine if their tub has a designated Petty Cash approver. When completing a Payment Request using object code 0013, HCOM will populate with the preparer’s default approver; if the preparer’s tub has a designated Petty Cash Approver, the preparers should manually change their default approver on this Payment Request to the designated Petty Cash Approver. HCOM will then automatically build an approval path that all the way up to Strategic Procurement for final approval. 

    3. University Accounts Payable cuts checks to designated Custodians upon receipt of a Payment Request with an attached Petty Cash Action Form signed by the Financial Dean or equivalent (or designee). The check request is cut in the standard AP check process and is delivered by mail services to the Custodian’s departmental address.

    4. To simplify account reconciliation when there is more than one petty cash account in an org, units should distinguish between petty cash accounts by using other unique identifying chart values, such as an activity or subactivity value.

  4. Safeguard the cash.
    1. Keep petty cash funds in a secure area such as a locked drawer or small safe.
    2. Ensure segregation of duties. Custodians should not self-approve replenishments or other changes to the petty cash account.
    3. Reconcile the log of petty cash expenses to the amount in the cash box at least quarterly, or monthly if the petty cash account is associated with sponsored funds. 
    4. In the event of theft, the Custodian should notify his/her immediate superior as well as the University Police.

  5. Document expenditures and replenish funds.
    1. The local business unit Custodian is responsible for maintaining:
    2. A log of expenses on a Petty Cash Reconciliation and Request for Replenishment Form
    3. Receipts for each transaction, which may be subject to review by Risk Management and Audit Services.
    4. The Custodian is responsible for replenishing the account when a petty cash fund runs low. Replenishment with submission of receipts must be done at least quarterly. If sponsored funds have been used, replenishment must be done monthly.
    5. When petty cash funds are replenished, the total of the replenishment form cannot exceed the full balance of the fund.

  6. Evaluate need for petty cash account annually.  At least once per year, departments must re-examine whether the petty cash account is still required to meet the department’s business needs, or if alternative disbursement methods could suffice. Petty cash funds should be active. Inactive funds should be terminated by local units. Funds are considered inactive if they have no activity during a fiscal year.

  7. See the Detailed Procedures in Appendix A for step by step instructions on how to open, replenish and close a petty cash fund, change the amount of a petty cash fund or change a Custodian.

Responsibilities and Contacts

Tub financial deans or equivalent tub financial officers (or designees) are responsible for ensuring that local units abide by this policy and the accompanying procedures, and for approving Petty Cash Action Forms.  

Tubs are responsible for approving payment requests submitted to fund new petty cash accounts before the request is routed to Central Administration for final approval.  In some tubs, these duties are performed at the Tub Finance Office and in others at the departments.  Contact your Tub Finance Office for guidance.

Local units are responsible for deciding to establish a petty cash account and choosing a Custodian, weighing the relative risks and benefits involved. Units are responsible for collecting any required information and for completing and submitting all required forms, for ensuring that Custodians are performing their duties, and for collecting any unused funds from Custodians. 

Strategic Procurement is responsible for ensuring that payment requests submitted to fund petty cash accounts have an attached approved Petty Cash Action Form and for final approval of properly submitted payment requests. Contact: William Shanker, (617) 496-3335 or 

University Accounts Payable is responsible for processing vendor set ups and for processing the Payment Requests that fund petty cash accounts. Contact: (617) 495-8500 or

Cash Receipts Office accepts Credit Vouchers from tubs to process unused funds and credits to the appropriate petty cash object code as recorded on the Credit Voucher. Contact:, Cash Receipts Office, 1033 Mass. Ave., 2nd Floor. 

Petty Cash Custodians are responsible for ensuring that petty cash expenses are appropriate and in accordance with University and local policies, disbursing cash from a petty cash account, documenting expenditures and keeping receipts, reconciling the account quarterly (monthly, if sponsored funds are used), replenishing the account, and generally safeguarding the cash.

Risk Management and Audit Services is responsible for performing periodic audits on petty cash accounts. Contact: 617-495-3642 or


Custodian: an approved Harvard University employee who is responsible for management of local unit’s petty cash account.

Related Resources

Petty Cash Reconciliation and Request for Replenishment:

Human Subject Payments policy:

Short-Term Operating Advances policy:

Revision History

3/1/2016: Added guidance for when to use a Petty Cash Account for human subject payments versus when to use a Short-Term Operating Advance (STOA); created Petty Cash Action Form; lowered recommended operating account balance to $500; transferred responsibility for funding new accounts and closing accounts to the tubs, updated procedures; added Appendix A: Detailed Procedures for Petty Cash Funds, Appendix B: Petty Cash Action Form, and Appendix C: Petty Cash Reconciliation and Replenishment Form

6/30/2013: updated format and recommended dollar limits


Appendix A: Detailed Procedures for Petty Cash Funds

Appendix B: Petty Cash Action Form

Appendix C: Petty Cash Reconciliation and Replenishment Form 

See also: Policy, Payment