Don’t throw those beer bottles in the recycling bin!

Returning bottles in the US might not be as profitable as it is in Norway, but something is more than nothing! Photo by Dianne Yee (Flickr/Creative Commons).
Returning bottles in the US might not be as profitable as it is in Norway, but something is more than nothing! Photo by Dianne Yee (Flickr/Creative Commons).

When I lived in Norway, I hardly ever bought bottled or canned drinks. Everything in Norway is expensive, but alcohol and soda were especially expensive relative to the cost of other groceries. Whenever I did buy a drink, though, I would always take the bottle back to the supermarket for a return on the bottle deposit.

As the video below shows, you put the bottles into the machine, the machine scans to make sure that the bottle was subject to the bottle deposit, and then it spits out a receipt that you can use at the store that houses the machine.

A bottle ≤500ml gives you 1 krone (~12¢ USD) back, and anything >500ml gives 2.50 kroner (~31¢ USD). If I took a few of my bottles and some of my flatmates’, I’d get quite a bit of cash back!

Here in California, we have a similar bottle deposit system. California Redemption Value (CRV) is 5¢ for containers <24 ounces and 10¢ for anything ≥24 ounces. It is a bit less convenient to return bottles here, in that bottle recycling centers aren’t as common and aren’t open all the time. I’m too lazy to return the bottles myself, so I let my roommate take care of this. When our communal bin of bottles gets full, she’ll drive them over to the nearest recycling center and get a redeemable receipt. Each load yields $5-10, depending on how many containers were in there. Not a bad way to save (or earn, depending on your perspective) a bit of cash!


5 tips for saving money on weekday lunches

You might not have the time, skill, or inclination to pack a lunch as pretty as this one. But you should be packing your lunch, regardless! Photo and bento by Amorette Dye (Flickr/Creative Commons).
You might not have the time, skill, or inclination to pack a lunch as pretty as this one. But you should be packing your lunch, regardless! Photo and bento by Amorette Dye (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I have a confession to make. I broke my rule of not buying food on campus (an extension of the no campus coffee rule). On Friday I paid $3.99 for some bland turkey breast, tough brussels sprouts, and so-so sweet potato mash from an eatery run by the university. It tasted okay.

I didn’t even break the rule for a good reason. Sure, I had to eat my lunch during a meeting, and most of the time I pack pretty pungent lunches. But I certainly could have spent some time Thursday night making a non-smelly lunch for the next day.

I broke the rule because of a coupon. The normal price would have been $6.99, but I happened to have a coupon for $3 off.

Here’s the thing with coupons: they’re sneaky. If I had thought about it carefully, I would have realized that I wasn’t saving $3. I was spending $3.99. If I tallied up the cost of packing my own lunch, it would have come up to way less than $3.99, and I would have been able to control the portions, flavoring, and nutritional content.

Most lunch options on my campus cost around $7. Assuming that a term is 16 weeks, and that I buy lunch on campus Monday-Friday for the entire term, that is $35/week or $560/month on lunch. A generous estimate of what the average PhD student on my campus makes after tax is $1,800 a month. That is 31% of take-home pay going to weekday lunches!

And yet I see other graduate students buying lunch all the time. Some might buy coffee on campus, as well. They’re spending way more of their money on mediocre food than they should be. Often, they don’t even know how much money it is. It’s just an automatic decision. When I talk to them about bringing lunch, they all seem to be on board with the idea, but claim that they’re too busy to pack their lunch, or that they don’t know how to cook, et cetera, et cetera. The litany of excuses is never ending.

Just think about what you could do with an extra $500 or so a month. (I’m arbitrarily subtracting $60 to account for the cost of groceries that turn into packed lunches.) You could save it for retirement (Emily at EvolvingPF has a great overview of how and why to do this), pay down your student loans, or save it for a memorable trip. You could use it for a purpose that really matters to you.

With that said, here are some tips for saving money on lunch. Students, underpaid entry level workers, and everyone else, take note:

Continue reading “5 tips for saving money on weekday lunches”

Amazon Student: $5 credit when you buy $25 gift card

If you’re an Amazon Student member with a free or paid membership to Prime, you could get a $5 credit when you buy a $25 gift card and enter the promo code STUDWEEK. Provided that you don’t need same-day shipping, the card ships for free. The offer ends on October 9.

If you pay for your $25 gift card with a Chase Freedom credit card, you could get an additional $1.25 off. That’s because they’re giving 5% off Amazon purchases between October and December. You’d end up getting $30 of credit that you can use on Amazon purchases for a total cost of $23.75.

Books don’t spark joy? Throw them out

Photo: Emma Story (Flickr/Creative Commons).
Photo: Emma Story (Flickr/Creative Commons).

I’m a recent convert to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method of decluttering. Her main idea is that if an item does not “spark joy,” it really has no purpose in your life and ought to be discarded. I started using this method with my clothes, and now I’ve moved on to books.

Over the course of my time in graduate school, I’ve accumulated a lot of books. Books that I needed for class. Books that I thought I good academic in my field should have. Books that people told me I should keep for reference. I spent a lot of money on these books and started building myself a tiny library of these obscure tomes.

The problem was that I never opened any of those books after the first read. Actually, never mind–there were some books on my shelf that I never actually opened at all. Obviously, none of these books sparked joy.

One evening a few weeks ago, I went over to my bookcase and went through the collection. If I saw a concrete need to use it again, it stayed on the shelf. Everything else came down. A pile of books started growing on the floor. I typed out the titles of the books that were on the floor and posted them on Facebook. “Academic books. No longer sparking joy. $5 each.”

Most of the books were snapped up pretty quickly. The $5 asking price did not hurt. Since they were mostly obscure books of dense academic drudgery, they all went to other graduate students that I knew. I could have sold them for market price if I had put them up online, but I figured that I did not want to go through the hassle, especially for books that have such a limited market.

Besides, my goal was not to make tons of money here, though the money I got back did help me pay for other things that I did need. These books were no longer serving me, so I wanted to circulate them to people who could potentially use them. More likely, though, these books will just sit on someone else’s shelf, still not sparking joy.

A life with fewer physical things is also a more frugal life. Instead of buying things by default, I’m starting to think about whether I actually need these things and whether I can get the same thing for less money. For example, I’ve decided that I am no longer going to buy books, unless I can convince myself that I have a real need for a permanent copy of it. Most books can be borrowed for free through a library. Other books might be available in a digital format like Kindle (though getting Kindle books would still cost money).

Have you tried the KonMari method? What things have you thrown out, and how have you learned to live without them?

Quick tip: grow scallions in water

Photo: Janet Lackey (Flickr/Creative Commons).
Photo: Janet Lackey (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Several of my local grocery stores had scallions on sale this week, $0.99 for 3 bunches (or $0.33 a bunch). I bought one bunch at a local Korean market and promptly cut them in half: one half was all green, and the other half was both white and green. I chopped up the all-green half and put it in Tupperware for later use. Then I put the white parts (with the roots intact) in a mason jar with a bit of water and stuck the jar near the window. Why? Because scallions will keep growing in water!

As a single person cooking for one, it’s pretty hard for me to finish a whole bunch of scallions. I usually just need one or two sprigs, but they’re always sold in bunches. They seem to wilt in the refrigerator very quickly, too. I used to think it was a waste to even buy scallions until I discovered this water-growing trick on the internet.

You may be able to do this even if you don’t have a sunny window for  your jar of scallions. It has worked for me it in the middle of winter in southern Norway, where there is just a few hours of sunlight a day.

Making the most of your travels—lessons from Fresh Off the Boat


In a recent episode of the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, the Huang family goes on vacation. Most of the jokes in this episode come from Jessica (the mom) and Louis (the dad) and their wildly different ideas about what it means to go on vacation. Surprisingly, there are a lot of personal finance and travel lessons to learn from the Huangs’ wacky trip to Gator World.

First things first: take time off.
The episode begins with Louis packing for what is ostensibly a “business trip.” Jessica notices that he packed his swimsuit (an odd item for a business trip, in her mind) and confronts him about it. She thinks that vacations are a waste of time and money for a large family with a restaurant to run. To ensure that he has nothing to hide, she tells the rest of the family that they’re all going to tag along on this business trip.

When they make it to the theme park resort where Louis was to have his “meetings,” Louis reveals that this was indeed a boys’ weekend away. Jessica is satisfied that she blew his cover, but now has trouble getting herself in the vacation mindset that she’s dismissed all along:

“I don’t know how to relax. It seems like a waste of time. I could be marinating meat or driving.”

Louis makes her get a massage, which changes her mind entirely. She finally comes to understand the importance of taking time off and letting go.

Lesson: Self-care is important. No matter what kind of work you’re doing, you can’t be at the top of your game if you don’t take some time to take care of your physical, emotional, and social needs. If traveling is something that meets those needs for you, that’s great! Start saving for travel so that you can afford to reward yourself with a trip to somewhere you want to go.

However, travel is also a big investment and one that doesn’t happen all that frequently. Smaller, more frequent investments in self-care (taking the weekend off to spend with friends and family, perhaps, or having a spa day at home for yourself) are just as important.

Continue reading “Making the most of your travels—lessons from Fresh Off the Boat

The fancy-frugal way to get to and around Japan

JR local train in Kyoto station.
JR local train in Kyoto station.

I’ve wanted to visit Japan for years. As an Asian American kid in the late 90s and early 00s, Japan was the epitome of Asian cool. I watched a ton of anime, listened to J-pop, and did every school project I could on Japan. I even took Japanese at the community college for a semester, which came in handy on this trip.

Japan has a reputation for being an incredibly expensive travel destination. This year, though, the exchange rate has been very competitive for Americans, with 100 yen being a bit over 80 cents USD. And since I had just enough American AAdvantage miles to take me to Japan, I figured that this was the right time to go.

The problem

Food, accomodations, and the like might be cheaper in Japan for dollar-earners now, but getting there is just as expensive as ever. I could only go during the summer, when airfare costs are sky high. I knew from internet research that domestic flights and bullet train tickets in Japan are also very expensive. How could I save money on transportation?

The parameters

  • I wanted to spend as little cash as possible in getting to Japan and back.
  • My dates were flexible.
  • I was okay limiting myself to one region of the country. (Given my proclivity for travel, this trip to Japan was not going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m sure I’ll be back some other time!)
  • If possible, I’d like to travel in comfort.


  • I had enough American AAdvantage miles to get to and from Japan in business class.
  • I also had enough Air Canada Aeroplan miles to get around Japan and Asia in business class.
  • I wanted to spend less than $500 on airfare for the entire trip (preferably much, much less).

The solution
Continue reading “The fancy-frugal way to get to and around Japan”