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!


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”

When paying more money is the most frugal option

My Hello Kitty-branded ICOCA card. This IC card works as a public transportation card and as electronic money in stores across Japan.
My Hello Kitty-branded ICOCA card. This IC card works as a public transportation card and as electronic money in stores across Japan.

I am back from my epic Asia trip, with the jet lag, farmer’s tan, and ample waistline to prove it. Most of the trip went according to plan, but there were some dramatic changes right at the beginning.

Just after landing in Japan, I learned that a typhoon was threatening the next two flights on my itinerary. The hostel I had booked in Okinawa even emailed saying that they would waive their change fees for the night that I had booked. This was not good news.

Should I call right then to rebook myself away from the path of the typhoon, or should I wait until the typhoon actually hit so that the airlines could accomodate me for free?

I ended up spending about an hour that night on Skype with a call center in Canada and paying change fees and new taxes on one of my airline award tickets. That, I believe, was the more frugal choice, though I could have avoided paying a dime!

My logic was this: do I really want to spend the first few days of my vacation worrying about whether or not I could make the next two flights? Not particularly. I was there to enjoy myself, and enjoy myself I would. Furthermore, if I decided to wait it out, I might have had to stay in the Osaka area on my own dime as the airlines sorted things out. That would definitely have cost me more money than I had planned to spend. In the end, the cost of the change fees was a drop in the bucket compared to the psychological cost of stressing out over this and the potential financial cost of waiting to get on the next flight out.

The story Continue reading “When paying more money is the most frugal option”

How to stop spending money on mediocre campus coffee

One more crappy student union latte now is one fewer flat white in Melbourne later. Photo by YJ.
One more crappy student union latte now is one fewer flat white in Melbourne later. Photo by YJ.

Like lots of other graduate students, I drink several cups of coffee or tea every day. Unlike a lot of graduate students, though, I’m almost never in line at the campus coffee shop. Why? Because the campus coffee sucks, and spending money on it adds up super quickly. With a little planning, I can spend far less money and get far higher quality coffee and tea.

Let’s say you spend $2 on a small coffee every weekday from the campus cafe, and that you’re on a campus with a 16 week semester. That adds up to $10 a week, $160 a semester, or $320 an academic year, all on mediocre coffee!

What else could you do with $320 a year? That money could go towards any number of higher priority goals. You could stick it in your emergency fund, save it for retirement, or spend it on something you really enjoy, like traveling or supporting your favorite charity. Heck, if you really love coffee, that $320 could go to multiple high quality espresso drinks at your local cafe, or a few bags of kopi luwak.

Instead of mindlessly spending $2 (or more) a day on coffee from the coffee shop, why not figure out how to save that money for a higher priority?

Here are some ways you could still get your daily caffeine fix without spending money at the cafe:

  • Bring it with you. For the first few years of grad school, I would make two cups of coffee in the morning: one for drinking at home before heading to campus, and one for packing in a vacuum bottle for drinking later. This was super easy when I used an automatic electric coffeemaker and pre-ground coffee. When I switched over to using an Aeropress and a manual coffee grinder, it got a little bit more complex, but it was still manageable in the morning. Nowadays, I put brew tea (in bags) in my vacuum bottle, which takes almost no effort at all.
  • Make it on the spot. If you have an office space, see if you can plug in an electric coffeemaker. Your colleagues will love you. The hardcore connoisseurs among you could use a plug-in kettle and your manual brewing method of choice. If you’re not so hardcore, maybe instant coffee (in jars or single serving packets) is the way to go. The great thing about bringing coffee with you or making it on the spot is that you can control the quality of the coffee, if that’s important to you. Even if you buy the most expensive beans from your local hipster roaster, chances are it is still going to be cheaper per cup than the mysterious industrial swill from the campus dining hall.
  • Keep it on hand. A few months ago, I brought back some Fererro Pocket Coffee from Italy and kept it in my desk for those times when I had forgotten to bring caffeine for the mid-morning slump. That stash, unfortunately, is long gone. These days, I keep small cans of green tea (bought in bulk from Amazon) in my desk. They’re instantly gratifying, and still far cheaper per serving than going to the cafe.
  • Buy it, but less often. I can’t stick to my own rules all the time. Sometimes, near the end of the term, there are genuine coffee emergencies. (You caffeine addicts out there know what I’m talking about.) It’s at those points that you’ll see me saunter over to the cafe like a zombie for a fair trade espresso. Even though I’m spending money on not-so-great coffee, I don’t feel so bad about it, because it’s an emergency and because I’m not doing this every day of the year.
  • Cut down on your consumption. Maybe it’s time to think about cutting down your caffeine consumption. Not only is it expensive, but it could also be causing physiological or psychological effects that aren’t so great. For various reasons, I’m now down to one coffee in the early morning and one tea for the mid-morning slump. I don’t know if it’s brought any health benefits, but I’m certainly buying coffee beans at the grocery store far less often!

Coffee is a small expense. But when you’re a graduate student making less than $25,000 a year (or going in debt for your degree), that’s an outsize percentage of your income. Think carefully about how you could use that money instead. Since I’m motivated by travel, I like to think that every insipid cup of mud that I buy in the student union is one less Turkish coffee I can sip along the Bosphorus, one less fika in a Stockholm konditori, one less ca phe sua da on the streets of Saigon. Do I want to spend that money now, or do I want to get better value from it later?

Introducing the Itinerant Egghead

Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne.
Century duck eggs (皮蛋) at the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne. Photo by YJ.

Hello, thrifty world travelers! I’m YJ and I’m an itinerant egghead: itinerant because I have an insatiable passion for travel, egghead because I’m a doctoral student trying to make a dent in the bubble of knowledge.

The Itinerant Egghead is a blog about how I make travel a big part of my life without breaking the bank. Wandering the globe is important to me, but so are career building, staying out of debt, and saving for other life goals.

Figuring out how to do all of that with limited time and resources is a matter of managing priorities. I’ll be sharing tips and strategies for making ends meet on a tight graduate student stipend/salary, as well as stories and pictures from my adventures across the US and around the world.

My general philosophy about travel and personal finance is that it’s all about your priorities and the best value option, given those priorities. I choose to spend more on certain parts of my life (e.g. travel) and less on others (e.g. transportation around the city when I’m at home). When I travel, I make similar priority judgments: high quality local cuisine and a well-located place to sleep are high priorities, while souvenir shopping and going to typical tourist attractions are lower priorities.

I’m all about making occasional travel a sustainable lifestyle choice that fits with your life circumstances today. Not everyone can afford to or wants to be a perpetual nomad, hopping from country to country and hostel to hostel. Likewise, not everyone can afford to or wants to live the luxury travel life, sipping champagne and showering in first class. For me, right now, the ideal is somewhere in the middle.

Some topics I plan to cover soon include:

  • General personal finance
    • How to manage your priorities and start saving
    • How to save money and drink better coffee
  • Travel
    • How to use the money you save on coffee to fly to Asia in business class
    • How to find good value in hotels, hostels, sharing economy room rentals, and couchsurfing
  • Grad student finances
    • How to find (and fund!) travel opportunities as a student
    • How to deal with insufficient summer funding

If you have some more suggestions, please let me know in the comments!