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?

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My epic Asia trip, and why I think business class is worth it (this time)

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Over the next few weeks I will be embarking on an epic trip around Asia. It’s epic for a number of reasons:

  • It involves 13 segments (flights) in a bit over three weeks.
  • 8 of those segments (including the longhaul ones) are in business class.
  • The business class segment I’m looking foward to the most is on one of EVA Air’s over-the-top Hello Kitty planes.
  • I only spent $277.67 on airfare in total. Most of this was on taxes and fees for miles bookings; the rest was on short flights on low-cost carriers.

Why this trip?

A few months ago I figured that July would be a good time, both personally and professionally, for a long-ish break. I had a bunch of miles to spend through various airlines and credit card programs (details to follow in later posts) and figured that I should go to Singapore, where I could stay with a friend.

Though I started with just one destination in mind, I eventually ended up with this massive, complex itinerary:

  • Los Angeles to Kansai in Japan Airlines business class
  • Osaka (Itami) to Naha in All Nippon Airways economy class
  • Naha to Taipei (Taoyuan) in EVA Air business class, connecting to Hong Kong in EVA Air business class
  • Hong Kong to Singapore in Singapore Airlines business class
  • Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on Tigerair
  • Kuala Lumpur to Penang on AirAsia
  • Penang to Singapore on Jetstar Asia
  • Singapore to Taipei (Taoyuan) in Singapore Airlines business class
  • Taipei (Songshan) to Shanghai (Hongqiao) in EVA Air Hello Kitty business class
  • Shanghai (Pudong) to Fukuoka in Air China business class
  • Fukuoka to Osaka (Itami) in All Nippon Airways economy class, operated by Air Ibex
  • Kansai to Los Angeles in Japan Airlines business class

Most of the complexity comes from maximizing award ticket routing rules. For example, the Naha, Taipei, Shanghai, and Fukuoka stops are all less than 24 hours, which were free to add to the itinerary using Air Canada’s Aeroplan miles. The Hong Kong stop was supposed to be one of these <24 hour stops, but I was able to extend it by another day because my original routing through Seoul was canceled due to MERS paranoia.

Business class? But YJ, you’re a grad student! How? Why?

Why would I pay the premium for business class instead of saving the miles for another trip? There were a lot of considerations:

From an economic perspective, it made more sense to fly in business this time around.

  • There’s no point in hoarding points. The airlines decide how much a mile is worth, and they can change the value at whim. A flight from the US to Japan might be 30,000 miles today and 150,000 tomorrow. If you have 50,000 now, you might as well spend it now.
  • A business class ticket generally costs up to twice as many miles as an economy ticket. Sometimes, the premium is even less. For example, one-way business class between the US and Japan is 50,000 American Airlines miles right now, versus 32,500 for economy. The cost in cash for a business class ticket, though, is quite a few times higher than for economy. So if you have the points to afford a business class ticket, then you’d get a better deal by redeeming for business class, in terms of cents per mile.
  • In many cases, the fees and taxes that you’d pay for a business class award ticket are exactly the same as for an economy ticket. Same amount of cash, several times the value.

Flying business also makes sense from a personal perspective.

  • I don’t know when my next big trip will be, and I don’t know what I could get with my miles by the time the next trip opportunity comes along. The graduate school lifestyle is an incredibly unstable one, and it’s hard to plan more than one school term in advance.
  • Having read so much about flying internationally in premium cabins, I figured I should try it out at least once, especially if I don’t have to pay cash for the experience.
  • In some odd ways, this is the more frugal choice. I value food experiences highly, and I expect that the food on all of the business class flights will be excellent, save the short hop on Air China. I will also save on food by being able to eat in the lounges while waiting for my flights. No need to pay for overpriced airport food or stuff convenience store snacks in the carryon!

In the posts to come, I will go into the details of getting the miles, selecting the destinations, and booking the trip. I’ll also review all of the flights and airline lounges and share some tips for saving money and maximizing value while overseas.

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?