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”

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

FOTB_Idontknowhowtorelax

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

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?