Ken Ilgunas' unique approach to avoiding college debt

Determined to be debt-free, he lived in a van on campus for two years

When writer and adventurer Ken Ilgunas was accepted into a prestigious graduate program at Duke University in the fall of 2009, he knew his options were limited. He could go into debt for the second time in less than three years and live on the cheap like many graduate students. Or he could cut his expenses even further and move into a $1,500 used Econoline van (complete with window blinds and a fold-down bed) that he figured he could park on campus to avoid paying rent.

Ilgunas chose the van. Inspired by a 72-year-old SUV-dweller he met while working at a wilderness camp in Alaska, Ilgunas spent the next two years living frugally -- and mostly in secret -- in the middle of a Duke University campus parking lot. He cooked his meals on a portable burner he kept inside the van, showered at the gym and charged his laptop at the campus library.

Ken Ilgunas, author,
'Walden on Wheels'
Ken Ilgunas' unique approach to avoiding college debt
Ken Ilgunas' unique approach to avoiding college debt

After accumulating $32,000 in student loans to get his undergraduate degree -- and paying it off quickly -- Ilgunas tried a different approach when he returned to school for his graduate degree. He lived in a van for two years in a parking lot on campus.

"I made it my goal to do whatever it would take to graduate from Duke debt-free," wrote Ilgunas in his newly released memoir, "Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom."

Ilgunas had already spent the past two years working odd jobs in Alaska and steadily paying down $32,000 in student loans that he accumulated as an undergrad and was determined not to make the same mistake twice.

After graduating debt-free from Duke University in the spring of 2011, Ilgunas began chronicling his experience living in the van and, before that, in rural Alaska, where he put nearly all of his meager wages toward his loans. caught up with Ilgunas and spoke with him about his unique experience in combating student debt.

Q: You spent two years living in a van, without heat, air conditioning or running water. Was there ever a moment when you questioned whether it was worth it to stay out of debt? 

A: Never. Well, there was a moment when I got food poisoning, and another when the van was invaded by mice. But I don't think I questioned my experience for more than a few seconds -- even during some of the least pleasant moments. For the most part, living in a van was pretty boring, and, by the end, it just felt like an ordinary home.

Q: It was the only way for you to pull off graduating debt-free, wasn't it?

A: For the first semester, yes. I was broke and needed money. But I did have a good summer job as a park ranger, and I probably could have afforded an apartment in subsequent semesters. But I just got the hang of living in a van, and I preferred living simply than spending the extra money on space I ultimately didn't need.

Q: Your life at Duke was a lot different from what it was when you were an undergrad at the University of Buffalo and at Alfred. As an undergrad, you said you spent money without really thinking about it. Besides living in a van, what did you do differently at Duke in order to stay out of debt?

A: Well, I cooked all my own meals, which saved me a lot of money. After my first semester, I spent an average of $4.34 a day, which was pretty good considering my large appetite. I also kept close track of all my expenses, writing down everything I bought each night. This helped me keep track of my funds, but it also served as a warning not to spend money on stupid things.

Q: The time you spent working in Alaska and voyaging through eastern Canada taught you a lot about living simply. What were some of the key lessons you brought back from those experiences that it made easier to dwell in a van?

A: For one, I just became really critical -- contemptuous even -- of modern norms. I practically lived in the 18th century for one summer and was incredibly healthy and happy. I knew I didn't need a lot of the crap so many people spend their money on.

Q: Do you still try to live simply?

A: It's not that I try to live simply. I just do live simply. I'm not trying to live according to some code or ideal. I just like going for hikes and reading and writing. It's a pretty simple life. But that doesn't mean I'm averse to taking risks or stepping outside my comfort zone.

Q: What was it about your early experiences with debt that made you so determined to remain debt-free?

A: Well, if we let ourselves go a little into debt, we might allow ourselves to go a lot into debt. Best, I thought, to draw a line and create a goal for myself that, I knew, would be good for my future. Plus, I was intrigued by the challenge of graduating debt-free. I thought it might be fun.

Q: If you could go back in time to when you were a senior in high school, what would you tell your younger self? Would you try to warn yourself about taking on so much debt?

A: When I was 17, I was determined to go to the best school I could get into, regardless of the cost. This was obviously a stupid decision, since I went $18,000 into debt in just my first year. What's messed up is that I didn't even really want to go to school. I was most interested in getting away from home and meeting girls. I'd encourage my younger self to go travel and work for a year. That would have helped me scratch some of those itches, provided some interesting life experiences and allowed me to, upon coming back home, attend a cheap school, commute and graduate with a much more comfortable financial situation.

Well, if we let ourselves go a little into debt, we might allow ourselves to go a lot into debt. Best, I thought, to draw a line and create a goal for myself that, I knew, would be good for my future. Plus, I was intrigued by the challenge of graduating debt-free. I thought it might be fun.

Q: What was going through your mind when you first signed up for those loans?

A: Girls.

Q: So you weren't thinking about the actual costs of what you were signing up for?

A: I was aware of them, but I don't think I allowed myself to think about what the final debt amount would be. I figured I was looking out for my future by going to the best school I could get into. So the cost wasn't of huge importance to me. At 17, you have so much hope. You think that college will change you and make you marketable and get you a good job. This might be true to some extent, but rarely, I think, are our futures as rosy as we once imagined them.  

Q: You didn't get much help or warning about what you were getting yourself into, did you?

A: Not much. I think my mom had a glower on her face when I told her about my decision to go to an expensive school. But I didn't get much advice from my schools. Everyone was going away to school and spending a lot of money on it. It was just normal. And we all had a lot of pressure to make the best future for ourselves, and that often meant going to the best school regardless of the cost.

Q: You and your best friend Josh both graduated college with five-figure loans. But you were able to pay off your loans in a little over two years, while Josh's loans ballooned. What was different about your experience that made it easier to pay back your debt?

A: For one, my debt was half the size as Josh's. His was about $66,000. We also had different approaches to our debt. Josh was interested in getting a good job and climbing the career ladder. I was interested in taking any job I could to make payments. Josh struggled to find work and his debt grew in size because of accrued interest. I had mine under control from the get-go. Also, I chose jobs that offered free room and board, allowing me to put all my money toward the debt, while Josh was putting half of his income toward living costs.

Q: Josh's experience is a lot more typical, isn't it? While you were working odd jobs in Alaska, he was trying to find a stable office job with a salary and benefits.

A: Indeed. I didn't want to put 15 percent of my income toward my debt. I didn't want the 25-year repayment plan. I wanted to put all my money toward it and pay it the hell off as fast as I possibly could.

Q: You didn't start to use your degree until several years after you graduated. Even when you were working jobs that didn't need a B.A., were you still glad you had it?

A: I didn't care too much about the B.A., but I was always grateful for the education I got. As much as I tease my liberal arts degree, it probably did make my résumé look more appealing, and I certainly needed a B.A. to get my Park Service job, which was a great job, and one that helped me finally kill the debt. But from a less practical standpoint, getting my B.A. was an enjoyable undertaking and one that gave me an education that was, though of little economic value, invaluable in helping me became a more well-rounded person.

Q: Based on your experience, what advice would you give to recent grads who are struggling with huge amounts of debt?

A: Destroy all notions of entitlement. Be realistic, practical and, most of all, adaptable. Pay off your debt with speed and force. Throw everything you have at it. But keep a close watch on your sanity, too. Don't kill yourself with work. Always have something to look forward to.

Q: Do you have any advice for high school seniors who are considering going into debt in order to help pay for school?

A: Debt, for many, is unavoidable, even if you do live in a van. In fact, I think if you're a serious student, it'll be good for you to focus on being a student instead of working 30 hours a week at a part-time job. Because when we work a lot of hours in school, we're neither students nor workers. That said, don't go $50,000 into debt, especially for a liberal arts degree. And don't go to a for-profit school. Those degrees are almost all worthless and ludicrously expensive. Unless you're certain your degree will lead to a well-paying job, don't go more than $25,000 into debt. Any more than that, and it'll be tough to pay off.

See related: Using plastic to pay off student loans: bad idea, Infographic: In tough job market, student debt grows

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Updated: 01-17-2018