A 21st century Thoreau on living debt-free

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    Ken Ilgunas spent two years working odd jobs in Alaska to pay off his undergraduate student loans, totally $32,000. Here he is hiking Brooks Range.

    - Ken Ilgunas

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    Ken hitchhiking from Alaska to New York.

    - Ken Ilgunas

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    Driving towards the Duke Chapel.

    - Ken Ilgunas

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    Parked in front of the Duke chapel.

    - Ken Ilgunas

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    Ken Ilgunas eats from his single pot in his van.

    - Ken Ilgunas

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    Ken says his van is slightly more crowded than a dorm room.

    - Ken Ilgunas

“For two years, I lived in a 1994 Ford Econoline van,” says Ken Ilgunas. “It was big, it was burgundy, it was $1,500 and it was creepy.”

Ilgunas made the van his home while he got his graduate degree at Duke. It was a part of a bigger obsession in his life: paying off his student debt.

“For the previous two-and-a-half years, I had been paying off my enormous $32,000 student debt. I was taking a lot of odd jobs."

Many of the jobs were in Alaska. While there, he figured out a couple of things about himself. First, he never wanted to be in debt again. Second, he wanted to go back to school to pursue a graduate degree in liberal studies.

“But how am I going to go to graduate school and not go into debt? And that’s where the van came in.”

Ilgunas says the van wasn’t that different from living in a dorm.

“It’s tighter, it’s a little more cramped," he explains. "It’s probably a little smellier.”

He survived using strict economy, cooking in a makeshift kitchen, eating meals of beans and cereal and showering at the gym.

The van was parked in a Duke parking lot. From the start of his experiment, Ilugnas wasn't sure how the school would react if they found out about his living arrangements. He had a permit, but nothing in the guidelines specified whether his experiment was actually allowed. He says he “was constantly worried and paranoid."

Keeping the secret from parking lot security meant keeping it from fellow students as well.

“You don’t realize it but where we live comes up in conversation pretty quickly," he says. "I would have to tell a preposterous lie or duck out of the conversation because I just did not want anyone to know what I was doing."

But in the end, Ilgunas got his degree.

"There were a lot of sacrifices, but it was better than going into debt," he says, even if that meant spending lonely nights in his van.

Would he do it again? Yes, he says, to stay out of debt. But would he do it forever? “I recognized a lot of the shortcomings of living in the van."

He’s since sold the van and graduated from Duke -- with money in the bank.

“Like Thoreau, I just had other lives to live.”

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.


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