Extreme Saving: A Man, His Van and Five-Figure Debt

In graduate school, Ilgunas lived in his red 1994 Ford E-150 Econoline van. Courtesy Ken Ilgunas

Millions of young Americans enter the working world burdened with five-figure student loan debt with no relief in sight.

That wasn’t acceptable to Ken Ilgunas. When he graduated from the University of Buffalo in 2006 as an English and history major, having $32,000 in college debt “felt like I was dragging a ball and chain and I wanted to be a free person,” he says. Paying off the debt wasn’t just his top priority. "It was practically my only priority.”

After graduating, Ilgunas did everything he could to kill off the debt, including spending a winter north of the Arctic Circle. Then, when he succeeded in paying it all down -- in just two-and-a-half years – he decided he wanted another pricey diploma, this time from Duke University in Durham, N.C.

The trick would be getting the graduate degree, a Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies, in two-and-a-half years without incurring any student debt. Ilgunas’s main saving strategy: Rather than pay rent and utilities, he would live in the red 1994 Ford E-150 Econoline van he’d bought for $1,500.

Ilgunas, 29, wrote about his debt-defying lifestyle in “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom,” which was published on May 14. Edited excerpts of an interview with Ilgunas follow.

Ken Ilgunas: There are obviously people leaving college with $100,000 or more in debt. But at the time, $32,000 was an enormous sum of money to me. The only job I had at that point paid like $8 an hour. I was pushing carts at the local Home Depot. The prospect of paying off a debt of that size was daunting.

Plus, I was graduating with a degree in English and history, which, though valuable to me, is more or less monetarily worthless. I was an editor for my student newspaper, so I thought I’d get into the field of journalism. I applied to 25 paid newspaper internships and got rejected from every single one.

The nearest store was 250 miles away. I couldn’t buy anything, and there was no temptation to buy anything.

So, I got a job at a work camp in Arctic Alaska. I was kind of demoralized, but once I got up to Coldfoot, Alaska -- the northernmost truck stop in the world -- I realized I had accidentally placed myself in a near-ideal situation to pay off my debt. Room and board were provided for free. So even though I made only $9 an hour, I was saving just about every dime.

The nearest store was 250 miles away. I couldn’t buy anything, and there was no temptation to buy anything. I didn’t have a car or any car payments. There was no cell service, so I couldn’t even have a cell phone plan. I made $18,000 that first year, and I put 95 percent of that toward my debt.

I worked at Coldfoot for a year. I started off as a tour guide and then the rest of the winter did a number of jobs. I was a garbage picker; I was a line cook at the truckers café and I did some maintenance work. After that, I worked for an Americorp conservation crew in Gulfport, Mississippi. Then I got a decent-paying job with the National Park Service as a backcountry ranger at the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska. I lived up in Coldfoot again, and that’s when I finally put an end to my debt.

The physical challenges of living in a van were not actually that difficult...the most difficult thing about living in a van was just the loneliness.

I realize my situation seems a little ironic because I went to a liberal arts school, racked up $32,000 in debt, and then the first thing I did was go back to school. But I was determined to get a liberal arts graduate degree debt-free.

I have little patience for critics who don’t see the value in a liberal arts education. We don’t mock people who have children -- and there’s no practical value to having children. We don’t mock people who play the guitar, or go on walks in the woods. Why should we mock people who want to learn about their world and learn about themselves?

The physical challenges of living in a van were actually not that difficult. When I was a ranger, I practically lived in a tent for a summer, surrounded by thousands of mosquitos. Compared to that, living in a van in North Carolina isn’t so bad.

The most difficult thing about living in a van was just the loneliness. Not only is it tough to make relationships when you move to a new place, but it’s even tougher when you need to keep your home a secret. The topic of where you live comes up very early in conversations.

It's a lot of work keeping living in a van secret. Every morning I'd have to make sure that no one saw me.

I was at Duke for two-and-a-half years. I more or less kept it from everybody for a year. It’s a lot of work keeping living in a van a secret. Every morning I’d have to make sure that no one saw me. It would often require me waiting in the van. At night, I couldn’t go in the van until the parking lot was more or less empty.

I figured I was going to get caught eventually, so why not just control the situation better? I wrote an article about it. I had 15 minutes of fame online, but on campus I was still able to live a pretty monastic, hermit-like experience. One lady called me ‘the van man’ when she drove by. Other than that, I was pretty much unknown.

I stayed in there for another year. Duke was actually cool about it. They made me move, but they gave me a new parking lot directly next to the campus police station. They made me sign a contract saying I wouldn’t sue the university if anything happened to me. Also, they made a law more or less banning future van dwellers. I was really upset about that, because it seemed that I was preventing future would-be vehicle dwellers from having their own experiments.

Just recently I walked the whole length of the [proposed] Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas. I’m writing a book on that now, while living on this tiny one-acre farm in rural North Carolina with a retired newspaper guy. I’ve lived here on and off for two or three years. It’s a great situation, because I have free room and board.

We joke that we’re monks, but it’s not far off. We have a big garden, an orchard and chickens, and we’re thinking about bringing in a couple goats. It’s fun.

I try not to make presumptions about what I’m going to want in five years time, because we’re always changing. A family and an actual home that doesn’t have wheels? That’s certainly a possibility. But I can pretty much guarantee that I’m not going to be living the life of the rich and famous. That’s for sure.

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