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Living in a Van to Pay Off Student Debt

Ellen Chang

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NEW YORK (MainStreet)—After racking up $32,000 in student loans to obtain his degree in English and history at the University at Buffalo in 2005, Ken Ilgunas knew he never wanted to repeat that experience.

Over the next two and a half years he dedicated himself solely to paying off those loans by working various jobs unrelated to his degree. He took a job as a park ranger in Alaska and even took on a job as a local tour guide. Ilgunas also spent six months in Mississippi as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

Along the way he met a 72-year-old man named James who lived in his 1980 Chevy Suburban in Alaska even when the temperatures dropped to 60 below. Ilgunas also traveled within the state and met people living in villages who lived sparsely by growing their own food and generating their own electricity.

Meeting the Alaskans sparked an idea within Ilgunas, who wanted to obtain a graduate degree. He chose Duke University, because he could obtain a master's in liberal studies for $2,500 per semester, one of the most economical options he could find.

The only obstacle remaining was the cost of renting an apartment or living in a dorm. Ilgunas decided to eliminate the cost of living, so he bought an old van and made it into his living quarters for the next two and a half years.

"I don't think there was a specific turning point," he said. "The decision was the result of a very gradual change in character. It was all very novel and new to me, and being exposed to these new ways of living was enlightening."

Ilgunas, who is 29, chronicles how he easily adapted to cooking and living in the van secretly, showering at Duke's gym and studying in the library for hours on end in his book, Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

"By the time I paid off my debt and wanted to enroll in grad school, I was used to a fairly rigorous physical life, so I really didn't want to live in a plush apartment," he said. "I thought of James's Chevy and figured that if he could live in his vehicle in the arctic, I could live in a van in North Carolina."

Challenging conformity was a daunting task, but Ilgunas never wavered in his decision. It was a lonely pursuit, but the New York native focused on finishing his education and working part-time by tutoring students or volunteering in paid medical studies.

"I had no choice but to maintain discipline," he said. "I was close to bankrupt for much of my first semester, so I just didn't have the money for unnecessary things or to go out to eat. After a while, once I got used to the van's inconveniences."

Most students are woefully unaware of the ballooning effect of student loans or credit card debt, how interested is calculated or why they should keep their borrowing to a minimum, Ilgunas said.

"Going into college, I knew almost nothing about these things," he said. "I didn't even know what 'interest' was. I'd had minimum wage jobs, so I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the value of a dollar. But that didn't at all prepare me to think through taking out a five-digit loan. My priority at the time was to get into the best school I could, no matter the cost, which is not advice I'd give to young folks now."

With funding to state college and universities being reduced and the cost of tuition being increased since many institutions are building "lavish new facilities," students need to learn the basics of finance, Ilgunas said.

"You have high tuition and 17-year-olds making financial decisions while the concept of 'debt' is still very abstract to them," he said. "This is why I went $18,000 in debt in my first year alone."

Instead of accruing thousands of dollars in student loan debt, Ilgunas advises students to seek alternatives for a good, yet affordable education. Since many students cannot avoid having to take on debt to pay for college, Ilgunas recommends that students limit the total amount to $25,000 or less and to consider whether their field leads to a career with a decent salary.

"Of course, I would suggest taking out no loans, but that's probably not realistic for most people," he said. "Leaving with more debt is reasonable for people studying things that will lead to a lucrative career. I would definitely suggest not taking out $50,000 in loans if you're studying the liberal arts."

The two and half years Ilgunas spent at Duke was an experience that changed his outlook on life and money.

"As for money, I learned not to always crave what I didn't have, but to be appreciative for what little I did," he said. "My experiment could have been a total failure. I don't think I'd move back into a van unless I had to."

Pursuing your dreams can result in a fulfilling experience, he said.

"I learned that it's O.K. to follow through with my crazy ideas," he said. "Naturally, I felt a little reluctant at first, because there were so many 'unknowns.' If I could go back in time to when I enrolled in school, I'd absolutely do exactly what I did. I don't regret a thing. I learned a lot at Duke, but I arguably learned more about myself with my experiment."

Even students who have amassed a large amount of student loans can become debt free, Ilgunas said. Changing the outlook on how you view debt is the most critical element.

"Think of your debt as a sworn enemy and indebtedness as a life and death situation," he said. "You need to reframe the way you think about debt. You need to hate your debt. You need to get obsessed with it. Despise it. Anthropomorphize it."

Paying only 15% of your income toward loans like some financial experts recommend is not adequate, Ilgunas said.

"Do everything you can to put 100%," he said. "If your debt was truly a life and death situation, what would you do? You'd dumpster dive, you'd hop trains, and you'd live in a van."

People should feel an obligation to pay off their student loans in a timely fashion so they can be "free," and avoid accruing large amounts of interest, Ilgunas recommends.

"We live in a free country with hardly any free people," he said. "Everyone's paying mortgages, car payments and student debts. I think we'd be better off, individually and collectively, if we had less bills and more time to be free people. Taking the '25 year payment plan' sounds insane to me. It is best to begin to work immediately after graduating and pay it off as swiftly as you can."

After graduating from Duke, Ilgunas embarked on another adventure and walked the length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to Texas.

Ilgunas found inspiration and courage from several authors, especially travel narratives such as Peter Jenkins's A Walk Across America, which shares the story about a young man going on an adventure.

"I've really benefited from authors who've shared their stories," he said. "I think we need memoirists - people who are willing to share their lives in an uncensored way. When we see someone else's soul, we see a bit of our own."

Ilgunas, who is now living in Stokes County, North Carolina as an adventurer and writer, is writing a book about his hike, tentatively titled Trespassing across America.

"I'm not at all opposed to making money," he said. "Without money I wouldn't have independence. But, I am in no hurry to buy a new car or home. I like being able to move around a lot, and I can't do that when my home is fastened to the ground."

His experience at Duke has sparked interest from college students everywhere, many of whom experienced the same situation as Ilgunas.

Living debt free should be a personal challenge for everyone, Ilgunas said.

"Forget the formula," he said. "Be creative. Don't think of your crazy dreams as 'crazy,' but as messages from fate calling upon you to do something grand."

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet