To save money, Ken Ilgunas lived in his van ( “an upholstered hermitage” ) while he attended Duke to get a Masters in Liberal Studies…and kept it a secret. Ken Ilgunas is the author of Walden on Wheels. My earlier post addressed the first half of Ilgunas’s story-how he got rid of his undergraduate loan debt.
He made several pledges to himself:
- First: “In order to live debt free in my van, I’d have to lie”. The first rule of van dwelling-is don’t mention the van dwelling.
- Second, he vowed not to accept any gifts, even though his mom offered to pay his rent so he didn’t have to live in the van.
“I didn’t think of a gift merely as a gift but as a debt with bow wrapped around it.” “When we accept a gift, I thought, sometimes we don’t just acquire a debt but an identity.”
- Third, he continued his life as an ascetic by giving up meat, dairy and beer; and joining the campus gym (for exercise and showers) . [I say ascetic for his purposes-not everyone who gives up meat is an ascetic].
The burden of lying by omission to fellow students about where he lived and being worried about whether the campus police would kick him out of his permitted parking space took a distinct toll on Ilgunas’s social life. After two months like this, he had a “surfeit of solitude”. When you read the book, you can see how he solved that problem.
In addition, he was living on $103/week, not counting tuition and other school fees. According to charts in the book, he spent $4.34/day average on food. For reference, the dollar amount for a person using SNAP (food stamps) is $31.50 per week or $4.50/day.
As listed in the book, his monthly expenses consisted of: car insurance $46, entertainment $33, vehicle costs/repairs $73, gas $23, misc. $65, food $132, cell phone $37.
Notice: no utility expenses, nothing on clothes, no long commute.
You might take a moment to jot down your own expenses and see if there is any place to cut without being as Spartan as Ilgunas. What I learned from the book is that many of us with “first world problems”, live a relatively easy life. For those of us with larger debts, Ilgunas demonstrates the value of being absolutely focused on one’s priorities and ultimately learns another lesson as well:
“If I wanted to stay close to nature and my true needs, I would have to continue to live a bare-bones, simple uncluttered lifestyle.”
Without adopting a ‘bare-bones’ lifestyle, there is value in seeing how others accomplished their goals. J. D. Roth, the founder of the finance blog Get Rich Slowly wrote about getting rid of his $35,000 in debt in 2007. Whether you choose to stop using credit; adopt a lite beer vs. microbrew budget; sell most of your possessions ; leave the country; or live on only one income (if your family has more than one revenue stream), there are other people who have vanquished their debt. It is very hard, but you are not alone (unless you want to live in your own van).
- Dorm, Shmorm: Meet the Guy Who Lived in a Van for Two Years During Grad School (business.time.com)
- Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts (atlasobscura.com)
3 responses to “Walden on Wheels # 2: Van Dwelling Grad Student”
This sounds like a very interesting book! I graduated with $36,000 in student loan debt in 2005, and had it paid off in 2010. Whew! Felt so great shedding that extra weight. Though I didn’t live in a van…
Wow-well done indeed!
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