This 20-Something Secretly Lived In A Van To Pay His Way Through Grad School

When Ken Ilgunas prepared to graduate from Buffalo University in 2005, he was completely oblivious to the debt hole he’d dug himself into. 

He had majored in the least marketable fields of study possible –– English and History –– and had been turned down for no fewer than 25 paid newspaper internships.

“That was a wake-up call,” he told Business Insider. “I had this huge $32,000 student debt and at the time I was pushing carts at Home Depot, making $8 an hour. I was just getting kind of frantic.” Back then, student loans had yet to become the front page news they are today. Ken could have simply deferred his loans or declared forbearance. He also could have asked his parents (who were more than willing to help) for a leg up. He could have thrown up his hands and gone to grad school until the job market bounced back. 

Instead, he moved to Alaska and spent two years paying back every last dime. And when he enrolled in graduate school later, he lived out of his van to be sure he wouldn’t have to take out loans again.

“I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. I didn’t even know what interest was when I was 17,” he said. “I just think that’s awfully indicative of the incredibly poor personal finance education young people have at that time in their lives.” 

In his book, “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom,” Ken chronicles his journey out of debt. 

He was kind enough to share his story with us this week. 

He'd spent a couple months working at a remote Alaskan truck stop the summer before graduating. So he called up his old contacts and landed a job as a tour guide, cook, and basically whatever the locals needed.

When his time was up in Cold Foot, he had paid off more than $18,000. He hitch-hiked back home to New York and then lined up a six-month stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Mississippi.

Two and a half years after hitting the road, he made his final loan payment. With interest, he'd paid down $35,000.

And he continues living a monastic lifestyle today.

But he wasn't ready to quit on his education just yet. 'I figured out two things on the road,' he said. 'That I was never going back into debt again, and that I was going back to school. I was just intellectually starved (living on the road for so long). I recognised that I wasn't speaking as clearly and my writing wasn't as good.'

He was determined to find a liberal arts program affordable enough to pay his way as he went. He settled on Duke, which charged about $2500/semester.

When he found an ad for a $1,500 1994 Ford Econoline on Craigslist, he knew he was home.

organisation was key.

He kept his laundry up front in the passenger seat.

He kept a headlamp charged up and ready for late-night study sessions.

He joined the campus gym for $34/semester, which gave him a place to shower.

He gathered drinking and cooking water there, too.

The library became his second sanctuary. He used the WiFi for schoolwork and charged up all his electronics.

He looked for odd jobs whenever possible, including working part-time tutoring kids at a local elementary school for extra cash.

The only neighbour to worry about was the occasional mouse he'd find creeping on the van's roof.

By his final semester, Ken had nearly made it. But he had just over $300 left to his name and still needed enough to last him a few months. So he turned himself into a lab rat for hire, volunteering in at least two dozen medical studies that paid $10 to $20 an hour for him to undergo cognitive tests, take experimental pills, and have his brains scanned in MRI machines.

He graduated May 2011 –– completely debt free.

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