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Living in a Van to Pay Off Student Debt

By Ellen Chang

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."

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