Living out of a van, one college graduate pays off his steep student loan debt in three years. He shares the tale of his quest toward financial freedom.
Similar to many high school graduates, Ken Ilgunas dove blindly into college without understanding the implications of the student loan debt he would accrue. He spends the next years with a radically unconventional approach to affording his graduate degree: he lived in a van. "Cart Pusher," an excerpt from chapter 1 of Walden on Wheels (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 2013) introduces you to his budding frustration with the educational system.
April 2005 — University at Buffalo
Debt: $27,000 and growing
I dreamed of the grizzly bear. It was my only recurring dream. Ever since I’d turned sixteen, I would dream this dream over and over again. It was always the same: A half mile south of my parents’ home, in a neighboring suburban development, I’d happen upon a grizzly bear grazing on someone’s lawn. It would spring up onto its hindquarters, inspecting me from the top of his bulky blond tower of fat and fur. I’d look back at it, paralyzed, awestruck, exhilarated.
That was it. I had this dream repeatedly. And afterward — when I’d be lying in bed in that half-dreaming, half-awake state — the dream would feel so real that I’d often wonder if it was in fact a dream, or if it was a distant memory that I could only vaguely recollect. I’d always wanted to believe that I’d really seen the bear, but I knew that that was impossible because: 1) There are no grizzlies in the suburbs of western New York, or anywhere near New York for that matter; and 2) I’d somehow gone the first twenty-one years of my life without experiencing anything even remotely interesting.
It was my fourth year of college. Many weekday evenings and weekend mornings, I’d tie an orange apron around my waist and collect orange shopping carts strewn across a giant Home Depot parking lot in Niagara Falls, New York. I’d gather a dozen at a time, press them together, pivot them around curbs, and march them to the vestibule inside. When all the carts had been accounted for, I’d work inside the store, stacking lumber, folding cardboard, reorganizing shelves, emptying garbage bins, and lending a hand to any customers who needed help loading drywall or bags of Quikrete. I was a cart-pusher.
For your ordinary college student, pushing carts wasn’t the worst job local industry had to offer. I’d considered it a step above jiggling a we buy gold sign for the local pawnshop and a few steps below the indentured servitude of an unpaid internship, where students, though unpaid, could at least hope that their career paths were leading them to a more prosperous destination than stacking four-by-fours in the lumber department.
I spent upward of thirty hours a week at the Home Depot, making $8.25 an hour. I was certainly more frugal with my paycheck than your average student, yet these were my profligate years, when I wasted a good chunk of my hard-earned money on a daily Dr Pepper, the occasional CD or DVD or video game, or — if I had the weekend off — long road trips to get drunk with friends at distant colleges. Mostly, though, my money was used for responsible purposes, like paying the various bills needed to keep my car running and the occasional $100 here, $100 there “offering” to my already-massive and still-growing $27,000 student debt.
I was able to keep the car running, but what little money I was able to put toward my debt always felt negligible — pointless even. It was like throwing a glass of water on a burning building. It was a sacrifice to appease the gods, but a pitiful, emaciated, bony goat of a sacrifice. Such paltry offerings, I worried, might seem less a declaration of submission — which it was— and more an affront to the debt’s greatness, which just might make it angrier, prodding it to swell with interest.
There was no controlling my debt. It grew and grew and grew. It was a mountain of coins that rose with interest every month to such staggering Himalayan heights that it made me feel — when I thought of its immensity — small and weak and insignificant. It was huge. My debt was a black hole, a swirling abyss that sucked from my clutches all my hopes and dollars and dreams.
My debt wasn’t as bad as other students’ debts, but because I was soon going to enter the real world with an unmarketable degree (a B.A. in history and English) and because I had absolutely no idea how I was going to pay it off, the debt, to me, was more than a mere dollar amount. It was a life sentence. And soon enough, I’d be behind the bars of the great American debtors’ prison, alongside the other 36 million Americans or so who’d similarly sentenced themselves to decades of student debt.
I was worried about letting the debt get any bigger, so I pushed carts and pushed carts some more. I worked full time during winter and spring breaks, as well as on weekends. When I got home I would — inside a hoodie powdered with Quikrete and stained with paint — hurriedly leaf through textbooks and hastily type up research papers.
While I’d balanced school and work reasonably well in previous years, the lifestyle had begun to take its toll during my fourth year of college. I’d grown tired of spending a huge portion of my week at a place I hated. I tired of reciting the “Home Depot chant” at obligatory monthly store meetings. I tired of the bottom-of-the-food-chain position I had, which gave head cashiers the liberty to assign to me some of the more unpleasant tasks required to keep a big chain store humming, like removing dead pigeons from the lumber section, mopping up overflowing toilet water, and sweeping the remains of torn bags of concrete whose particles would dry out my eyeballs and coat my nose hairs with a pale gray pollen. More than anything, I tired of the winter holiday season, which, if memory serves me right, begins a little after Labor Day at the Home Depot. Upon listening to Gloria Estefan sing “The Christmas Song” for the third time in an hour, my mind would be consumed with morbid fantasies. I’d imagine myself derailing the toy train that chugged above the cash registers by whipping a hammer at it, or, better yet, hanging myself with an electrical cord from the rafters out of protest, if just to shame the suits in corporate into changing store Christmas music policy, thereby granting me the solace of knowing, in my dying moments, that I’d performed at least one useful service for mankind.
Between commuting to school, the long hours at work, the papers, and the exams, I had little time for study and hardly any for sleep. Like many college students, I began to decompose into a paler, flabbier, oilier, much more caffeinated version of myself. My eyes turned bloodshot, new wrinkles webbed across my face like creases in a catcher’s mitt, and my hair began to fall out. When I lay in bed reading, I’d obsessively pluck out what few chest hairs I had like some mistreated parrot. At some point, I’d picked up a minor case of Tourette’s syndrome, and when I thought no one was listening, curse words would dribble from my lips. In class, I had to fight the inexplicable urge to jam the point of my pen into the back of my hand.
I’d always considered myself “well adjusted,” so this whole falling apart thing was new to me. And the extent of my deterioration was especially made apparent on a morning in late April during finals week, when something rather unexpected and unbelievable and potentially life altering occurred.
I heard a voice.
At the time, because I didn’t yet have the luxury of hindsight, I’d failed to realize that my physical and psychological deterioration was due in large part to a decision I’d made years before.
It all began in August 2001, when I decided to participate in one of the great annual migrations known to man: alongside millions of fellow eighteen-year-old Americans, I had graduated from high school and was going to college. My high school class and I moved like a school of fish: we graduates were capable of going off on our own, in whatever direction we chose, but something demanded we all swim as one, curving, cutting, sashaying together, wiggling our way to college. Except for a few miscreants, we all ended up in college.
In high school, if someone asked me what my “plans” were, I’d click into brainwashed robot mode: my body would become rigid, my pupils would dilate, and in a monotone, I’d recite, “I-will-go-to-the-best-college-I-can-get-into. No-matter-the-cost.” At some point, I’d convinced myself that going to college was what I really wanted to do. So my best friend Josh and I migrated to Alfred University, a pricey private college in southern New York.
Josh had graduated from high school with high honors, which qualified him for a large financial aid package that reduced the cost of his tuition. My performance as a student, however, could euphemistically be described as “unremarkable.” I was ranked seventy-seventh of my two-hundred-student high school class and was probably regarded by my teachers to be just a notch above “slacker” — only slightly more capable than the students who were funneled into afternoon vocational programs so they could get a head start on their manual trade educations. I didn’t do clubs, didn’t do volunteering, didn’t do student government, didn’t do music. Apart from playing on the hockey and football teams, I didn’t do much of anything. I drifted through the weary waters of high school on a dinghy of disdain.
But after graduating from high school and learning how much I would have to pay for just my first year of college, I thought for the first time that maybe I should have spent the last four years of high school doing something more productive than spending my nights playing video games and masturbating till three in the morning.
My first year at Alfred would cost me $18,450.
It didn’t occur to me to think about how strange it was that the government, my college, and a large bank were letting me, an eighteen-year-old kid — one who didn’t know what “interest” was (or how to work the stove for that matter) — take out a gigantic five-digit loan that might substantially alter the course of my life.
Taking out student loans was a momentous event in my life, yet I don’t have the faintest recollection of the event. I know it happened because I definitely went into debt, but I don’t at all remember signing any forms, shaking any hands with financial aid officers, or noting the frown that was surely fixed on my mom’s face as she cosigned the loans with me — which was, by the way, probably a daunting prospect to her, as I’d given her no indication that I’d one day exhibit traits of industry, ambition, or responsibility.
I do, however, remember not hearing any warnings about the consequences of debt or the likelihood of a bleak post graduation job market. And I do remember hearing, from a chorus of voices, that “student debt is good debt” and that “money shouldn’t stop you from going to the school you want to go to.” Like everybody else, I listened.
I never actually thought about why I was going to college, or why I was about to take out thousands of dollars in loans for it. Like most eighteen-year-olds, I cared little for books, or higher learning, or anything that had to do with school. I was told that school was for “developing yourself” and “preparing for a career.” Why would I want to do either of those?
I hated school. We all hated school. Why were we all so willing to go back? For Josh and me, it probably had something to do with our image of what college life was like. We reveled in ludicrous fantasies of enjoying passionate and fleeting escapades with the opposite sex. We tacked a few posters of scantily clad (though hardly scandalous) women on our dorm walls, hoping the presence of their glistening paper bods would somehow draw real (hopefully glistening) women into our beds. Alas, our dorm room never quite became the laboratory for sexual experimentation we’d dreamed of. We liked to blame our failure on our embarrassing dorm decor, which matched because our mothers, regrettably, did our school shopping for us with each other, but the truth was, while color-coordinated lamp shades, rugs, and sheets certainly did not communicate prowess to the fairer sex, we failed to lure any girls into our room because we were both painfully shy, awkward, and boring.
See more from Ken Ilgunas in Utne's September/October 2013 issue with Getting Out of Student Debt and On the Road.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas. © by Ken Ilgunas. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest May 2013. All Rights Reserved.