Alaska wilderness, cross-country voyaging and hitch-hiking, living in a van… and a mountain of college debt. Ken Ilgunas writes Walden on Wheels as a memoir of how he lived a minimalist life and worked tirelessly in difficult conditions in order to climb out of debt and into financial freedom, all while adventuring and attaining higher education.
Let’s take a quick step back and talk about student loan debt, because honestly that is the core motivator for Ken’s decisions in this book. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the national student loan debt is 1.41 TRILLION US dollars, spread among 44.2 million people. That’s more than the national credit card debt ($620 million among 196.8 million people). The average 20-30 year old pays somewhere between $200 – $350 every month to pay off their education, and most plans have the borrower paying off the debt in ten years, though the average bachelor’s degree takes twice as long to repay. I don’t know about you, but I find these stats both staggering and yet, unsurprising. It’s easy to spot the catch 22 of paying for an educational degree so that you can get a high enough paying job, just to pay off the degree. As a holder of an associate’s, I had a well-meaning professor ask, after explaining I couldn’t afford a bachelor’s, “Ah, but can you afford not to get your bachelor’s?”
College is expensive, and the job market is tough (don’t get me started on the ignorant adage of “lazy millennials”), making it difficult to find employment that can allow rapid repayment of student debt, while also maintaining a comfortable state of living. What I mean by that is, most college grads want to get a job, move out of their childhood home, and be able to afford things like utilities, a car, clothes, and social entertainment. This is where Ken (and a few of his friends/acquaintances) have decided to make extreme decisions in order to repay their debt- by cutting out the comfortable state of living.
Ken decided that instead of being like many average people, he wanted to repay his student loans as quickly as possible, instead of living with a looming $32,000 of debt. He just finished up his liberal arts bachelor’s degree, and was working at Home Depot. His paycheck would only chip away at his debt, and he wasn’t content with the stale life he was living- he wanted adventure, and didn’t know how he could possibly afford to travel. So he decided to abandon the middle-class comforts he was used to, quit his job, and got hired in Coldfoot, AK (population: 35).
From there, he learned how to live minimally, and because his food and lodging were paid for, and he had no other bills except his debt, he put every paycheck earned towards his loans. From there, Ken’s motivation stayed strong despite many difficult days in extreme temperatures, and he stayed in Alaska. His debt rapidly declined paycheck to paycheck, and he came to a point where he decided he wanted to be mentally challenged again. This lead him on many journeys- each one filled with just as much adventure as the first- and back to college as a graduate student.
Ken had paid off his debt, but taking on grad school would easily put him back in the red with the costs, so he decided that he would become a vandweller- living in a Ford Econoline in the Duke parking lot on less than four grand in his savings account. It wasn’t easy, but Ken knew that by graduation, he would have his masters and be debt-free if he succeeded. He also knew that above all, the most important thing he had learned was:
“We need so little to be happy. Happiness does not come from things. Happiness comes from living a full and exciting life.” – Ken Ilgunas
Ilgunas shares his story, which is both gripping, entertaining, conversationally written, and openly honest, to his readers, whom odds show have probably been in or are currently enduring the struggle to pay off their student loans. For me, he has rekindled my motivation to repay my own debts, which I’ve been slowly knocking out for the past six years. I’m on target to have them paid off in four more, but after reading Ilgunas’ story, I feel that if he can live so extremely, I can surely cut back more spending and put more towards my own debt mountain. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Walden on Wheels, and urge you all to give it glance. If you’re like me, you’ll be pulled in from the first chapter!