Grad student lives in van to avoid debt


Photo credit: Ken Ilgunas

How far would you go to avoid student debt? For one graduate student, the answer to that question was to live in a van:

Duke Grad Student Secretly Lived In a Van to Escape Loan Debt (

After struggling to pay his undergraduate loans, Ken Ilgunas wanted to return to school but didn’t want to accumulate any more debt. So after he enrolled at Duke University, he bought a $1,500 1994 Ford Econoline, parked it in a remote parking lot, and lived there for two years.

He assembled the van into a living space: taking out backseats for extra room, using plastic bins for storage, keeping his laundry in the passenger seat, and cooking on a backpacking stove. He also used Duke’s facilities — like the library and gym — for Wi-fi, electricity, and water.

While Ilgunas was using his unconventional domicile to avoid debt, he also perceived it as a Walden-esque adventure — inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s solitary life in the wilderness — as well as an experiment of how to maintain financial independence by spending as little as possible:

The van was more than just a way to save money. I wanted it to be an experience, to see how little I could spend. I didn’t want to be borrowing money from my parents any time I had a hardship.

Ultimately, Ilgunas’ life in his van — combined with the money he earned as a part-time tutor and lab rat for hire — led him to graduate without any debt. He has since written a book that details his experiences as a van-dweller, Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom.

About David

I'm an aspiring writer and filmmaker in my twenties. I also run a blog where twenty-somethings share their stories and advice on beginning a career in this economy. Check it out at

Posted on March 10, 2014, in News & views and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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