Book Review: Walden on Wheels – One Man’s Battle to Beat Student Loans by Living in a Van!
July 10, 2013

We’re always looking for great information to present about dealing with student loans, so I was pleased when I came across this fantastic book by Ken Ilgunas: Walden on Wheels – On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom. Ilgunas’ story is a fascinating one because he was an average undergrad who accrued average student loan debt, but then went on to take extraordinary measures to eradicate his debt and along the way, changed his life. Please enjoy our discussion of Ken Ilgunas’ memoir for’s first ever student loan book review!

Once free of undergrad student loans, to afford a debt-free Master’s, the author bought and lived in a conversion van while attending Duke University. Ilgunas volunteered for medical studies, dressed from thrift shops and lived on low-cost food cooked on a camp stove in his van to avoid borrowing for college. When I first cracked open the book, I was expecting a dry recitation of money saving strategies or a radical narrative from a tree hugging eccentric. 

I was pleased to find I was wrong on both counts and was immediately taken in by this absorbing and well-written memoir of a young man’s journey of self-discovery. What I found immensely likable about the book is that Ilgunas talks openly about his financial situation and the often drastic steps he took to address it. He pulls no punches and offers a realistic look at the harsh choices he made to get and stay debt free. What’s impressive is that Ilgunas pulls this off without being preachy or annoying. His story – told honestly and humorously – is enjoyable and engrossing.

I couldn’t put the book down and reached out to the author for an interview as soon as I finished the last gripping page. Here’s our Q&A with Walden on Wheels author Ken Ilgunas on student debt featuring photos of his journey from debt to financial freedom… For most of our readers already in student debt, backtracking and going a more austere route to avoid debt isn’t possible at this point so they’re saddled with a mountain of debt. What do you think is the most important piece of budgetary advice you could offer a student loan borrower who’s struggling with their debt?

Ilgunas: Well, if you’re struggling, then maybe backtracking and taking the austere route is called for. In a nutshell, the key to paying off your debt is pretty straightforward: minimize costs and maximize savings. If you’re putting 50 percent of your earnings toward your living costs (apartment, vehicle, phone, etc.), I think that’s too much. We should be placing ourselves in situations where we’re putting 60, 70, 80, perhaps even 100 percent of our income towards our debts. The more we put toward our debt, the less we’ll have to spend in the end. The longer you pay your debt, the more you’ll pay because of accrued interest. Speed is everything. Plus frugality. I’d like to talk about budgets. You provide some very helpful charts in your book that lay out what you were spending and saving. Did you construct these charts and analyze your spending at the time or were these done in hindsight to inform your readers?

Ilgunas: A bit of both. I think I wrote out some of those charts for my blog, which inadvertently helped me organize my thoughts. I included them in the book because I liked how Thoreau, in very orderly fashion, listed his expenses in his book, Walden. Sometimes Thoreau can be a bit abstract, so I appreciated how down-to-earth and practical he could be, too. My book has plenty of whimsy and reflection, but I wanted a bit of practicality in it, too. Do you think it’s possible to deal with student loan debt without the harsh reality of a written budget? How important is budgeting to the student loan pay down mindset?

Ilgunas: I never had a budget, and I don’t think I ever will. I like to be a free person, and if I put up walls around myself (i.e. budget), I’d immediately want to push them down. Basically, I wanted to get out of debt real bad. And when I got out of debt, I didn’t want to go back into debt. So I didn’t really have self-created rules; just a broad overarching goal. But even the word “goal” bothers me a bit. Being debt-free was more like a value, a lifestyle, and I didn’t need to create budgets, or rules, or goals. Rather, I just followed my impulses, and that’s what led me to become a frugal, financially-responsible person. You made some tough choices that many people might find hard to swallow. You were eating food that most people who had money in the bank would not have, were showering in the gym, scrounging for clothes… With the idea in mind that most of our readers may not be ready to make the type of ultimate sacrifice you made, what are some middle of the road austerity measures you would recommend for the average borrower to help them deal with student debt?

Ilgunas: On a fundamental level, I think, first, it’s important that we ask ourselves what we truly need and what we think we need. Do we need a car, or could we get by with a bike and a bus pass? Do we need a gym membership, or can we just jog and do pushups? Do we need an $800/month apartment, or will we be okay in a $500/month place? As for some middle of the road measures….

Rent movies and order books from the library, or steal them off a friend’s Netflix account. Most classic books are available on Amazon for free. Don’t spend $100 a night at a bar; spend $15 on a 12 pack and hang out at your friend’s apartment. While you may want to buy nice clothes for work, you can get super cheap clothes at thrift stores, which can function as out-of-the-office or workout clothes. On the East Coast, with certain bus lines, bus tickets between major cities is absurdly cheap. Any chance you’re considering a doctorate and are headed back to vandwelling to finance a debt free PhD?

Ilgunas: If I ever go back to school (and I don’t see that happening in the future), I’d only enroll in a program that offered free tuition plus a reasonable stipend. Going into debt for grad school, for me at least, probably isn’t worth it. In light of the recent rate hike (doubled from 3.4% up to 6.8% for subsidized Federal loans) what is the key mindset or best tidbit of advice you would offer our readers who are dealing with student loan debt and are feeling hopeless and in over their heads?

Ilgunas: Think of the debt as an adventure, a mountain, a narrative. Make your debt into something more than it really is. Once you think about it differently, you’ll approach it differently. You need to be adaptable, creative, and thinking outside the box. You’ll begin to wonder, how can I limit my expenses? How can I put 15 percent more of my income toward my debt? Forget about the lifestyle you’ve become accustomed to and destroy any sense of entitlement for the finer things. If this doesn’t do it, and things are really bad, get involved in a government repayment program in which your federal debt will be relieved after 10 years of loan repayment and public service. What are you doing with yourself now? Hiking/exploring/more writing?

Ilgunas: I recently finished hiking the proposed and controversial Keystone XL pipeline, 1,700 miles from Alberta to Texas. I’m currently working on a book about that walk, and this fall and winter I’m thinking about going on a speaking tour.

If you’re looking to expand your horizons with a bit of summer reading that’s insightful, charming and an addictive read, check out Walden on Wheels. If you’re currently in the midst of your own student loan debt saga, see what is all about and how we’re helping borrowers every day. Use our free award-winning student loan management tool to get a real-time snapshot of your debt in our easy-to-use dashboard. I highly recommend Ken Ilgunas’ book Walden on Wheels for Kindle or paperback as a great addition to your stack of summer reading.