Living in a Van Was the Best Financial Decision I Ever Made

Ken Ilungas

By Ken Ilgunas, Special to The Motley Fool

On the first night I tried to sleep in my van, I was lying in my sleeping bag sprawled out on the backseat, parked in a mostly empty Walmart parking lot. I'd wake up every 15 minutes because I was nervous that the security guard driving past my van would knock on my door and make me leave.

My new home had 60 square feet and four wheels. While most people would consider living in a van an embarrassment, a low point, or even a "rock bottom," it would -- though I didn't realize it then -- turn out to be the greatest financial decision I'd ever made.

No one would end up waking me up in the Walmart lot, and, over the next two years, almost all of my other fears would prove to be entirely unfounded.

Debt-free; Dirt Poor

In January 2009, when I'd decided to move into the van, I was nearly broke. I had just $4,000 in the bank and no possessions other than a laptop, camera, cellphone and a suitcase full of clothes and a backpack full of camping gear.

I had next to nothing because I'd just finished paying off my $32,000 undergraduate school debt. Still, after two-and-a-half years of working, I wanted nothing more than to go back to school and get my master's degree in liberal studies at Duke University. But how could I afford tuition and not go back into debt?

My answer: a $1,500 '94 Ford Econoline.

I'd cook in it, sleep in it, study in it, and live in it. I'd do whatever it would take not to go into debt again.

Expense chartA Nation of Potential Van Dwellers

I'm not the only student in America struggling with the high cost of education.

Currently, there are over 36 million debtors saddled with more than $1 trillion in student debt. In 2011, two-thirds of graduating students left with an average $26,600 in debt.

But the problem isn't always tuition. The enormous cost of room and board -- averaging $8,500 a year for students living on campus -- can set students back just as much. For freshmen at Duke University, which would be my graduate school, the cheapest dorm option is $5,464 an academic year. The cheapest meal plan is $5,540 an academic year, or $27 a day.

By living in a van, I figured, I could reduce (if not entirely do away with) many of the costs that are drowning students in seas of red ink. And if I picked an affordable graduate program, then, well, maybe I could leave school with a debt-free degree.

Amazingly, it worked. This is how I did it:

Ken Ilgunas is the author of Walden on Wheels -- a self-deprecating travel memoir about his two-and-a-half-year journey to pay off his enormous student debt load. It's also about frugality, wilderness, the liberal arts, and living in a creepy red van.

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Mike Hudson

Van life is great! It really is a potential solution for cheap living and travelling. Pretty fun too. Check out my van life:

November 11 2014 at 1:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mike Hudson's comment
Jory Piccinino

Thanks for the inspiration. My friend and I are a couple poets who are wanting to pursue our passion, and we need what we're calling a "time-spaceship" in order to do that. A travelling street artist is selling us her van as soon as we can come up with the money (we've been unemployed as we've been developing our own career off the beaten path). The van's already been converted into a home, using wooden elements from her old house, including a fold-down kitchenette. So we're basically set as soon as we can get the money somehow. We wish to share everything we make and do, yet we want this balanced with having our own creative and healing sanctuary. One project we do is composing one-of-a-kind word art for each person we encounter, on a portable typewriter. We wish to do this for as many people as we possibly can, in many more cities than the one we're starting from. We'd like to blog about the experience on the road, too, which will be an element added to our current online hub: A crowdfund/donation page will be emerging for us in the next few days.

December 19 2014 at 2:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony Fourpaws

i'd bet my life that most of the people who look down on these decisions fell into the debt trap and are still working like a slave to pay off endless debt. oh yeah, they gotta work harder to get insurance for all of their crap too.

October 23 2014 at 2:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

masters degree in liberal studies. LMAO! no, really, laughing my Fuk|ng ass off! what an ldiot.

July 06 2014 at 10:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I love it! What a great story!

July 02 2013 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Good for him. It might have been uncomfortable but it worked for him..His determination proved to be a winner. This man will go far in our modern country. I would like to see him in 10 years. Bet he has a good job and no debt hanging over his head. Practise makes perfect. He might have been at rock bottom but it paid off for him. Way to go and good luck in the future. Thumbs up.

June 20 2013 at 5:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I drove the big trucks for 4 years. Yes you can live in a small space and be quite comfortable in it. But you MUST have a bigger goal to achieve. Ken Ilungas's was to finish college. Mine was to save enough money to retire.

June 20 2013 at 1:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Add a YMCA Membership and you can do a few laps in the pool before hitting the shower on your way to morning classes...........worked for me!!!



June 18 2013 at 5:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Andrew Reckles

probably not a big hit with the ladies.

June 17 2013 at 4:57 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Andrew Reckles's comment
Tony Fourpaws

yeah, especially the gold digging, stuck up snobby, fake ones with too much makeup and shitty attitudes. unfortunately he now has to deal with girls that are strong, smart and genuine. must suck to be him.

October 23 2014 at 2:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

u cant use the bathroom in it dont have so what do u

June 16 2013 at 2:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Living in a Van ...down by the river !!!! RIP Chris.

June 16 2013 at 12:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply