Nonfiction Nagging: Walden on Wheels

Yesterday I finished Ken Ilgunas' Walden on Wheels, his story about how he handled his post-college debt (over $30,000 after his undergraduate). Part memoir, part travelogue, Ilgunas writes with an honest, fresh perspective about money, the post-collegiate experience, and discovering one's identity. 

Ilgunas' anxiety over his student loan debt reached a peak upon graduating, realizing that he didn't have anything lined up post-commencement. Adding to this worry, was his mother's sense of panic- she had cosigned, after all. Ilgunas decides that he will pay off his debt as quickly as possible, living in voluntary poverty until the his mission has been accomplished. He finds his way to Alaska, a place he had wanted to visit for years, leading guided tours, cleaning, and cooking. He slowly starts paying his debt down and stays through the winter months. And thus begins Ilgunas' journey that includes hitchhiking across the country, rowing for months, working in Hurricane Katrina clean-up areas, staying with a friend in Denver, and dealing with his parents' concern for his alternative lifestyle. 

Eventually, Ilgunas does pay off his debt and decides that he wants to go to graduate school without accumulating anymore. He's accepted into a liberal arts program at Duke and decides to live in a van (hence the title). Something that sounds so simple ends up being incredibly difficult on sanitation, emotional, and logistical levels. Living in a van can be smelly and lonely.

Personally, this got me thinking about my own loans. I'll be honest- I graduated from my undergrad at UCLA with about $24,000 in debt, added nearly $10,000 for my teaching credential (I had to take money out to live off of), and then an additional ten or twelve for my masters (it all becomes a blur at a certain point). I think I still owe around $25,000? I honestly don't even know, since my payments just come out automatically every month. And while I wish I wasn't paying $400 a month, I consider loans a necessary evil. I didn't come from a wealthy family, and frankly, I began my education as an adult. The expectations that parents must pay for complete college costs is ludicrous to me. Having some debt upon graduation is motivating- you have to get a job, you have to have a plan, you have to be responsible. There is no way I'll take out a second mortgage or ruin my retirement dreams to send me kid(s) to college. Help, yes, but provide a four-year free-ride? No. But, it is a personal decision, and I know plenty of nice people that feel otherwise. I digress. I guess that while I admire Ilgunas' quest to become debt free, I myself don't feel that level of urgency. I rather live comfortably for the life of my loan than shack up in a tent, Alaska, or van for a few years to pay them off sooner. But, like I just said, to each her own. His commentary about the idea of being indebted to someone, whether a bank or ones' parents rings partially true, though. I don't mind owing Sallie Mae, but the idea of owing a family or friend something makes me sick to my stomach.

I can't recommend this book enough, both for the thought-provoking aspect and the travel narrative. 


  1. This sounds like a very thought-provoking book! I totally agree it is ridiculous to expect parents to mortgage their homes or dig into retirement savings to fully fund their kids' college. If they can afford it, that's fine, but the expectation that they will or they must is just wrong. I heard a story once about a father taking out a second mortgage to pay for his daughter's wedding and was completely dumbfounded. While there is much more value to an education than a 5 hour party, it also feels like the "I'd do anything for my kids" thing taken way too far. Insanity!

  2. My husband and I have talked about whether or not we'd pay for college for our future children. I don't really want to. My parents helped me where they could, but mostly my education was covered by loans and scholarships. Like you, I feel no urgency about getting it paid off. My monthly payments are automatically spirited away to the school loan gods, and I don't really think about it. I would never consider busting into my retirement for my kids' school. (As Suze Orman says, you can take out a loan for school; you can't take out a loan for retirement.)

    I'm on a major nonfiction kick right now, so I'll be looking to see if my library has this book!

  3. I want to read this. I did feel a huge amount of urgency to pay of my debt. When I graduated from undergrad, I had a fairly small amount of debt...maybe $9,000. It took me about a year to pay it off. I did so by sharing a 400 sq foot studio. Awful. A couple of years later I went to grad school at a private institution and racked up over $30,000 worth of debt. It took me four and a half years to pay it all off and I stressed about it for every single payment.

    As far as my kids go. I won't go into debt to help, but I did set up a college fund for each of them. I put in $100 a month per child and whatever they have when they go to college is what they'll have. No more, no less (though I'll see where I am financially when the time comes). To be eloquent, the college education system in America sucks serious ass, especially in the public v. private institution costs.

  4. This sounds fascinating. I managed to get through college with as little debt as I could manage. I had no choice but to take out loans and work. I'm still proud of the fact that I paid for 2 years of community college out of pocket before resorting to loans.