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On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom

by Ken Ilgunas

Pub Date: May 14th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-544-02883-8
Publisher: Amazon/New Harvest

A recent college grad discovers how to live life and pay off his student loans at the same time.

After graduating from college with $32,000 in student loans and no lucrative job offers, Ilgunas decided to take an unconventional approach to paying off his debt. He embarked on an epic road trip, including stops in Alaska to clean rooms in a tourist camp and in post-Katrina Mississippi, where he worked clearing debris. With his room and board paid for and few distractions, Ilgunas was able to pay off his loans in under three years. He then decided to attend graduate school. To avoid incurring more debt, he knew he had to keep his living expenses to an extreme minimum. A Ford Econoline van solved that problem, and Ilgunas managed to live in a campus parking lot for two years. Ilgunas’ story gained traction when it appeared as an article in Salon; the novelty of his lifestyle may appeal to a generation of overly indebted and underemployed college grads. On his journeys, he met a diverse cast of characters, yet, despite a brief relationship with a young woman, his was a lonely life; socializing was just too expensive. Ilgunas has some interesting stories to tell, but his writing style is clichéd at best and more often clunky and rambling. The pacing is further weakened by loosely researched generalizations about the problems with “society”—e.g., comments like, “while I worried that my parents might get laid off, I couldn’t have cared less about this ‘Great Recession’ ” exhibit an annoying self-absorption that sets the tone for much of this memoir. And while Ilgunas tries to reference Thoreau—imagining his “vandwelling” life as a kind of transcendental experience—his story is really about the crises facing American higher education. That a student can’t get a degree without sacrificing basic human rights like food, clothing, shelter and love makes this story a tragic one.

A middling memoir of a young man’s attempts to live as a modern-day ascetic.