You Did WHAT to Pay Off Your Student Loans?

Colleen Oakley

pay off student loanTen years.

That’s the standard repayment schedule for most student loans. And for those who defer or who have more than one loan to pay off for their college education, it can take much longer—up to 25 years with the extended payment plan.

But some people want to be out of debt right now. Or decidedly before a decade (or three) has passed. They’re people like these grads—all they needed was a couple of years and a little ingenuity to find creative ways to be completely student-loan debt-free.

A Man … and His Van

In 2006, when Ken Ilgunas graduated from the University at Buffalo with a “useless” liberal arts degree in history and English, he had $32,000 in student loan debt—and no job prospects.

“I applied to 25 paid newspaper internships … and got rejected from all 25,” he says. “I thought I was pretty well-qualified: I was an English major, an editor for my college newspaper for two years, and I had an unpaid internship with a local alt-weekly. But I had no connections, and I suppose that I hadn’t quite learned the art of applying for a job yet.”

Determined to make money, Ilgunas packed up and moved to Coldfoot, Alaska, where he’d worked as a housekeeper the summer between his fourth and fifth year of college. “I’d always had a boyhood dream of living in Alaska,” says the 30-year-old. “So when the job hunt proved tough, I chose to go back up there—this time to work as a van tour guide.”

Ken Ilgunas

For the next three years, he took on other odd jobs—some literally “odd,” like when he canoed across Ontario, Canada to transport voyagers (people who live and dress like eighteenth-century fur traders), until he had paid off his entire student loan. “Student loan debt can tie you down in so many ways,” he says. “I wanted to pay it off quickly, so I could be a free person.”

RELATED: 9 Ways to Make Money on the Side

And once he’d paid it off, he had no desire to go back into debt—but he did want to get a graduate degree in liberal arts. This time, instead of racking up debt, Ilgunas chose to avoid it altogether … by living on the Duke University campus in a 1994 Ford Econoline van that he found on Craigslist.

For two and a half years, Ilgunas lived and cooked in the van, survived the cold and heat of the North Carolina seasons in the van—and ultimately wrote a book about his novel living situation. “It was a practical measure, for sure,” he says. “But it was also an adventure.”

Today, Ilgunas lives on a farm in North Carolina, and he’s gearing up for his book tour, where he hopes to share his motto with the masses. “If I’ve learned anything,” he says, “it’s that a life lived not half-wild is a life only half-lived.”

  • MeOhMy

    The final story is not realistic for most people, but this was an interesting read nonetheless.

    • Robyn

      Really, I liked her story the best! I like the idea of a barter system where she could exchange a good night’s sleep for petting siting, clean or fixing a clogged drain! I think she is creative.

  • SuperGrateful

    Thanks LearnVest. Live in van, move to Qatar, or sleep drop out and mooch off friends. Super helpful!

    • Holly

      I think these were supposed to be examples of creative and out-of-the-box/extreme strategies. I’m not sure my friends would appreciate me couch surfing. Nice friends. This is Holly from the second story.

      • HollyM

        oops! It looks I wrote “nice friends” as in my friends aren’t wonderful people. I meant “nice friends” to let her crash. hahah I don’t even think I would let one of my wonderful friends do that.

        • MVH1

          However the three of you did what you did, you are debt free as young people. I bet you’d have an extremely hard time finding many others who aren’t loaded with debt. I think you guys are great. You didn’t let debt ruin your lives.

    • hello

      I literally burst out laughing when I read this comment! Anyhow, sarcasm aside, I would say the move abroad to Quatar is totally reasonable.

  • Teddy

    In other words she became a bum.

    • MVH1

      No, she didn’t. She did odd jobs and helped for the privilege of a place to sleep and she has no debt today. Nothing bum like about that. At least you know she won’t be borrowing money from you.

  • J

    These stories all somehow strike me as a bit impractical. Still, congratulations to them all.

    • HollyM

      My story isn’t impractical. Quite practical, I think!

      • J

        I don’t personally find the idea of moving to the Middle East practical at all. But it seemed to work for you and your lifestyle, so kudos to you. Congrats on becoming debt-free!

      • Young Millenial

        If it works for you, that is great. Personally I wouldn’t move out of the country unless I was at my wit’s end with looking for a job. I don’t think this is the model people were thinking about for graduating students to leave our country and lose our contributions to the US economy when getting loans to go to college. That is why the system is broken. If everyone took your route, we in the US would have no one from the millennial generation living in the US anymore that graduated from college in the past 5 years since the economic collapse.

        • MVH1

          These are wit’s end stories. Most people just carry the burden forever and it ruins their lives.

      • LJ

        I think that any method that is legal and gets rid of your student loans is worth considering, and I love that you got to broaden your horizons at the same time!

  • Hb76

    That was good for these

  • chelsea

    I’m happy to read these stories of people conquering their debt, however they choose to do it, but the fact that they had to do what they did says a lot about the state of our country. A sad state indeed.

  • Rachel

    Seems silly to me to complain that these ideas aren’t realistic. The title clearly communicates that the folks profiled took some unique strategies to clear out their debt. It isn’t offered up a solution to everyone’s student debt obligations.

    • HollyM

      Thanks. Agreed. – Holly

  • Debtor

    Absurd that an American education costs so much that people have to go homeless to pay it off. I am one of these people, in debt w an Ivy League Degree.

    • Young Millenial

      Yep, I’m in your same boat, not quite Ivy League (close), but I do have an advanced degree from the two ACC schools that got me a decent job, but still am in a ton of debt when all is said and done. No one has put a cap on tuition increases and student loans yet and the federal interest rate is actually going up, which I find scary, but at least Obama has put in some loan forgiveness options for federal loans unlike what we had before. Private loans are a whole different story with ever-changing interest rates and no oversight.

    • LearnVestJacqui

      Hi there,

      We’d love to speak more with you about your experience. If you’d like, please reach out to me at

      Thank you!
      Jacqui, editorial assistant at LearnVest

  • Valadyn

    Doing these types of things are unique and worked for these people. Good job to them. Now how about some advice on how to survive this crappy economy with both myself and my husband in school for not worthless careers, i. e. teaching mathmatics. (Yes, teaching sucks but its guaranteed work) with rent to pay, bills to pay and three kids.

    • glab

      Teaching is not guaranteed work. There will come a day when everyone just watches videos (like the Khan academy) and “teachers” will be “assistants” grading papers. IMO.

  • David Church

    These are interesting and fun solutions. I particularly enjoyed the first. But, what about a 42 yr-old man with a loving wife, 5 children, a house mortgage, and private student loans that started at 96,000. and have since ballooned to over 140,000… due to high interest and desperate forays into the badlands of forbearance and deferment. We’re sending minimal monthly payments of $1100. to the trolls at Sallie Mae just to keep the loan from increasing. It’s still more than I have available. Clearly, someone in such a position has limited options.

    •Getting a better paying job is one route. But that’s not easy in todays economic environment where lots of people in my profession are taking jobs at half the pay that used to be available 10 years ago.

    •I could write a book. Or, try to create a hit TV show.

    •I could rob a bank. Or try my hand at gambling.

    •I could go back to school, incurring even more debt and try to select a skill with a better pay scale.

    •I could take my little ones, and my wife (if she agreed) and run away to hide in some third-world country. Starting a new life as a beet farmer or something.

    •Maybe I could pool every penny I have (less than a hundred dollars) and try to buy some cheap stock on wall street.

    Dunno right now…. It’s why I’m paying attention to this site. Maybe someone on this site can help me learn some way to get out from under the grinding boot of Sallie Mae.

    • Anastasia Shirai

      Hey have you ever listened to Dave Ramsey? I took his course earlier this year in May, and I’ve taken off at least 3 grand off my debt. It may not sound like much but I’m the only income for me and my family. My husband and two kids and we live in Hawaii, you might know Hawaii is a super expensive place to live. Im 24, no college degree and working as a receptionist. I think if you look him up and listen to his radio station it might help you. I don’t want to sit here and try to pitch something to you and ruin it lol but I can’t stress enough that you should take a look at him. The class I took from him is Financial Peace University. I’ve seen couples pay off hundreds of thousands of debt in the course of 22 months. It’s HARD work but ah when is life not.

      Here’s his website:

      Good luck with everything and I wish you the best!

    • Young Millenial

      Do a crazy youtube video or pitch a ridiculous reality show. Even one season would give you enough money to pay off some of your debt haha. That’s kind of what I think with all of my debt.

  • William

    I still have $2,000 student loan debt from 1997 when I graduated, but my interest rate is only slightly higher than inflation. It doesn’t really make sense to hurry to pay it off and certainly not before any other debt. So, it’ll be $60 a month for the next 3 years. It be nice to get rid of, but, hey, what’s $60 a month?

  • Lauren Lever

    she only had 10k in student loans, and she couched surfed?? I have about thrice that. GTFO of here.

    • toni

      it’s all about perspective isn’t it? so if she thought 10k warranted couch surfing, and yours is 3 times that then maybe you should live in a treehouse. don’t diminish another person’s experience because you think yours is worst. if you think it is then take action.

  • Mrs.BestSF

    Dear LearnVest -

    I very much respect your company and look
    forward to reading your articles daily. The work and influence you
    bring to the female community is immeasurable. As a member of the
    financial services community, I admire your organization immensely.

    this article regarding paying off your student loans was ridiculous.
    Had it been followed by more tangible measures, it could have been taken
    seriously. But living in a van, moving to Qatar, and couch surfing are
    not realistic options for the majority of our population. Yes – the
    intent of the article was to illustrate “creative” ways to pay off
    student loans. Unfortunately, you missed the mark on such an important
    topic in today’s economy. There are tangible and creative ideas out
    there that deserve a discussion!

    I look forward to reading your future articles – as long as they continue to be of higher standard than this one.

    Kindest regards from a concerned fan.

    • Young Millenial

      If you work in financial services can you explain why there hasn’t been a cap on interest rates or tuition increases? That is the major problem here. The tuition rates are much higher than inflation. Also, why are the banks and lenders so deregulated where they can basically make their own rules regarding forbearance time even years after your loan is disbursed? This is all frustrating when dealing with student loans and if nothing is done, things will get much worse and I don’t see our economy getting better when lots of people graduating are in over their heads in student loan debt. A quarter of my monthly income goes towards loans and then I have to pay other bills, I think that is insane. How are we supposed to get ahead when we are in this sort of a problem and to top it off even if I have enough money for an FHA loan for a house and monthly payments, I get denied because they want to see my student loans in standard repayment for the next 3 years and not income-based. That isn’t fair. I recently got rejected from buying my first house because of my student loan debt even though I can afford monthly payments for the mortgage and on income-based repayment. Something is majorly wrong here!

      • LJ

        Umm…. you got denied because you can’t afford a house on top of your student loans. That is completely fair, especially given all the crap banks are getting for having previously given mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them.

  • Loans

    I’m pretty sure everything is impractical and extreme if it doesn’t fit with your values. In the end, it’s all about deciding whether it means more to you to live in a particular place, live in the US, have a stable home or not have debts anymore. I would’ve liked more details on some of these, or links to their detailed stories to see how it actually worked out, though. :)

  • Guest

    I think these are great stories. Although I haven’t done anything extreme to this degree my friends always found it extreme that I lived in a small room I rented out and ate cheaply (but healthy enough) to get my loans down.

    We all make the choices to take out student loans or other debts and its also our choice how to manage it. I made the choice to work while going to school full time with a difficult course load. I slept very little then but I can sleep better now knowing I have everything under control and manageable. I realized if I work a job now that isn’t my dream job but pays off my loans, then I will have more choices later when I’m debt free.

  • Dedede

    I enjoyed reading these stories and what inspires me is what people are capable of doing when you put pride aside and make a determined effort to achieve a goal. I don’t have student loans but I have mortgage and car note and right now I’m sacrificing cable for the sake of getting a ahead on paying bills. I would love to live like hobo, but I don’t have many friends where I live. I would love to use my car for more than commuting to work. I work in collections and I find that most people spend there money on what they want to spend it on, regardless of how well they’re doing financially.

  • Marc

    “Couch-surfing” for an entire year is not something to be proud of. This person was able to pay off their debt by burdening others. Rather than getting a room-share arrangement (something I did for some time when I had low income–$400/month shared with 2 others), or a second/part time job, or pursuing a better paying job. Seems like a lesson in externalizing personal costs to others rather than taking responsibility. Her comment about “sacrifices” is rather ironic, considering the real sacrifice was made by the friends she happily imposed upon. At least the first guy lived in his van rather than being a mooch.
    Kudos to the woman who who went to teach abroad.

    • Young Millenial

      I personally wouldn’t want to move like a gypsy to several people’s places just to pay off a few thousand of student loans. That makes no sense. I would go insane not knowing where I would be sleeping every night and having to constant look for places and people to let me stay at their place and do weird jobs for them. It’s kind of like being a modern-day slave. It’s not right. I feel like it can be dangerous too because there are a lot of creepy people out there with potential ulterior motives.

    • Laura

      My thoughts exactly – I found the highlighting of this example as a good idea to be really disturbing. How about teaching people to take responsibility?

  • Young Millenial

    I think this illustrates clearly that our student loan system and how the lenders treat loans is completely broken. Students shouldn’t have to go to these great lengths to pay off their loans. Also, quite frankly if (like in my situation) you were in a more rigorous program that cost more money than these ideas might’ve only scratched the surface of the amount of debt to pay off. You shouldn’t have to move out of the country or live like a homeless person to pay off your loans. I heard about the Duke guy because I attended there a few years ago. There is no feasible way I would’ve done what he did and it wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay off my loans anyways. I went the other route and networked with people like they encouraged us to do and eventually found a decent paying job after looking for about 4 months after graduation because I got a degree in something that I knew there was a job market for unlike (no offense), library studies. I think there is way better advice and things you can do to better pay off your loans and there is also a student loan forgiveness program if you work for a public service agency for your federal loans.

  • CBA

    As a fellow member of, I’m kind of disappointed with her exploitation of the website. Its intent is to facilitate cultural exchange while traveling, not just provide a free place to sleep so you can avoid rent. You can argue the semantics of cultural exchange, and obviously people didn’t have to host her, but she was undoubtedly not within the spirit of Couchsurfing. I respect her ingenuity, but wouldn’t have accepted her request.

  • LJ

    Great story! I love how these people took charge of their debt by any means necessary. Hopefully, though, the couch surfing was allowed by nice friends who were trying to help out rather than those who felt pressured to allow it.

  • Roy

    I switched from face to face classes to online classes and saved a ton of money since I also switched universities. I then took a position in China teaching kindergarten. I am still here two years later, working on my degree and paying down my debt.

    • Roy

      I have a little over $16,000 USD left in student loan debt and I save $1,300 USD every month to put towards it.

      • flankton

        thats nice. i have 200k debt and $350 a month to put towards it. Doesnt even touch the principal. I graduated with 160k. i cant pay it. i work all the time.

  • flankton

    well, I owe 200,000. thats many years of sleeping on the couch makein 40k a year. i thought i would be making 6 figures. but it never worked out. I will die a poor person because of student loans. had i not gone to college i could have been a manager of a bojangles and at least maybe gotten a savings account. i hope social security is around in 40 years

    • Bob McClowsky

      why has making 6 figures now worked out?

  • G

    The final story is absurd: those people likely had their own bills to take care of and the person took unfair advantage of them. Not cool!

  • Christine

    This article did nothing but make paying off my student loan debt seem MORE like a hopeless pipe dream. Those of us who can’t live off the grid and live in a van, or freeload off my friends or move to a 3rd world country to teach English basically have no alternative. This website has yet provide a realistic way to pay off student loan debt.

  • Bob McClowskiy

    I’ve heard about the first one. I like these stories, but what about those who have $100K+ debt?

    • toni

      I think the morale of the story is it doesn’t matter the number behind your debt….get creative if you want to lose it.