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.”
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.”
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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.”