Walden on Wheels

July 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

Last week I read a book I’d been anticipating for a while, Walden on Wheels. (Thanks, library waiting list.) Chances are you may have heard of it. Author Ken Ilgunas aptly subtitled his memoir “On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom.” This was a great adventure story about Ken’s efforts to pay back his undergrad college loans before embarking on a “vandwelling” experiment during his Master’s program in an effort to live without taking out loans.Walden on wheels

I had been anticipating a story about this guy’s personal finances, along the lines of Joe Mihalic’s No More Harvard Debt blog. But what I got was so much more. Ilgunas has a really creative way of combining his desire for adventure with his need for financial freedom. I enjoyed reading about his hitchhiking adventures across North America (which saved him several hundred dollars in airfare) and almost wished I were in his shoes during his super-frugal work stints in northern Alaska. Here’s an excerpt:

And because I’d almost cut the debt in half and realized that I’d been blowing the debt’s oppressiveness out of proportion, I no longer saw it as some mortal foe worthy of the attention I’d been giving it. The debt was more like some distant cousin I didn’t like but still had to interact with at periodic family gatherings. It was like a canker sore on the roof of my mouth or effluent from a nearby chemical factory: the debt was something I was constantly aware of but was nothing more than a mild disturbance. Between my delightful spring in Coldfoot, the hitchhike, and now this voyage, it seemed that I could really live when in debt. And it seemed that I might have found some sweet spot between fulfilling financial obligations and satisfying adventurous longings.

What a great perspective! When debt is a huge, looming, ever-growing monster, it’s easy to cower and become terrified or avoidant. But the best reaction will be to tackle it head-on, consistently working hard to keep it to a manageable size while also preserving a good quality of life. I don’t know that I’m currently willing to live in a vehicle to avoid the costs of rent, but Ken definitely had some basic principles that would serve any grad student well. Eating on a budget, working while in school, and finding frugal and creative ways to travel are some truly priceless habits.


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