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Attending Duke University While Living in a ‘94 Ford Econoline Van. In the Parking Lot.
Dec 8th, 2009 | By Kevin Hayden | Category: Alternative Architecture

I live in a van down by Duke University
How do I afford grad school without going into debt? A ‘94 Econoline, bulk food and creative civil disobedience
By Ken Ilgunas
I was lying on the floor of my van where the middle pilot chairs used to be, trying to hide from view. This is it, I thought. They know. I’m going to get kicked out of Duke.

2,664 Posts
Great article, thanks!

Premium Member
3,229 Posts
Didn't sound like a finished article so I looked for the rest.

By buying food in bulk I reduced my food bill to $4.34 cents a day. I was meticulous with my expenditures. I saved every receipt and wrote down everything I bought. Not including tuition, I lived (and lived comfortably) on $103 a week, which covered my necessities: food, gas, car insurance, a cellphone and visits to the laundromat.

The idea of “thrift,” once an American ideal, now seems almost quaint to many college students, particularly those at elite schools. The typical student today is not so frugal. Few know where the money they’re spending is coming from and even fewer know how deep they’re in debt. They’re detached from the source of their money. That’s because there is no source. They’re getting paid by their future selves.

My “radical living” experiment convinced me that the things plunging students further into debt — the iPhones, designer clothes, and even “needs” like heat and air conditioning, for instance — were by no means “necessary.” And I found it easier to “do without” than I ever thought it would be. Easier by far than the jobs I’d been forced to take in order to pay off my loans.

Most undergrads imagine they’ll effortlessly pay off their loans when they start getting paid the big bucks; they’re living in a state of denial, disregarding the implications of a tough job market and how many extra years of work their spending sprees have sentenced them to. But “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” as Aldous Huxley famously said.

I have sympathy for my fellow students. I did many of the same things when I was an undergrad. Plus, escaping student debt — no matter how frugal they try to be — is nearly impossible. Even if they do resort to purchasing a large creepy van, most will still have to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to pay for tuition.

While I found a way to afford graduate school, I by no means had the same financial responsibilities as the average student. I was so poor when I applied that my department took pity on me and significantly reduced the cost of my tuition. I even found a well-paying part-time job working for a government-sponsored program, tutoring inner-city kids.

Governments and financial aid departments normally aren’t so helpful. For decades, the government has let legions of college students — students who wished to better themselves and contribute to society — go into soul-crippling debt. Schools don’t make it any easier with steep hikes in tuition and baffling room and board costs. Students are oftentimes forced to pay for insanely priced meal plans and are barred from moving to cheaper housing off-campus. At Duke, the cheapest on-campus meal plan charges them 3.5 times more a day than it cost to feed me. Their dorm rooms cost 18 times more than my parking permit.

Here, the average undergraduate student who’s taken out loans graduates with more than $23,000 in debt — about the national average. The cost of education at Duke, as at most schools across the country, is disgracefully high. Tuition costs (not factoring in financial aid) more than $37,000 a year. Additionally, students have to pay at least another $10,000 for books, meal plans, fees and dorms.

Duke’s egregiously hefty price tag is no anomaly. Nor is it unusual for students to unflinchingly take out massive loans that’ll take them years, sometimes decades, to pay off. Willingness to go into debt, of course, isn’t just confined to students; we’re a nation in debt, collectively and individually. Going into debt today is as American as the 40-hour work week; or the stampede of Wal-Mart warriors on Black Friday; or the hillocks of gifts under a Christmas tree. An army of loan drones we’ve become, marching from one unpaid-for purchase to the next in quest of a sense of fulfillment that fades long before the bill arrives. We’re little different from the Spanish explorers who dedicated their lives to the quest for El Dorado, which was always just around the next bend in the river, yet never there at all.

I refused to join those ranks. I became a deserter, an eccentric, an outsider. At Duke, I felt like an ascetic in the midst of wealth, a heretic in the Church of the Consumer. I had to hide.

Because I was so paranoid about campus security finding out about my experiment, I kept myself apart from other students. Whenever I did talk with a fellow classmate, I found myself souring the conversation with preposterous lies — lies I’d tell to protect myself. Whenever someone asked me where I lived, I’d say “off campus,” or I’d make up an address before changing the subject. I found it easier to avoid people altogether.

I worried that if students caught wind of my experiment, a Facebook group would be created for “People who’ve had a confirmed sighting of the campus van-dweller.” Campus security would find out, deem my lodgings illegal and promptly kick me out of the van and into some conventional and unaffordable style of living, wherein I’d have to buy a rug to tie the room together.

Deprived of human companionship, I cloistered myself in my van and in libraries where I was alone with my thoughts and my books. Time for self-reflection, study and solitude was what I thought I’d wanted all along.

But of all the things that I gave up for “radical living,” I found it fitting that the one thing I wanted most was that which couldn’t be bought. When a trio of laughing males drunkenly stumbled past my van, probably hoisting one another up like injured comrades after battle, I thought of my friends back home. On winter nights, when the windows were coated with a frosty glaze, I’d wish for a woman to share the warmth of my sleeping bag.

While I have plenty of good things to say about simplicity, living in a van wasn’t all high-minded idealism in action. Washing dishes became so troublesome I stopped altogether, letting specks of dried spaghetti sauce and globs of peanut butter season the next meal. There was no place to go to the bathroom at night. I never figured out exactly where to put my dirty laundry. Once, when a swarm of ants overtook my storage containers, I tossed and turned all night, imagining them spelunking into my orifices like cave divers while I slept. New, strange, unidentifiable smells greeted me each evening. Upon opening the side doors, a covey of odors would escape from the van like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.

But no adventure is without bouts of loneliness, discomfort and the ubiquitous threat of food poisoning. I loved my van. Because of it, I could afford grad school. So naturally I was nervous as I listened to the security guard’s weapons jingle as he ambled by my windshield.

But he just kept walking.

I was overcome by an odd sense of dissatisfaction. Deep down, I think I wanted him to discover me. I wanted a showdown. I wanted to wave my arms at the dean and cry, “Impound my van? Over my dead body! I’ll take you straight to the Supreme Court!” Fellow students would rally behind me. We’d stage car-dwelling protests and after winning back my right to remain voluntarily poor, people would begin to consider me the campus sage. I’d wear loose white clothing, grow my beard, and speak in aphorisms to the underclassmen who journeyed the mile on foot to my sacred parking space where I’d serve them tea.

Today I still live in the van. I haven’t taken out loans or borrowed money from anyone. Really, the only thing that’s different is that I’ve set up my laundry area by the passenger seat. Also, after another summer with the Park Service, I have more money than I possibly need. Now, instead of being poor, I am radically frugal. Sometimes, though, I think it would be nice to have an ironing board, plumbing and a wood stove.

It would be nice. A middle-class family might think it would be nice to have an in-ground swimming pool. A millionaire might think it would be nice to have a yacht. The billionaire, a private jet. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice to have food to feed her family tonight. Someone, somewhere might think it would be nice to live in a van in order to afford to go to a wonderful school. I could begin satisfying my desires and buying comforts, but I’ve learned to appreciate what little I have instead of longing for what I do not.

Admittedly, now that I have money I buy the fancy peanut butter from Whole Foods, and I’ve even purchased an expensive pair of hiking boots. But most things are the same: I still cook spartan meals, I don’t have an iPod, and I park in the very same spot. And I still have my secret. Well, that is, until now.

Tested in the Wilderness
6,513 Posts
Over time, my van felt less like a novelty and more like a home. At night I was whirred to sleep by crescendos of cicadas. In the morning, I awoke to a medley of birdsong so loud and cheery you would have thought my little hermitage was tucked away in a copse of trees.
I loved cooking in the van. As an adept backcountry camper, I could easily whip up an assortment of economical and delicious meals on my backpacking stove. For breakfast, cereal with powdered milk and oatmeal with peanut butter became staples; for dinner, spaghetti stew with peanut butter, vegetable stew with peanut butter, and even rice and bean tacos with peanut butter. Without proper refrigeration, I cut out meat, dairy and beer from my diet entirely. I became leaner, got sick less and had more energy than ever before.
I have seen a few stories similar to this one about people living in a van, in a cave etc. just in the last few days! Just search for van and cave if any want to see those threads.

AND glad I am not the only one to survive with lots of peanut butter. Although I ate it for lunch with crackers not with my main meal at the end of the day.

I ate at least 25 jars of peanut butter from June to Nov. so I don't eat it when in the city. I have told about what I eat etc. etc. and trying to live a simple frugal ( cheap ) lifestyle here, maybe someday permanently >

Possibly, even with the economic recovery :rolleyes: more and more people will have to live in vans, cars, tents etc. etc. but I would hate to live in a city year round.

Information is Ammunition
22,122 Posts

Preparing to be Prepared
173 Posts
That quote is well worth the time it took to read the article.

Dave Ramsey says (I think he got it from somewhere else) that one hallmark of maturity is the ability to delay pleasure. If this kid keeps this up, he stands to be very, very wealthy some day. And judging by this story, his neighbors will probably have no idea he's a millionaire. A lesson all of us can learn from in one way or another.

4,400 Posts
Back in the late 70s there was a report on some college kid living in a tent in the woods. He would get up early and go to a gas station and clean up and dress in the restroom. He had permission from the owner. (They still had a few independent gas stations back then.) Then he would go to the library and study, then to class. After class, he would go to a part time job. Then he would go back to the woods and set up his little tent. He often cooked on a fire. The only thing he had for transportation was a small motorcycle.

I had a history teacher who said she worked her way through college by keeping an office clean. She was allowed to sleep there and cleaned herself in the restroom using the sink.

This is the kind of thing people used to do to get ahead when starting out. It was becoming rare by the 70s, but at one time it was common. Also, through the years news reports of some elderly person dying and leaving millions to charity would be seen in the papers. Usually people who knew the person had no idea he or she had a dime. I remember one case of an old man who ate out of a can all the time who left millions to charity. There were also reports of retired teachers with a million or two in the bank when they died.

Very few people today are willing to live that frugally and just blame the wealthy or corporations or government for keeping them down. There was a man who lectured on how to save a million. He would go to colleges and tell them to stop going to Starbucks and buying expensive coffee and bring their lunch in a bag, etc. The college kids would get up and walk out.
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