By the time Ken Ilgunas was wrapping up his last year of undergraduate studies at the University of Buffalo in 2005, he had no idea what kind of debt hole he'd dug himself into.
He had majored in the least marketable fields of study possible — English and History — and had zero job prospects after getting turned down for no fewer than 25 paid internships.
"That was a wake-up call," he told Business Insider. "I had this huge $32,000 student debt and at the time I was pushing carts at Home Depot, making $8 an hour. I was just getting kind of frantic."
Back then, student loans had yet to become the front page news they are today. Ilgunas could have simply deferred his loans or declared forbearance. He also could have asked his parents (who were more than willing to help) for a leg up. He could have thrown up his hands and gone to grad school until the job market bounced back.
Instead, he moved to Alaska and spent two years paying back every dime. And when he enrolled at Duke University for graduate school later, he lived out of his van to be sure he wouldn't have to take out loans again.
"I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. I didn't even know what interest was when I was 17," he said. "I just think that's awfully indicative of the incredibly poor personal finance education young people have at that time in their lives."
In his book, "Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom," Ken chronicles his journey out of debt.
He was kind enough to share his story with us this week.
He knew exactly where to go for work. Ken had spent a couple months working at a remote Alaskan truck stop the summer before graduating. So he called up his old contacts and landed a job there as a local tour guide, cook, and basically whatever the locals needed.
"The day after I graduated, I was on a flight to Alaska and pretty much started work right away," he said. "As ignorant as I was, I did know that if I didn't deal with my loans, I'd have to deal with accumulated interest or delinquency or default. I wanted to pay it off as fast as humanly possible."
It was a brilliant move for a 20-something needing to pay down debt in a hurry. "It's 250 miles from the nearest store, room and board were included, and there wasn't any cell service," he said. "You can amaze yourself with how much you can save when you reduce your cost of living. Almost every dollar I made went toward my student loans."
After a year earning $9/hour in Cold Foot, Ken had paid off more than $18,000. He hitch-hiked back home to New York and then lined up a six-month stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Mississippi.
But the pay sucked. After AmeriCorps, he headed back up North. "I got another job in Cold Foot working for the Gates of Arctic National Park as a backcountry ranger. Finally, it was a decent wage."
Two and a half years after hitting the road, he made his final loan payment. With interest, he'd paid down $35,000.
But he wasn't ready to quit on his education just yet. "I figured out two things on the road," he said. "That I was never going back into debt again, and that I was going back to school. I was just intellectually starved [living on the road for so long]. I recognized that I wasn't speaking as clearly and my writing wasn't as good. "
He was determined to find a liberal arts program affordable enough to pay his way as he went. He settled on Duke, which charged about $2,500/semester.
He needed a cheap place to live, and he remembered a man he met back in Cold Foot. He'd been living out of his car year-round and seemed fine with it. "If he could do it in the Arctic, I could probably do it in North Carolina," Ken said.
When he found an ad for a $1,500 1994 Ford Econoline on Craigslist, he knew he was home.more