December 7, 2009

"I had a penchant for rugged living, a sixth sense for cheapness, and an unequaled tolerance for squalor."

Living in a van, going to grad school, shunning debt... freedom.


chickenlittle said...

This reminds me of the We Jam Econo lifestyle of Mike Watt back in the day.

David said...

Nothing about his sex life. But he's inventive. It was probably ok.

Chris said...

I wanted to make fun of this article, but he strikes me as a likeable fellow.

No complaints.

k*thy said...

The kid's trying to be responsible and he's in a climate would make it more do-able. My hat's off to him...

jaltcoh said...

Aside a few things that many people freely do without becoming quasi-homeless (e.g. abstaining from meat and beer), it sounds awful.

There seem to have been a lot of these articles recently about some guy who chooses to live without certain basic life necessities. And I mean "guy" literally. You never hear about a woman going on one of these rugged, anti-consumerist adventures, do you?

David: He does talk about his sex life. He says he was lonely because he didn't have a woman.

jaltcoh said...

*Aside from...

Dogwood said...

Nice story, interesting experiment.

edutcher said...

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Reminds me of the days taking care of my Mom (Alzheimer's) when people asked why I didn't have a car.

I would always say, "I can have a roof over my head or a ride and a roof over my head seems a little more important".

Love the line, "To me, the van was what Kon-Tiki was to Heyerdahl, what the GMC van was to the A-Team".

Who you callin' fool, fool?

ricpic said...

Why has he decided to blow his cover? Article doesn't say.

Bissage said...

I started off thinking he was a working-class hero struggling to get a first-tier education but halfway through he started to seem more like an eccentric rich kid who's into slumming so I stopped reading.

My loss, I'm sure.

Balfegor said...

Re: ricpic --

He's probably at less risk now than he was before -- he says he's saved up cash from another stint with the Park Service, after all, so if they prevent him from sleeping in his van, he could find a cheap flophouse somewhere. Or have flophouses been made illegal by the do-gooders?

Anyhow, I agree with k*thy. Good for him.

MadisonMan said...

Is there a reason to save money for undergraduate college? It seems like financial aid is computed based on how much money you have saved; the more you save, the less aid you get. There is something perverse about that. If you save so much money that you can pay the entire tuition bill, you'll have to. If you don't save the money, then you can take out loans and the tuition bill won't be so high.

This strikes me as wrong on so many different levels.

cryptical said...

After hearing that one niece is graduating at the end of the year with a BA in Psychology and over $100k student loans, I like the moxie of this kid.

There ought to be a truth in education law, where kids are told the actual market value of each degree. Any program with "studies" in the name qualifies you for a Barista job at Starbucks.

Not that knowledge for it's own sake is bad, but the price is sometimes too high.

prairie wind said...

I would always say, "I can have a roof over my head or a ride and a roof over my head seems a little more important".

We have some rental properties and the tenants don't always choose wisely. We have one tenant who chooses to pay the rent instead of the gas bill...a wise choice. Another tenant happily showed me the dining room table she bought on sale...right before her rent check bounced.

This guy has his priorities in line. Education and living debt free come before the gadgets and the rug to "tie the room together." I'd guess he blew his cover because someone told him there is a book in this. He certainly writes well enough.

Methadras said...

That was a fun read. Made me think back to my days of Vienna Sausages with ketchup and the 10 ramen noodle packages for a buck sales when I was like him.

traditionalguy said...

I also suspect that he collects free golf balls in the undergrowth next to the fairway. This is the kind of guy that Sarbanes-Oxley apparently wants to run private businesses. I say we hire him to create the new Federal Cost Control Panels (a/k/a Death Panels). He will probably work cheap too.

Methadras said...

Oh and cans of spam. God I loved spam.

reader_iam said...

More power to him. These days, I'd recommend to almost everyone, especially young adults, to amass as little debt as possible, pay off what debt you do have ASAP and keep your financial and material expectations as low as possible, until there's a much clearer sense of what the future may hold. I'm not saying students should take to van-living of course. On the other hand, his living situation seems way less stressful to me than, say, living in a home on which you owe way more than it's currently worth or likely to be worth for the foreseeable future* & etc. etc. etc.

*Thank goodness, I've never had the experience of living in a van OR in a home on which I owe more than its worth. Still.

bagoh20 said...

But he is missing out on some killer Ipod apps.

chuck b. said...

I only read a little bit, but I gather he's getting a graduate degree in the liberal arts? In the physical sciences, they pay you, and you get a teaching stipend. It was tight, but I didn't have to borrow any money for graduate school.

ken in sc said...

Good beer does not require refrigeration. He could make his own, which would add to the fragrance of his van, using malt and corn syrup. However, if he has any money left over from his summer job, he should invest in a few bottles of oatmeal porter from Ashville, NC. It tastes just fine warm.

reader_iam said...

I was impressed by his work ethic, by the way. The article didn't mention his age (or did I miss that?), but he looks pretty young, so I'm gathering he paid off his undergraduate debt pretty darn fast, and by taking some jobs I suspect many others would not have taken (or, at least in places or under conditions others wouldn't have found congenial).

In many respects (though not the van part), his story reminds me a lot of those from people of other generations who really lived in a spare fashion and worked their butts off to get their degrees. (My own parents and my father-in-law come instantly to mind, for example...and they had kids very young, too.)

I worked pretty hard myself and took some crappy jobs to make ends meet (but then, I was in school '79 - '83, not exactly renowned for its economic boom times). This guy's taken it to a different level, though, for sure.

Pogo said...

The vast amount of debt owed by his classmates is their albatross.

But like the housing over-borrowers, the people who did not borrow for school are going to bail out those who did.

So in effect, he suffered and will have more income for the state to take away and give to his friends who spent lavishly on borrowed cash.

I was going to say they spent "unwisely", but now that bad decisions are compensated by the gummint, I feel like I shoulda had my own kids borrow and spend and borrow and spend and then wait for chumps like me to bail them out.

What a fool I was to save money and live well below my means.
What an idiot, I.
In the end, how much wiser the spendthrifts, who spent their student loan money on Spring Break trips, when my kids stayed home.
Now we'll both be paying for their 2004 Cabo beach bacchanal.

What do I tell them now?
You been pwnd, bro.

Freeman Hunt said...

I liked it. Sounds almost fun.

The only point where he lost me was on the buying of fancy peanut butter at the end. Of all the things...

Kirby Olson said...

He's surviving better than the lacrosse players.

TosaGuy said...

The guy knows how to work, knows that debt crushes you and has a plan. He will do well in life.

Liberal arts degrees can serve a person well, but they should only be gained by incurring little or no debt.

If he was truly frugile, he would go to a less expensive school or to a school that offered a grad assistantship.

"Is there a reason to save money for undergraduate college? It seems like financial aid is computed based on how much money you have saved; the more you save, the less aid you get. There is something perverse about that. If you save so much money that you can pay the entire tuition bill, you'll have to. If you don't save the money, then you can take out loans and the tuition bill won't be so high.

This strikes me as wrong on so many different levels."

MM sums up perfectly the insanity of (liberal) government involvement in higher education. All financial aid has done is drive up the cost of education to where most people need assistance.

Scott M said...

Couldn't get the article to open through the link, but I'm guessing that "and unequaled tolerance for squalor" means the author doesn't have to support a family.

Could be wrong though...bueno on the sentiment. My wife and I are hell-bent to get debt-free before the end of next year. Incrementally, as things get paid off and you roll more and more of your monthly budget against remaining costs, it definitely becomes liberating.

Now, if I could only figure out a way to use 20x the average family's power usage and still call myself an environmentalist...'s that for a non-sequitor?

AprilApple said...

He's fugal enough to save up enough money and buy himself a little property and a small house - with indoor plumbing and a stove. Nothing wrong with investing in your savings.

I like his frugality. I couldn't do it, but I agree with his stance on debt.

vbspurs said...

OT: You think the Salahis didn't know Obama before they gatecrashed the White House? Think again. A photo from 2005 showing Tareq and Michaele Salahi within a few inches of then State Senator Obama.

All along I have said that it was mere imcompetence that allowed these greasy starnutters to get into that State Dinner. But maybe those of you who said she was let by a nod from an Obama aide are right.

The caption via the Canada Free Press story reads that Michaele Salahi is a former Miss USA. O RILY? I'm willing to bet anything that's what she herself told the reporter, at the time.

“Others pictured are Black Eyed Peas Rock Band; Tareq Salahi the President of the America’s Polo Cup; President Elect Obama, Fergie from Black eyed Peas and Michaele Salahi, posing this time as a former Miss USA and SuperModel.”


Skyler said...

It seems this guy wants an education for some reason that he can't seem to articulate.

If he wants to learn, especially in humanities, then read some books. It's a lot cheaper than grad school and more enjoyable. If he wants a degree, then I have to ask, what for? It seems an even greater extravagence than beer to have a degree that he will put to use as a park ranger. That is, the knowlege is available without the degree. The degree only confers a status of being educated that is recognized by others and is good mainly for putting that fact on a resume or telling people at cocktail parties.

So, it seems that he's got the smug factor, he's holier than thou because he lives in a van. He eschews comforts and hygiene just like anyone on skid row and for the same reasons, but he wants us to think he's more enlightened.

It all reminds me of the medieval times when they thought that bathing was a sign of decadence and the holy men were those who stunk the most.

Debt is neither good nor bad. It's better to be in a position to not have debt, but there is something to be said for the idea that if you're not in some sort of debt at some part of your life, that means you are already wealthy or you never will be.

avwh said...

I got three college degrees without my parents spending a dime (and had maybe $10K in loans when done, which included an MBA), so I lived frugally during my college days, too. Didn't realize there could be a book in it.

He writes well. Frugality also sells a helluva lot better now than it did all of the '90s and up until a year or two ago.

Kirby Olson said...

There are, of course, students who actually HAVE to live in these conditions. Some try to live in a car through the winter without heat, or a place to fully lie down.

He lives in N. Carolina, where the winters are not particularly harsh.

So for him, it was a way to write a nationally read article?

For many others, there is no choice. Still, it was an interesting article.

vbspurs said...

This lad is a Great Depression era hobo with a touch of Jon Krakauer, Jack London, a young Ben Franklin, a more than a little HL Mencken thrown into one odorous body.

Bully for him.

I just wouldn't want to be his wife eating off of spaghetti and peanut butter encrusted plates. John Althouse Cohen is right. You never hear of women truly roughing it like this. I like pretty shiny things, good food, good friends, good family...a good life.


Will said...

This guy isn't frugal, he's cheap. And he's unhygenic, and his "home" is probably a rolling code violation. Not to mention that his only exercise seems to be patting himself on the back.

Will said...

'and even "needs" like heat and air conditioning, for instance -- were by no means "necessary."'

It's nine degrees Fahrenheit here right now. Tomorrow the temperature will be slightly higher, but with 30MPH winds and blowing snow. Explain how heat isn't a necessity, please. Perhaps his self-righteousness will keep him warm.

wv: uninge. I think the writer is uninged.

kentuckyliz said...

Google van dwellers.

People are already doing this.

Including women.

My fantasy.

I pick up the free auto trader magazines and look at small cargo trucks with lust.

I really do want to be the motivational speaker in the van down by the river.

The wise fool.

vbspurs said...

Well, Jewel lived in a van (in Alaska, yet). Of course women do it. But the ratio must be astronomically in favour of the guys.

AllenS said...

If you're willing to live like that, what do you need an education for?

WV: sockeder

vbspurs said...

Not to mention that his only exercise seems to be patting himself on the back.

Will, I agree he seems very pleased with himself (or rather, his lifestyle) but give the chap a break. He's living within his means, he's educating himself on his own dime, and he worked long hours until he paid off all his debts.

Dude, this Horatio Alger stuff.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where you either depend on plastic, or the government or your mommy and daddy to help you get through life. No wonder we feel that he's priggish and self-serving when speaking of his personal sacrifices. We're not used to this kind of bootstrap pulling and roughing it, anymore.

Palladian said...

This guy used to go to the University at Buffalo, where he was the arts editor of the independent student newspaper. He does not like Fight Club.

He also went on a two-month-long Canadian river voyage in birch-bark canoes wearing 17th century explorer's clothing.

"David: He does talk about his sex life. He says he was lonely because he didn't have a woman."

Well hopefully during his stint with the men in the canoes in the wilderness of Canada the lad learned that there are other outlets for those lonely feelings when one is without the company of women.

He's cute. It makes the poor hygiene part a little easier to tolerate.

Palladian said...

His interest in the history of the colonial period combined with his passion for adventure novelists in the London, Defoe, and Cooper vein has bred in him an avid desire to accomplish the grand and romantic.

See? He's an adventure type.

Over the past year, Ken has resided in Coldfoot, Alaska (pop. 25) situated 240 miles north of Fairbanks and 60 miles above the Arctic Circle—an ideal setting for exploits within the Brooks Mountain Range and on the Koyukuk River where he worked as an oarsman.

How hot is it to be able to tell your date that you were an oarsman? I'm in love.

howzerdo said...

When I was a college freshman, my RA in the dorm had a friend who lived in a car. He came to our hallway to use the bathroom. The RA warned us to not get caught doing anything that would threaten his job, or he would have the same fate.

The experience is reminiscent of Nickel & Dimed or My Freshman Year, but this guy's writing style is more entertaining.

I graduated with no debt, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, due to attending public university, parents, work and financial aid (in that order) during undergrad, graduate assistantship for master's, and union benefit from job for part-time study (for years), followed by teaching assistantship for PhD. Wouldn't have wanted to live in a van, but I did live very simply a lot of the time (and mostly still do).

Synova said...

He probably is violating some code or other living in the van.

As someone alluded... the do-gooders make it near impossible to make a choice like this and yet that's what we often hear in stories of millionaire immegrants from the last century... "I arrived in New York and got a job for a dollar a week. I slept on a cot at the back of the store and saved 15% of whatever I earned." And now you figure... if you got hired with a cot in the back of the store as part of your piddling wage, your employer, and you, would be breaking the law.

My son is starting college now and we're encouraging him to avoid taking any loans whatsoever, even if he can only go half-time and lives at home. Beginning life that far in debt is a horrible thing.

And the tuition costs, even for community college shock me. But even more than that is the price of paper back books. When POD publishers can crank out a book and then sell it for $15... I can't see any economic reason that a trade-paperback English book has to cost $60 or $80. Not EVEN if it's a severely limited edition. And the *used* books are very little cheaper. And THEN you find someone who will simply lend you their old book and find out that the course needs a new book this semester.

You'd think that those in charge of this expect that no one is paying with their own money.

When everyone is paying with grants and loans, it's not like the paying customers will balk at the bill.

John Lynch said...

Hmm, not sure this is an efficient use of his time.

Surely, getting a higher paying job after college would have paid off the debt faster? I can understand avoiding debt, but he had a better alternative to paying it off than taking the jobs he did: simply staying in college until he graduated.

So, I think this is more about the lifestyle than anything financial. This man had something to prove.

Smilin' Jack said...

I know a woman who will be going on Social Security soon. She will be using the money to pay off her student loans. Buddhists refer to this as the Circle of Life.

John Lynch said...

Actually, I have to wonder what the point of an education is to this man. Why is he paying so much for it if he is happy with so little?

Or why can't he go to a cheaper school?

Most people get by without a grad school degree from Duke. What's his purpose in going there?

Eric said...

The vast amount of debt owed by his classmates is their albatross.

True. People that age just don't have a good feel for how long it's going to take to pay it all off, and you can't discharge a student loan with bankruptcy. Some of them will still be paying on their 40th birthday.

I knew a guy in the late '80s who was using graduate school as an extended vacation. He'd take just enough credits to be considered a full-time student and then change his major when he got too close to graduating. I don't know how he got the signatures for that.

His plan was to take his decade-long vacation on guaranteed student loans and then declare bankruptcy the day he graduated, something you could do at the time. Then just before he graduated they changed the rules. He's probably still paying off those student loans more than twenty years later. Not that I feel sorry for him.

John Lynch said...

I just joined the Navy, then got out and enrolled in a small state school. Then I got tuition assistance by joining the local National Guard unit. I still had some loans to pay off, but only about 3500 dollars.

Higer ed has become a kind of rent seeking to join the professional class.

Ralph L said...

He considers a cellphone a necessity--what a sybarite!

jimbino said...

This guy is my soulmate. I have lived and traveled in a VW van throughout Europe and South America, spending days, weeks and months camped dead center in dozens of cities including Prague, Bucharest, Budapest, Munich, Barcelona, Lisbon, Belgrade, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Salvador de Bahia, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Montevideo.

As a student at U of Chicago, I lived in my office, sleeping hidden beneath my drafting table for 6 months until the janitor found and reported me.

Ralph L said...

I'm 30 miles from Durham. We've only had a few nights below freezing and lately some cold days. Lots of rain the last month, however.

dick said...

Why Duke and not a cheaper school could depend on what he is aiming for. If he is aiming for a teaching position at the college level I would imagine that Duke on the CV would be a plus. It may be that he is aiming for a position at Duke itself in which case Duke on the CV would be even more of a plus.

He kind of reminds me of the GI Bill men and women of the late 1940's in how they had to be frugal to make it. There was the GI Bill but not a whole lot of other assistance open to them so they did what they had to in order to survive. I applaud him for what he is doing. I would imagine that the salaries in that Alaska position were pretty high as they have to be to get people to take those jobs.

Dogwood said...

If he ever tried to do something like this again, he should do it with a little style.

Penny said...

This is an impressive story. One man with an objective to get an education and not have either him or his family end up in debt for having done so.

No matter what it is he decides he wants to do, does anyone doubt that he will figure out a way to do it? When he's ready to begin his professional life, door will open for him.

If any here were looking to hire someone, wouldn't you just LOVE to have someone goal oriented, hard working, adept at thinking outside the box to creatively solve problems, all the while able to sacrifice for some greater long term goal?

Penny said...

Also, it will be interesting to see what the Part II or this story turns out to be. My money is on an outpouring of support from classmates and anonymous donors who will help him on his way with his objective.

I myself will be more than happy to give him my iron and ironing board, which turned up on his list of "wants" along with Whole Foods peanut butter.

It will be a lovely Part II, except for the pesky stories about city ordinances and school rules. Oh well, the best stories always have an antagonist.

raf said...

Reminds me of the summer I lived on one cheese sandwich and one can of soup per day, waiting for the GI bill to kick back in. Of course, I am the older generation now so no virtue attaches, I suppose. Although the rank injustice of financial injustice favoring the profligate still rankles, at times.

kynefski said...

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.

I love this guy.

knox said...

Makes me think of an interview I listened to with the fellow who wrote Scratch Beginnings. It was written in response to "Nickled and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich, who doesn't get a link.

The author went out on his own with only $25 to see if he could get a job and survive. Apparently, he was successful. It's on my list of things to read.

rh and pogo, if you're out there, I'm reading Vicki Hearne right now. Bandit.

John Lynch said...


The difference there is that middle class people have habits that keep them from being poor, while poor people have habits that keep them poor.

These are generalizations, obviously, but I've spent enough time in low wage jobs to see for myself. Also, I repo'd cars for a little while. That was eye opening.

If you don't save money, don't get educated, and won't pursue better opportunities, you'll have a hard time. If you have children too early, or have them without getting married, you'll have a harder time.

If you expect to borrow your way into the next social class, that won't work, either.

vbspurs said...

If he ever tried to do something like this again, he should do it with a little style.

Top Gear recently did a segment comparing the old VW camper to a modern-day version (albeit bare-bones). The VW did well, but I just have to look at the interior to know this is really not my scene. It reminds me of all the cars I drove in, when I lived in so-called Third World countries. No power steering, no a/c, just a stick peeping out of the floor and huge steering wheel.

reader_iam said...

I've come to love A/C in cars, and, due to my own scale and it how it scales within cars, huge steering wheels aren't my thing. However, I LOVE--in fact emphatically prefer, in cars, if not always in trucks and the truck-based--stick shift (manual transmissions), and have an ambivalent relationship with power steering, at best (again, with exceptions, as implied above).

reader_iam said...

Gimme the control, baby, and lemme feel the damn road!!!!

reader_iam said...

First car that was mine (manual transmission, natch), though a lemon in many ways, had a manual choke, even. Damn, though it was a stupid car for me to have at that time (and wasn't even my choice, again at that time, at the start, on account of my even then having some semblance of common sense) and I lived to regret having it then, as I predicted, I ...

... still truly miss it. And emphatically BECAUSE of that manual choke, & etc. ...

; ) Sigh. : )

wv: remesall (rememoring sillyall olstuff)

John Clifford said...

If I worked a summer or two in Alaska, or on an offshore oil rig, I'd take the money and buy a 20-year-old RV. You can pick one up for $3k to $5k, and it's a lot more comfortable than living in a van. Get a bike and an umbrella.

My impression from reading the story is that the guy has some sort of mental problem. Otherwise why would you attend grad school for a couple of years yet completely isolate yourself socially? Why not attend the U of Phoenix instead?

I think this guy is going to reprise Ted Kaczynski in a decade or two.

Paco Wové said...

You know, MadisonMan, you are one the the highest value commenters on this site. I mean that sincerely. Really. Which is why, when you say something as stupefying dumb as "If you don't save the money, then you can take out loans and the tuition bill won't be so high", I have to hang my head. Mighty Casey has struck out, etc.

"The bill won't be so high?" The bill is now higher, my friend, thanks to the magic of compound interest.

Skyler said...

I'm with Clifford, the guy isn't right in the head.

Penny wrote:

If any here were looking to hire someone, wouldn't you just LOVE to have someone goal oriented, hard working, adept at thinking outside the box to creatively solve problems, all the while able to sacrifice for some greater long term goal?

I would never never never hire this guy. Too asocial. Too willing to give up literally everything and put up with anything to stick to some antisocial value system.

He might be successful on his own, but he is not the sort to subordinate himself to someone else's orders and priorities.

I'm not saying that as a slur. I hope to never work for anyone else again for much the reasons. But I do intend to hire people and they will have to be the sort that can think independently while at the same time have good hygiene and be able to conform to the direction I would provide. I don't think this guy could do that for very long.

demian said...

"...inhabitants of multicolored VW buses, welcoming strangers with complimentary coke lines and invitations to writhing, hairy, back-seat orgies."

Cocaine? A toke from a joint seems more likely in this image. But I suppose "coke" allows the author to truthfully maintain:

"In my van there were no orgies or coke lines..."