Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Belated manifesto

I am giving away $910.90 and it’s making me sick.

In January of 2009—upon enrolling at Duke—I vowed to earn my college degree without borrowing money or taking out loans. Between my part-time job, my summer job with the Park Service, and money saved via radical living (not to mention the reasonably-priced tuition I pay), I’ve been able to afford school.

While I’ve always been committed to my goal—enough so to consider Dumpster-diving and (if need be) moving into the woods abutting campus—there are a few questionable transactions I’ve made that—if I don’t do anything about them—might compromise the integrity of my experiment.

What constitutes borrowing? What is a loan? When one borrows or takes out a loan, it’s implied that the person taking the money will pay back his lender. But what about a gift of money that I’m not expected to pay back? If I accept a gift of $1,000, is that cheating? What about a meal bought by a friend? What about the food I steal from the garbage?—(since that’s food I haven’t earned with my own money). What about the scholarship money my department gives me each semester? Because there are no rules for this sort of thing, it’s difficult to sort what’s not acceptable from what is. Thus, all I have is my conscience to create and enforce my "rules."

None of the money I’m paying back—I should note—has been borrowed or loaned to me. I have, however, accepted gifts, which I am now giving back because thoughts of them are keeping me up at night. Here is the list of gifts accepted and the reasons why I’m paying people back:

$349 lap top
$79.95 lap top warranty
$21.95 lap top bag

I was going to buy a lap top before coming to Duke, but my mom—out of kindheartedness (though without my approval)—bought one for me. When I asked her how much it cost she refused to tell me because she knew I wanted to pay her back. She insisted that it was a gift and that she didn’t want my money for obvious motherly reasons. Finally, after a year and a half, she fessed up after I told her that her gifts were going to make me into the next James Frey.

$100 Whole Foods gift certificate
$100 Whole Foods gift certificate
$135 dentist bill

This past Xmas my mother gave me a $100 Whole Foods gift certificate and sent me another one midway through the semester. I thoughtlessly accepted (and used) these gifts without thinking about whether or not they “broke the rules.” Also, during winter break I chipped my tooth and had it fixed. Even though I’m 26 years old, my dentist sent my mother the bill—the amount of which she kept secret until recently.

$25 Whole Foods gift certificate
$100 cash

Additionally, I’m giving money back to my friend who gave me a Whole Foods gift card as well as $100 my aunt gave me for Christmas.


Overall, I feel sick about giving this money back, both because the gifts were given to me selflessly (with nothing but my wellbeing and happiness in mind) and because I really want to keep the money. Believe it or not, I want things. I’d love to someday own property. I’d like to buy books or rent movies without feeling guilt. Hell, I’d probably get a lot of use out of an iPod. So I do not give back this money easily; I give it back with great reluctance.

I should also note that I am not giving money back for meals that people have bought or cooked for me. Nor am I paying my department back for the financial aid that makes my tuition affordable. Food—when not in the form of a gift card—just seems natural to accept. And to turn down the financial aid offered to me would be financially devastating and would render my goal unachievable. Besides, I only chose Duke because I knew it was one of the few programs I could afford (among the fifty or so other schools I researched beforehand).

It would have been a great experiment to suffer as the common college student does. It would have been a great experiment to pay what the typical undergraduate pays for tuition, to spend summers working at unpaid internships, and to earn what he earns at his part-time slightly-above-minimum-wage job. It would have been great to see if the ridiculous cost of a college education could be paid for loan-free with the resources available to the typical student. But my primary goal was to get an education, not to put on a show. And I was going to do things that suited my situation and goals, not someone else’s. Plus, I’d done all those things—I’d paid the high tuition, interned without pay, and made next-to-nothing at part-time jobs. I had no interest in doing those things again.

While the experiment I outlined above would have made a more compelling social statement about student debt, college inaffordability, and what can be accomplished (or not) by living thriftily, I chose to pursue my education first and make a social statement second. So I found the best and cheapest program I could afford, and I worked at the best-paying-while-honorable jobs I could find.

While getting an education was my primary goal, I knew I wanted to use the van and my story for something larger. Hence, the blog, article, and media interviews.

I was one of many students who were almost buried under the costs of a college education. While I found my way out of debt, I watched other students around me flounder in theirs.

But student debt—I’ve learned—is just another phase slotted in between adolescence and old age, relegating us to lives spent in almost perpetual subjugation. From infancy to eighteen, American youth have almost no freedom to speak of. We’re forced—by law—to attend primary and secondary school and to live under a particular roof until we’re old enough to cast ballots. While I of course realize why it wouldn’t be a good idea to have hordes of anarchic eight-year-olds wreaking havoc in the streets, the prison sentence that is adolescence exists only to serve a world governed by institutions, corporations and bureaucracies.

Under the roof of my boyhood home and in the room I grew up in, I covered my walls with movie posters, three of them from the movie Braveheart. Between the absurdity of compulsory schooling, standardized tests, and the sterility of suburbia—I was drawn to a different sort of world—one with real adventures, real glory, and real sacrifice. I dreamt of cleaving off the arm of my enemy with a claymore, telling a woman “you and no other,” and dying for something I believed in. Later I’d find inspiration in the stories of our founding fathers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thoreau. Through their examples, I decided that I wanted to be a wayward traveler, a gentleman adventurer, someone who lived according to convictions and principles; a dreamer and a doer.

Upon signing up for student loans when I was 18, I unknowingly signed up for another seven years of subjugation. After college, on Alaskan mountain tops, with my thumb out on Yukon’s highways, and in a birch bark canoe in Ontario, I dragged my debt with me wherever I went like toilet paper stuck to my shoe.

Debt kept me from becoming the man I wanted to be. I was healthy, comfortable, and my needs were met, but I felt little better off than a well-nourished and well-treated slave.

When you owe someone money your life is not all yours. To owe is to surrender your autonomy; it’s to cede a portion of yourself—a pound of flesh—to banks, the government, even families.

When you become hyper-conscious of your freedom, it’s not just loans, but gifts that you begin scrutinizing as threats to your freedom; sometimes even they come with price tags.

So I now give back the money I feel I shouldn’t have taken. While—in some ways—it would make a lot more sense to keep the money given to me by people who don’t want it back, in importance the social role of my experiment has eclipsed the personal. $900 can buy me a lot, but my integrity, identity, and freedom are priceless.

We need free and principled people—people impervious to the corruptions of money and power. We need windmill warriors, and anachronistic adventurers. Emerson asked, “Why are there no heroes?” I ask: Why, today, are there no Wallace’s, Franklin’s, Thoreau’s, or King Jr.’s?

When our educated classes are drowning in debt, it’s no wonder where the idealists are. They’re scrubbing toilets, serving coffee, chained to cubicles, and cast into decades of indentured servitude. Our society is held in check by debt. People suffer, ecosystems are destroyed, and the consumer-capitalist complex continues to chug along its unsustainable path—and there’s no one left to fight the battles that need to be fought. Our revolutionaries are institutionalized; our dreamers bureaucratized, our windmill-slayers fighting battles in virtual, videogame worlds.

My story is a story of frugality and freedom. And I need to remain as genuine as I can to make it worth a damn.


Jenniffer said...

I think that Christmas and birthday gifts should be okay to accept. It's customary for friends and relatives to exchange gifts on these occasions; the gifts are tokens of affection. Just because someone gives you a gift card or cash, that doesn't mean it's not as "pure" as a book or something similar. They were trying to give you something you needed, and they were probably aware of your space limitations!

I also think that you should accept *any* gift given freely. If it helps, consider them trades, not gifts.

You have enriched my life with your blog. If I want to give you a gift in return as a way of saying thank you, what's wrong with that? Birthday and Christmas gifts are similar -- they are ways of saying "Thank you for being a part of my life. It's better because of you."

Anonymous said...

I echo Jenniffer. This just seems like grandstanding.

Anonymous said...

Yikes, I am afraid I agree with the others as well. Gifts are a part of what makes us human. Haven't you provided gifts over the same period of time which in essence "balances" things out? The gift of your blog certainly counts in this regard.

Brian said...

I agree with all.

Ken, I check your blog everyday to see if there is an update, I enjoy your writing and getting a glimpse into the window of your life that you provide. But I must say, if I was your mother, aunt, friend - whomever it was that gave you a gift freely and without any intent of receiving something in return, I would be offended that you would want to "pay me back" for lack of a better term. I honestly think you should re-examine your reasoning for wanting to "pay back" these people. I feel giving cash back is not the answer.

Obviously I am not you, and can't even pretend to understand, I just feel that this is completely unnecessary and the people you are trying to service will not understand your intent.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everyone's comments. I think I would be offended too!It definitely is grandstanding. What is your reasoning for wanting to pay back?

-Heidi said...

Receiving gifts definitely sets one up for feeling a need to reciprocate.... rather that was the intent or not. And it is one of those things that "traps" us. If I now feel I have to go to work x number of hours to pay so-n-so back for the gift, then I've started a cycle! I now have to start gifting with everyone! Pretty soon it's a full time job to pay for all those gifts! I use to work all year to pay my Christmas credit cards off... it's a trap!
I do not feel comfortable taking from anyone without giving back. I think this shows character and it isn't always easy to go against the established customs in your quest for freedom! Thank you for bringing this up as an example. Stay true to yourself - you are the one who decides what helps you to sleep better at night!

Alexandria said...

I totally understand your reason for giving back the money, but like others before me have said....it might offend them. I would suggest donating that $900 to a charity you feel strongly about. But I think both ideas hold equal convictions.

namelessfellwanderer said...

I'm just thinking out loud.

A true gift is one that is given without any expectation of reciprocation. I give because I want to make the receiver happy. My 'reward', if you will, is the smile that they give me and the moment of shared joy. I think that this type of gift should be accepted. A rejection would be a spurning of the giver's affection.

On the other hand, there are gifts that are given because of a sense of obligation. These have less meaning and more to do with circumstance instead.

The question is where does one draw a line? My parents have supported me with my tuition fees. They give the aid to me freely. And yet I feel indebted to them. Not so much in the monetary sense, but rather, what they have sacrificed for me. They have given it to me because they have seen me worthy of it. And yet, above all else, I feel the desperate need to prove myself worthy of such a gift because I cannot see what they have seen. Are they wrapping me up in string or am I doing it to myself?

But anyway, if you insist on 'returning' those gifts, instead of just discarding it, turn it to a good cause. Give it some meaning and donate it to charity or something. :)

Chrisfwb said...

Integrity, identity, and freedom are indeed priceless; however, accepting a gift from someone does not negate any of these. Ultimately it is your pride that makes you want to give the gifts back. If you had a family member or good friend that you gave a gift to because you wanted to bless them or because that was your little way of saying that you wanted to be a part of their life, would you not want to give them the gift without them trying to give it back. There were times in your parents and friends lives that someone gave them a gift that they really needed. They give you these things because it is their way of showing you that they care. some people's love language is gift giving. If your mom is literally loosing sleep at night because she is concerned about your well being, and her giving you a gift card gives here that peace of mind, then take it. Do not make her worry. She does weather you realize it or not. There will come a day when you will be inclined to give someone a gift. Mabe it will be because they need something, mabe it will be because you love them, mabe it will be because you want to do something to help or are worried and you do it for peace of mind. If you have two of something and you only need one, and your friend does not have any, but they need one, then give them one. Right? Do not give the money back! It will make more drama that what it is worth. Instead look for that opportune time to give a gift to someone who needs something and hope that when you do give them a gift, they don't have too much pride to reject your gift. I follow you every day. Your site is on my homepage. Whatever the decision you still ROCK!!!

Ken said...

Since the comments to this post are similar, I’ll just give a general response. All comments—good and bad—are appreciated, by the way.

For the most part, there's a significant part of me that agrees with pretty much everything everyone has said, the “grandstanding” comments included. Any ascetical act is a performance, and mine is no different. I am putting on a show to make people think about freedom, frugality, the cost of education, etc. If I wasn’t currently trying to achieve my goal, I probably would have gratefully accepted those gifts. And after I graduate next May, I will gladly accept most any gift given to me.

The problem is that I promised myself, friends, family, and the readers of this blog that I was going to earn a college degree on my own. And the gifts given to me—according to my conscience—may—if they’re not given back—render my goal unachievable.

$100 here and there does not “save” me or prevent me from going into debt (and thus doesn’t determined whether I will accomplish my goal or not), but what if my aunt gave me $1,000? What if my friend gave me a gift of $20,000? Those gifts would make my experiment valueless. There may be some line dividing what’s acceptable from what’s not, but because a “no-more-than-$200 rule” doesn’t resolve the issue in my mind, I think it’s a safer bet to just pay back or not accept all gifts/ money given to me.

I’d like for once to do something without cutting a corner. I’d like for the vision of my goal to be seen through to its completion. I once went on a two-month-long 18th Century voyage across Ontario, using only the gear and equipment of the Canadian voyageurs, except that I used restrooms at canal locks, and Bob, our leader, carried a cell phone for emergencies. I once wanted to see how far I could walk in 24 hours. I did 51 miles, except that I stopped after 22 ½ hours.

I’d like for this enterprise to be different. And to make it worth a damn, I need to keep it as pure as possible. What if Gandhi was caught with a bag of Lays on one of his hunger strikes? What if Heyerdahl attached a motor to his rickety raft? These men and the things they stood up for would be made irrelevant; they’d be little different than the politicians and preachers who denounce drugs, extramarital affairs, or corruption while committing the very wrongs they condemn.

(message continued below)

Ken said...

While I realize that some gifts are given selflessly—without any thoughts of reciprocation in mind—others, let’s face it, come with a cost. In my senior year of high school my then-girlfriend’s stepfather—a generous and wealthy man—offered to provide me with interest-free student loans (which, in hindsight, probably would have saved me upwards of $5-10K). I was grateful for the offer and sure that he had no motive other than to help me out, but I knew if I accepted his gift, I’d obligate myself to do more than just pay him back. I’d feel I needed to impress him or “do something good” with my degree. My future and freedom would, in some way, be manipulated. And my success or failure would not have been my own; it would have been his, too. I have not once regretted that $5-10K decision.

To address a few more comments… Charity may have been a better solution, and it’s something I probably should have put more thought into. Checks are in the mail so it’s too late anyhow. And yes, I realized I would probably offend my gift-givers, and was reluctant to give the money back for this very reason. I suppose I’d rather be an ungrateful ass than a hypocrite.

As an addendum to my original post, I think it’s worth mentioning—to share everything and hide nothing in hopes of engendering trust—that I have borrowed money once, though I feel it doesn’t sully my goal since it was unrelated to my loan-free college-degree experiment. Towards the end of my first semester—when I’d already paid my tuition in full—I didn’t have the funds to pay for a flight to Alaska where I was going to work that summer. I was expecting several more checks from my part-time job in coming weeks that would have allowed me to buy a flight on my own, but the flight would have cost me more—several hundred dollars more due to rising ticket prices—if I’d waited for those checks to arrive. Instead, I borrowed $1,000 from my mother so I could buy the flight, which I paid her back upon receiving my first check from the Park Service just a few weeks later. Upon meticulously keeping track of my expenditures that semester, I figured going into debt to my mother for a couple weeks was worth saving $200 or so. This loan—I believe—does not render my experiment a failure because it had nothing to do with tuition or school payments and also because I did not need the loan; I merely requested it because it made sound economical sense.

Luke M said...

I agree with where you are coming from, Ken. I also try to avoid any fiscal help from family, but sometimes accepting help with save money in the long run- for example, borrowing 50$ interest free from a family member could prevent overdrafting with 30$ surcharges.

But, don't forget you can pay your family back without money. Whenever I visit my folks, I help clean their place, do yardwork, fix things around the house, cook dinner, and so on to show my appreciation. Right now I can't monetarily pay them back for their help (fiscal and non) but I can do other things to return the favor and show that I care and I appreciate their help and concern.

Plus, a returned gift can imply disdain for the giver and their good intentions. Don't put your mother through any more grief. It's a lot harder to heal broken family relations than it is to pay back loans.

Anonymous said...

Luke M. you've said it all.

Anonymous said...

Don't be such a jerk. She's your mom. It gives her pleasure to do things for you. It gives her pain when you don't accept them.

And stop comparing yourself to Gandhi! One day you will read that and cringe.

mOOm said...

Not everyone has no adventures in high school, between high school and college and during college. I'm sorry you didn't but I certainly did. I wouldn't call adolescence a "prison sentence". It doesn't have to be. Also not everyone goes into debt to go to college. I'd only study somewhere I would be paid a full scholarship. I never paid any tuition for myself and got three degrees. Still that doesn't detract from your experience but think more about how there is a variety of experience out there.

Anonymous said...

It is too bad that you had not considered segregating the funds in a savings account and not using them for "experiment". It would have accomplished the same goal and not had the negative ramifications that come with "returned" gifts.


Anonymous said...

Ken......I've been following you since you began your journey at Duke. You are a talented author/writer. This time you've gone toooooo far. I agree with another response that said someday you will look back and say what was I thinking. Relationships are far more important than whatever you are trying to prove to yourself and others.

Ken said...

Luke—Well said. Agree with everything. While the decision was made with some anxiety, to put things into perspective, I think returning a gift—on the scale of “bad things”—is pretty low.

Anon—I cringe at everything I’ve written; this will be no different. And—c’mon—comparing myself to Gandhi? I was merely using the example of a well-known ascetical act to illustrate my point. Next time I’ll use Jesus.

Moom—“Prison sentence” might be too harsh, but in how many other cultures—over the expanse of human history—have kids been locked into schools until their 18? Not many. Sure, some kids are homeschooled, but I suspect it's a tiny minority. And yes, some people can escape school without debt, but 67% leave with loans at an average of $23,000. Cases like you, then, are rare. There are not enough assistantships and scholarships to go around.

Heb—Perhaps, but that money was like blood smeared on my fingers. It had to go.

Anon—Relationships are important, but staying true to your word is important too. I suppose I opted to go with the latter in this case.

Anonymous said...

Ken.....In years to come I wonder if staying true to your word will prove to be more important than your relationships. If not I hope you are able to repair the damage to your relationships.

Ken said...

Anon--"damage"? Jeez. I understand how returning a gift is not a nice thing to do. Believe me, I understand that. But it's not like I abused someone, took up alcoholism, stole my parents' valuables, or broke important promises. I'm returning a few hundred dollars... On a list of terrible things I could do, this is close to the bottom, and I'm certain whatever "damage" I've caused is negligible.

KClowlife said...

If the relationships were so fragile that they would be compromised by Ken repaying the gifts...then they weren't relationships. And if they weren't relationships then you definitely should have paid them back.

On another note, getting a great education at the time when it's socially expected to receive it and when your brain is probably best prepared to retain it is the right thing to do. And if you need to borrow student loans, at a rate that is usually below inflation, then I would categorize that debt as a capital expense that increases earning potential. If you received grants instead of loans, I would feel absolutely no need to pay them back as grants are put together to further certain ideas. If the life you were living fits an idea that a rich or rich dead person wants to encourage then there is no reason to not accept that money and live that lifestyle.

It's not like you changed majors to get that money, right? I mean, if you wanted to be a writer but you took grants to become a doctor...then that's something that I would have quandaries about.

Anyhow, kudos for understand the power dynamics of money. And just because others want to ignore the fact that gifts, even ones from people who love us dearly, come with implications. To presume that a gift is totally without a hook is a fools errand. People who push ideas like that are frequently those who are tied deeply into relationships and very constrained by their culture. You'll never catch an anarchist or social revolutionary extolling some nonsense, just soccer mommies or cube rats.

Ken said...

KC—Right on. If I’d “damaged” relationships because of living according to my values, convictions, principles, then I don’t know why I’d bother having such relationships in the first place. Luckily, I don't have to worry because my friends and family will not let such trifling matters or a social faux pas cause damage to our relationships.

Ken said...

Just came across this quote which I think is a nice addendum to the conversation. From Barry Schwartz's essay, "The Social Psychology of the Gift":

"It was suggested that the acceptance of a present is in fact an acceptance of the giver's ideas as to what one's desires and needs are. Consequently, to accept a gift is to accept (at least in part) an identity, and to reject a gift is to reject a definition of oneself. It follows that the receipt of gifts from two incompatible persons or groups raises questions as to the real source of one's identification"

Anonymous said...


I found your blog looking for information on moving into a van. I'm 26, up to my neck in student loans, and looking for options. I completely agree with your ideas of freedom and debt and I'm also a Thoreau and Abbey fan.

I'll keep reading...

- Emmalyn