top of page
  • Ken Ilgunas

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.


bottom of page