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  • Ken Ilgunas

Financial crisis

I’m running out of money.

I’d like to put the blame on the high cost of education, a tough economy, or some other debilitating side effect caused by our flawed economic superstructure. But I can’t truthfully blame anything or anybody but myself.

I currently have $1,473.79 in the bank. Next semester, I will have to make my final tuition payment ($1,089). So when I graduate in May—if all goes according to plan—it looks like I’ll have about $384.79 left (if my part-time job wages continue to cover all my living costs).

Let me try to explain how I got in this situation.

There have been two phases to my debt-free college-degree experiment. The first phase was in the spring semester of ’09—my first semester—when I arrived at Duke with just $4,000. In this phase I was poor.

The second phase began in the fall of ’09 when I came back from my well-paying Park Service job as a backcountry ranger in Alaska with well over 10K in the bank. In this phase I was radically frugal—and I’ve been in this phase ever since.

Despite having money—after my summer at the Park Service—I chose to carry over many aspects of my initial frugal phase. I stayed in my van; I rarely, if ever, ate out; and I still shopped at places like The Salvation Army.

Yet, I did use my money a bit more freely. I bought a new and expensive pair of hiking boots. I started buying my groceries at Whole Foods rather than Kroger. I stopped meticulously keeping track of my every penny. I felt more at ease taking long gas-guzzling trips to David’s and the Appalachian Trail. And instead of working 20 hours at my part-time job, I only worked 12.

This past summer I chose not to work so I could focus on my studies and on my book proposal. It was a bold move, I realized. After all, I could have gone back to Alaska and brought back another 10K+.

Still, I thought I’d be alright. Besides, I had plenty of money left over from my ’09 summer job.

But because of some bad spending habits and some unforeseen expenses, I’m down to close-to-nothing again. For one, I strayed from making my meals from cheap bulk items (beans, rice, oatmeal), instead treating myself to cheeses, yogurts, and expensive vegetables like avocados.

I even—I’m ashamed to admit—paid for a haircut. At first, I thought I’d save money and give myself one. I locked myself in a bathroom and tried to give my hair a light trim since it was starting to get into my eyes. Before I even started, I realized how dumb an idea this was. I knew that cutting hair would probably fall into the category of things that I will forever be terrible at. When it comes to pointless aesthetic touch-ups—like making beds, sweeping floors, or polishing cars—I know I’ll somehow—by virtue of my carelessness—end up making whatever I’m doing look worse than it originally was.

After a few snips, I realized I did irreparable damage to my hair. I accidently removed all of my bangs, but still had long hair on the top, sides, and back of my head, exposing my high hairline and accentuating my long, flowing locks—sort of like Chucky.

Embarrassed, I wore a hat for the next few days and when I couldn’t deal with it any longer, I took my travesty to the barbershop and very guiltily spent $20 on a non-necessity.

And my van—because of several back and forth trips from David’s to Duke this past summer (2 hours each way)—needed a series of repairs.

I got new tires ($330), new front brakes ($350), and a ball joint issue resolved ($350). In a matter of weeks, I’d lost over $1,000 on my van alone. That’s when I took a close look at my bank account, shrieked, and decided I needed to go back to my old frugal ways.

Between my financial crisis and my recent parking lot drama, I felt, for a moment, like my little world was crashing down. Nothing seemed certain or secure. My van was breaking down, I was getting kicked out of my neighborhood, and my shower slippers were falling apart. I felt like the protagonist in Barton Fink whose crumbling hotel room corresponded with his own psychological degradation.

Since then, I’ve upped my working hours from 7 to 13 at my part-time job tutoring kids.

I signed up for two MRI studies, bringing in a clean $75 cash for just a couple hours of work.

And I stopped shopping at Whole Foods—where I’d buy local, organic stuff—and now shop at the cheaper, though less ethically-sound, Kroger supermarket.

And I’ve begun scavenging for food wherever and whenever I can get it. It’s amazing how much money there is at Duke. I went to a film that a student group was showing just so I could eat at their lavish (and free) reception. Here, they’re serving tea smoked red fish mousse crostini with Terrace Hub Sauce, brown butter pear bars, pecan tarts, and butter squash goat cheese croquettes.

To go on an aside… I can’t help but feel embarrassed for the waiters and waitresses who proudly, beamingly, read off the specials, pronouncing each extra adjective on a dish with rhetorical flourish, as if it was them who’d gathered all the ingredients and prepared the meal. Frankly, I’ve found that the more adjectives there are on an entrée, the nastier it tastes and the costlier it is. When I’m in a situation where I must order such a meal, I obstinately reduce whatever it is I’m ordering to a word. “I want fish,” I say with a neanerthalithic grunt. Anyway, despite the long titles, I got all this food for free.

Here I found a goldmine—a platter of vegetables that someone just left on a table in a classroom. I’ve also found a half a package of Oreos, and a half eaten pizza in the library, among many other neglected dishes.

Now that I’ve taken these necessary measures, I’ve achieved some semblance of financial stability. While I will be running on empty soon enough, I should—according to my math—easily be able to make my last tuition payment next semester.

How do I feel about my situation? There is, admittedly, a small part of me that thinks—“Gee, in a few months, I’m going to be completely broke, practically homeless, and will have no possessions of significant value. I’ll have no health insurance, a worthless degree, and probably won’t have a job.”

But that’s just a small part of me. I knew, all along, I was putting myself in a financially vulnerable situation. Hell, if there’s one Master’s Degree that will most certainly not better your chances at getting a job, it’s Liberal Studies—the program I’ve enrolled in. I knew this.

But financial security is not and never has been my goal. The ONLY thing that is important to me is that I graduate debt-free. I don’t care if I have to sell the van and sleep in stairwells. I don’t care if I have a dollar left in my bank account in May. All I care about is achieving my goal.

I believe that to pursue and achieve a goal, you sometimes need to view the world with a sort of tunnel vision. You need to blur all the temptations, detours, and sidetracks on your peripheries in order to keep sharp focus on your goal. All I see ahead of me right now, wavy and mirage-like on the horizon, is my goal of graduating debt-free. Once I do that, then I’ll worry about eking out a living.


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