I live in a van down by the river
December 10, 2009 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Want to avoid debt in grad school? You could follow the example of this guy and live in a van.
posted by bove (62 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
You shouldn't be in graduate school if you're not getting paid to be there. Or is this one of those "humanities are different than technical degrees" things?
posted by muddgirl at 3:21 PM on December 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


by the river?
posted by DU at 3:22 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Damn I was going to make a "down by the river" joke, but it was right in the title!
posted by delmoi at 3:22 PM on December 10, 2009


You definitely shouldn't be in grad school for humanities if you aren't getting paid to be there.
posted by oddman at 3:23 PM on December 10, 2009


its either a double or it shows that your education system sucks
posted by uandt at 3:28 PM on December 10, 2009


its either a double or it shows that your education system sucks

BTW -- Elizabeth Turnbull now has a blog: Tiny House Blog.
posted by ericb at 3:30 PM on December 10, 2009


My mistake -- it's not her blog. 'Nother cocktail? Sure.
posted by ericb at 3:32 PM on December 10, 2009


Photos of Turnbull's Tiny House.
posted by ericb at 3:33 PM on December 10, 2009


This is Elizabeth Turnbull's blog.
posted by ericb at 3:34 PM on December 10, 2009


My parents live in a tiny house, and not because they're in grad school!
posted by muddgirl at 3:35 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another solution: Become a prostitute
posted by delmoi at 3:35 PM on December 10, 2009


OK, my parent's house isn't as small as this one, so maybe it's less "tiny" and more just "really small".
posted by muddgirl at 3:39 PM on December 10, 2009


I think this would be rather less workable in, say, Chicago.

However, I was pleasantly reminded of UC Irvine's now-defunct trailer park.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:39 PM on December 10, 2009


I liked this comment:
Although we've never met, I went to college with the author of this article, and I can't help but associate this piece with the string of strikingly misanthropic and self-absorbed articles he published in one of our school's papers during the mid-2000s. If anyone's interested, many of them are archived on The Spectrum's website (http://www.ubspectrum.com/)
posted by AlsoMike at 3:40 PM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Or you could do like Bobst Boy, Steve Stanzak, who lived in the basement of the library at NYU.
posted by jocelmeow at 3:41 PM on December 10, 2009


Good for you, guy. I'd still rather be in debt and have friends and a sex life.
posted by lunit at 3:41 PM on December 10, 2009


When I asked my grandfather for help buying a car so I could continue going to school, he snickered and suggested I sleep in classrooms.
I'm going to remember that for as long as I live.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:42 PM on December 10, 2009


>Oh come on, you get laid if you have a van. No exceptions.

Previous van love.

Hey Metafilter: I love airbrushed van art and Lady Gaga. I have no van. My birthday and Christmas are coming up. HINT HINT HINT
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:48 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not just a humanities issue...When I was an undergrad in the late 80s/early 90s, I knew a female chem grad student at Stanford who lived in a van, at least for the warmest months of the year.
posted by Sublimity at 3:49 PM on December 10, 2009


I have a friend who lives in an RV in a parking lot at his work, because he does a lot of traveling when not doing contract or freelance projects. However, he doesn't get hassled by Security, because he approached them first - he laid out what he wanted to do, and wouldn't get flustered if they said 'no'. Instead, the Security Team worked with him, and now he has a spot in a secluded area of the parking lot where he can park his home hassle-free. Van Guy probably could have done the same.

And while that lifestyle isn't for me, I do envy his 45 second commute to the office.
posted by spinifex23 at 3:50 PM on December 10, 2009


I mean, look, OK? I have no problem with some guy deciding to live in a van for a couple years. Heck, at least this guy isn't claiming that he's homeless. But Mr. Ilgunas clearly keeps doing these cost-benefit analyses and coming to unconventional conclusions. Like this article where he graphically describes the state of his sex life and confuses "sex" with "going steady". Or this one, where he decries the fact that he has to work 30 hours a week to go to school (and STILL comes out with $30,000 in debt???)
posted by muddgirl at 3:51 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Living in a van for college isn't radical -- it was old hat by the early 1970s, at least on the west coast.

My quibble, though, is in how he kept describing himself as "poor." Anyone whose mother is well off enough to keep offering to rent you an apartment is not poor. Poor is living in the van because you have no other options. He's having a fun (and cheap) experiment, which is miles away from being poor.

That, and how he stopped washing his dishes. That's just icky -- either put in a small water tank and a sink, or start using biodegradable disposable plates.
posted by Forktine at 3:55 PM on December 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think this would be rather less workable in, say, Chicago.

You'd be surprised about how many overlooked roads there are, especially in larger cities. Just move your vehicle every 72 hours, and no one will bother you (much). Save yourself the cost of the parking pass.

Or you could do like Bobst Boy, Steve Stanzak, who lived in the basement of the library at NYU.

Every few years, there would be an architecture student who would realize that they spent so much time in their lab that they could just live there, and they would. You have personal space for storage of architecture materials and personal items, showers at the gym, and the student IDs work as free bus passes, providing access to grocery stores that are significantly cheaper than food on campus.

His fight against conformity feels more like the premise of a book than a simple choice to live a very frugal life. He said it himself, he was looking for the rise of the downtrodden college student against the greedy College Administrators and the "Gestapo jackboots" of the campus police. The fact that college tuition is ratcheting up every year is not new. Join the protesting students.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:56 PM on December 10, 2009


Funny, I'm in grad school at Duke and they pay me enough to live in a very nice duplex. Honestly, cost of living in Durham is cheap compared to everywhere else I've ever lived. I even bought a new car a few years ago. This guy is doing something wrong, and it's not living in a van.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:03 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


You'd be surprised about how many overlooked roads there are, especially in larger cities. Just move your vehicle every 72 hours, and no one will bother you (much). Save yourself the cost of the parking pass.

Um, it's 10 degrees in Chicago right now with 20 MPH winds. Unless you're fond of waking up dead, I don't think that your plan will work.
posted by octothorpe at 4:05 PM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Funny, I'm in grad school at Duke and they pay me enough to live in a very nice duplex. Honestly, cost of living in Durham is cheap compared to everywhere else I've ever lived. I even bought a new car a few years ago. This guy is doing something wrong, and it's not living in a van.

If he's paying tuition, I'd assume he's in a master's program, or is an unfunded doctoral student (in which case he's definitely doing something wrong). But a lot of masters programs offer minimal funding at best, with the expectation that students will take out loans because it's a professional investment.
posted by Forktine at 4:05 PM on December 10, 2009


As I listened to what sounded like a pair of Gestapo jackboots approach the driver-side door...

Yes, because campus security guards (not even proper cops!) concerned about vagrancy are exactly like the Fascist state police forces from WWII Europe. Jesus wept!
posted by rkent at 4:08 PM on December 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


According to this story he's in the MA in Liberal Studies program. Worst of both worlds.

And boy, has this guy got a knack for describing his plan for cheap living with such self-satisfaction, while making it sound so much worse than he realizes, that he loses all your sympathy. Not washing the dishes? Seriously?
posted by RogerB at 4:11 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Did he say it costs him $4.34 per day for food? That seems like a lot, no? Considering he doesn't eat any animal products? A pound of pasta can be had for under a buck...
posted by jckll at 4:15 PM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh god, it gets even worse:

To pay off my debt, I'd found jobs that provided free room and board. I moved to Coldfoot, Alaska -- 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 250 from the nearest store -- where I worked as a lodge cleaner, a tour guide and a cook. Later, I worked on a trail crew in Mississippi in an AmeriCorps program. Between jobs I hitchhiked more than 7,000 miles to avoid paying airfare.

Lodge cleaner and cook sound like basic minimum-wage positions for which no college education is required. Tour guide is probably not much better assuming he has no significant local knowledge to speak of. AmeriCorps is a volunteer program and so is not exactly a highway to getting out of debt (though to be fair, they do have a small loan reimbursement stipend if you finish the program). Hitchhiking 7,000 miles has got to take at least a week or two, which could've been spent working at a decent wage which probably would've covered the airfare (you know his dates were flexible!) as well as a couple of student loan payments.

Sounds like this guy is not so interested in actually paying off his loans quickly, and would rather tell stories about how he had to work shitty jobs forever to pay off his loans. Come on, liberal studies major - you could at least get drunk all the time and call it an homage to Kerouac.
posted by rkent at 4:19 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I used to fantasize about this sort of thing, back when I was still married and owned a house. During that time, I moonlit at FedEx in Memphis, and the benefits were pretty good; I told myself that, as long as I could find a place to park a van, I could live in that and take as much advantage as I could of FedEx's policy (which they suspended, although they may have opened it up since) of letting employees ride in airplane jumpseats (think of Tom Hanks in Cast Away) anywhere the company flew. Memphis is far enough south and therefore warm enough that I think that I could have pulled this off, assuming, of course, that there would be someplace I could park the van every night (well, every day, really, if I worked the night shift, which I did when I was moonlighting).

And Ilgunas does get a little preachy about debt--well, OK, more than a little--but he's right about college debt. Twenty or so years ago, when I was going to school, the idea of giving the average college student a credit card, or having good-to-swanky restaurants in the campustown business districts of even middling-sized colleges, was absurd. You had cheap places to eat and drink and that was it. I had a hard enough time living on a shoestring during and directly after college, even without any loans of any sort hanging over me; I sure don't envy the kids today.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:22 PM on December 10, 2009


Hole in the internet!

I had intended to link to a pic, but a GIS of "Trapper John MD Titanic" just comes up with pics of the stars of Trapper John MD... and the Titanic. Doh.

I took great inspiration from it as a student and briefly considered floating grad studies living in a derelict motorhome across two adjacent parking spaces at the U. Couldn't make it work.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2009


Oh, Trapper's RV had the name "Titanic" spray-painted across the side.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2009


The guy has no friends and never gets laid and he wants everyone to know about it.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:47 PM on December 10, 2009


I don't understand all the back-biting criticism of this guy. He's young and having an adventure and obviously is ambitious to be a writer. Not everybody's cup of tea, but what's wrong with that? I think people are reading in some implicit criticism of themselves that is not actually there and responding defensively. Give the guy some slack to make some sophomoric mistakes.
posted by Pistol at 4:54 PM on December 10, 2009


I don't understand all the back-biting criticism of this guy.

It's because we're metafilter. We could hat a plate of beans. "A banal color and conventional seasoning"
posted by delmoi at 5:04 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


very nice, i wish i could do that and get away with it. with my luck i would get caught within the week.
posted by ilovecomix at 5:06 PM on December 10, 2009


HI, I'M ON METAFILTER AND LOOK AT THE FEDORA I PUT ON THESE PINTOS!
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:07 PM on December 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hole in the internet!

Trapper John's RV can be seen at 5:27 in this video, among other places.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:14 PM on December 10, 2009


I'll say it thrice: if you're not getting funding for grad school in the humanities, YOU SHOULD NOT BE THERE.

That said, I still needed loans to finish my PhD, and I have to say that living on a grand a month in downtown Toronto is much less fun than it sounds. :)
posted by jrochest at 5:28 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Trapper John's RV can be seen at 5:27 in this video, among other places.

I was mostly amazed by the lack of any (any!) stills, but thanks for the memories. My god that whole show has aged.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:31 PM on December 10, 2009


The parallels between Thoreau and he seem quite strong. Thoreau lived near his family and could drop home for dinners and a wash while writing poetically about a frugal life in the woods. In a similar way, this guy benefits from many of the amenities that are provided on a campus (showers, toilets, etc) while writing about the benefits of being debt-free.

I do admire his quest for frugality though; I too am a frugal grad student but I live in a house, (and have friends). I doubt campus security would care, and even if they did it's probably worth the risk of having some human interaction.

Isn't writing an article after doing this for two months a bit crazy? All of a sudden he's prepared to reveal what he now does, despite sacrificing most things so he could keep it secret.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 5:42 PM on December 10, 2009


Hey, he beats this guy, who wrote what might be the sentence with the theoretically maximal concentration of awfulness:

"My grad school homelessness continued up until a little ways into my seduction community induction."
posted by escabeche at 6:01 PM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


The reason I, at least, am "back-biting" him have been pretty well described. There's no need for him to justify all the reasons he's living in a van, if he wants to live in a van, which he clearly does. Just live in the damned van and make friends with a campus security officer so you don't have to worry about getting busted.
posted by muddgirl at 6:06 PM on December 10, 2009


"Just live in the van" needs to become the expression for... something.

Like, you made the van, go live in it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 6:14 PM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have some experience with this. Back in the early eighties, fresh out of High school I left Florida driving a 1965 Ford E series Falcon van. I was on my way to attend Brooks Institute of Photography in California. Being young, brash and really naive I somehow assumed that all of California was warm like Florida. Having very little money my intention was to live in my van (complete with all my darkroom equipment) while attending school. I lasted about three months before I threw in the towel. I was however in a campground vs. a parking lot so although there was a great shower facility and restroom, I had to buckle my entire world down to drive to school everyday.
Money was always an issue as I was living off of what I had saved from the age of 16. My big money saver was baked potatoes. I would cook them in the campfire at night and sleep with them in my sleeping bag to keep me warm. I would then eat them for breakfast in the morning. Now, many years later I still pass when baked potatoes are offered to me.
posted by HappyHippo at 6:27 PM on December 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


FWIW one friend at uni lived in a storage unit during summer semester and another lived in our department's building (the nearby theater department had showers etc.). So really, all quite normal . . .
posted by flug at 6:27 PM on December 10, 2009


My best friend lived in a storage closet in the art department one semester, though after the third time a custodian found him in there and kicked him out, he moved to his car. It was not glamorous, but he got through it, and I have a ton of respect for him for making it happen. It wasn't some sort of grand social experiment. It's just what he had to do to get by. The guy in this article would be doing something cool if he wasn't busy telling everyone how damn the cool the thing he's doing is, but by tooting his van horn so damn loud, he drowns out any interesting sounds.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:55 PM on December 10, 2009


Why didn't this guy just enroll in a public university? Sure, Duke's a great school, but so's UNC. Spending that much money for a humanities MA is dumber than ever. But if it works for him so be it. FWIW, I know the University of Chicago has some ridiculously over-priced terminal MA program in the humanities as well that they sell people on by saying we'll get you into someone elses PhD program. It was a bad idea before the Recession and a worse one now.

What you do, see, is get into a PhD program with a stipend and teaching duties and then drop out after you get the MA.
posted by bardic at 8:07 PM on December 10, 2009


I'll say it thrice: if you're not getting funding for grad school in the humanities, YOU SHOULD NOT BE THERE.

I was paid, but not enough to cover it all. I took out some loans. Now I wish I'd lived in a van and eaten baked beans for two years myself.

Pick apart his motivations, ridicule him for pursuing a liberal arts MA or not enrolling in a public school (not all public schools are inexpensive). At least he's not in debt.

I do agree that it's curious that he has this "I secretly long to be found out and so I'm going to publicly reveal my story on Salon.com" mentality about it, but whatever.
posted by blucevalo at 8:14 PM on December 10, 2009


It's true for the sciences, too: If you're not funded for grad school, you probably shouldn't be there.

That said, there's a lot to say for living this way. I live in a not-quite-as-frugal alternative living space at the University of California, Davis for three years now, and have loved it. We have a community of 30 people, and stunningly beautiful grounds, thanks to the 35 years worth of residents who have poured their sweat instead of their money into the space. I love Thoreau as well, and have certainly had my own get-away-from-civilization-on-a-dollar-a-day adventures. But at some point it's good to realize that we're a hundred and fifty years since Walden, and there are entire communities of like-minded individuals out there. When those people get together and build communities, it can result in something that remains true to the ideal and bets the hell out of living in a van.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:17 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


But a lot of masters programs offer minimal funding at best

Yeah, I don't get the folks saying you're doing it wrong if they're not paying you to be there for a MA. There would have been like three people in my whole program if that were true. I did get a part-time job in my field with the university, but it was a job job, I had to apply for it.

I guess I was lucky and/or smarter than I'm giving myself credit for. When I went to grad school I sold a bunch of comic books, took only subsidized student loans, and worked 2 - 3 part time jobs. I graduated in '03 and got close to half my loans paid off, the weight of my student debt is not even close to crushing.
posted by marxchivist at 8:40 PM on December 10, 2009


I did this. Only it wasn't a van, it was a couch in three different friends' apartments or a bunk at the emergency shelter. It took three years and I'd never, ever, ever, ever do it again.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:16 PM on December 10, 2009


Just don't try this as a grad student in NYC, as the cost of parking your van will probably amount to about the same as renting an apartment.

I guess you could have roommates...er, seatmates?
posted by ilana at 9:53 PM on December 10, 2009


marxchivist: "Yeah, I don't get the folks saying you're doing it wrong if they're not paying you to be there for a MA. There would have been like three people in my whole program if that were true."

That's kinda the point. If the people in charge can't find any other funding source besides the students, what hope do students have beside propagating the pyramid scheme?
posted by pwnguin at 12:43 AM on December 11, 2009


Uncle Rico was a loser? He could throw a football over a mountain
posted by Smedleyman at 3:23 AM on December 11, 2009


Actually, just reminds me how soft I've gotten. Wasn't so long ago I'd look at a warm meal as effete. Now? Pfft. If I can't find my slippers that's a catastrophe. (Although I am going camping up north in a bit ... meh, I'll bring the slippers)
posted by Smedleyman at 3:39 AM on December 11, 2009


Yeah, I don't get the folks saying you're doing it wrong if they're not paying you to be there for a MA. There would have been like three people in my whole program if that were true. I did get a part-time job in my field with the university, but it was a job job, I had to apply for it.

Look, I know a lot of grad students in a lot of different fields, and the majority of them either work 60 hour weeks outside of classes and/or get a lot of assistance from their parents so that they can pay rent and eat. But that's nothing compared to the subsidized cost of their tuition. If someone is in grad school and isn't getting subsidized tuition, then there's something financially unsound about that.
posted by muddgirl at 7:10 AM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I know it's an unpopular opinion but I got paid more than enough to live for my master's. A lot of people do. This guy is not in a professional program, or even really a regular research program. He's in the Master in Liberal Studies program, which is one of those Duke advertises by sponsoring programing on NPR. It's a program aimed at working adults who did their undergrad in a "practical" field and now work full time as engineers or accountants but find themselves wishing they had the chance to read big books and have long philosophical conversations and ask big questions. All of which are wonderful things and as a product of a liberal arts college I salute them for offering this. But it's a weird thing for someone without a lot of money to pay for themselves.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:31 AM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thoreau lived near his family and could drop home for dinners and a wash while writing poetically about a frugal life in the woods.

This again?

Walden is an economic and social critique, but one that includes a lot of parody (especially in "Economy"), self-deprecation, and rhetorical slight-of-hand. Take it at face value, and you largely miss the point. Here's Walter Harding, the dean of Thoreau scholars:

... Walden is [a] satirical criticism of modern life and living. Strangely enough this is one side of Thoreau that is sometimes misunderstood by the reader. Some take everything Thoreau says literally and seriously ... A large portion of Walden cannot β€” or at least should not β€” be read literally. Thoreau had a rollicking sense of humor and used it extensively throughout the pages of his masterpiece. He used just about every humorous literary device on record β€” puns, hyperbole, slapstick, mockery, parody, burlesque, and so on. And just about every one of these devices was used with satirical intent." - Five Ways of Looking at Walden

Also:

"Countless critics have heaped derision on Thoreau for his 'hypocrisy" - 'let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar' one writer crowed ... - but this misunderstands Thoreau's intentions. He was a hermit of convenience only, living on the edge of town to escape its close-knit sociability long enough to get writing done. But he lived only a half-hour away, and to have failed to visit friends and family ... would have been thoughtless and contrary to his nature. In Walden he makes no attempt to deny his proximity to town, to which he strolled 'every day or two': he lives on the very edge of it to see its foibles more clearly, fleeing to the woods to better understand civilization in the manner of the ancient philosophers." - W. Barksdale Maynard

posted by ryanshepard at 9:20 AM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was thinking about my situation, my program was an MA in Public History where you could choose an emphasis on archives, museums, etc. Most of us just went out and got jobs in our fields after graduation. I guess that's different than a purer humanities degree like English or History.
posted by marxchivist at 12:10 PM on December 11, 2009


My quibble, though, is in how he kept describing himself as "poor." Anyone whose mother is well off enough to keep offering to rent you an apartment is not poor. Poor is living in the van because you have no other options. He's having a fun (and cheap) experiment, which is miles away from being poor.
Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you'll never get it right
'cos when you're laid in bed at night
watching roaches climb the wall
if you called your dad he could stop it all
posted by grouse at 2:53 PM on December 20, 2009


« Older Possibly the most controversial National Film...   |   "The truth about cave men." Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments