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'You'll never believe how I paid off my student loans': 3 true stories
One man moved to Alaska and canoed tourists around to pay off his debt. He also lived in a van for nearly three years.
 
A quick path to loan repayment: Couchsurfing.
A quick path to loan repayment: Couchsurfing. Shutterstock

Ten years.

That's the standard repayment schedule for most student loans. And for those who defer or who have more than one loan to pay off for their college education, it can take much longer — up to 25 years with the extended payment plan.

But some people simply ain't got time for that. They want to be out of debt — now. Or decidedly before a decade (or three) has passed. They're people like these creative grads — all they needed was a couple of years and a little ingenuity to become completely student-loan debt-free.

A man … and his van

In 2006, when Ken Ilgunas graduated from the University at Buffalo with a "useless" liberal arts degree in history and English, he had $32,000 in student loan debt — and no job prospects.

"I applied to 25 paid newspaper internships … and got rejected from all 25," he says. "I thought I was pretty well-qualified: I was an English major, an editor for my college newspaper for two years, and I had an unpaid internship with a local alt-weekly. But I had no connections, and I suppose that I hadn't quite learned the art of applying for a job yet."

Determined to make money, Ilgunas packed up and moved to Coldfoot, Alaska, where he'd worked as a maid the summer between his fourth and fifth year of college. "I'd always had a boyhood dream of living in Alaska," says the 30-year-old. "So when the job hunt proved tough, I chose to go back up there — this time to work as a van tour guide."

For the next three years, he took on other odd jobs — some literally "odd," like when he canoed across Ontario, Canada, to transport voyagers (people who live and dress like eighteenth-century fur traders), until he had paid off his entire student loan. "Student loan debt can tie you down in so many ways," he says. "I wanted to pay it off quickly, so I could be a free person."

And once he'd paid it off, he had no desire to go back into debt — but he did want to get a graduate degree in liberal arts. This time, instead of racking up debt, Ilgunas chose to avoid it altogether … by living on the Duke University campus in a 1994 Ford Econoline van that he found on Craigslist.

For two and a half years, Ilgunas lived and cooked in the van, survived the cold and heat of the North Carolina seasons in the van — and ultimately wrote a book about his novel living situation. "It was a practical measure, for sure," he says. "But it was also an adventure."

Today, Ilgunas lives on a farm in North Carolina, and he's gearing up for his book tour, where he hopes to share his motto with the masses. "If I've learned anything," he says, "it's that a life lived not half-wild is a life only half-lived."

She thought outside the (American) box

With $60,000 of student loan debt to her name, Holly Morganelli, 32, was understandably anxious when, after five interviews at both Columbia University and Yale University, she couldn't get a job as a librarian — despite having a Masters of Library Science.

So she left the country to teach English in Buenos Aires, before eventually landing a job in Qatar as a librarian for a modern art museum — where she received a monthly tax-free salary and had all of her accommodations paid for, including meals for the first three months. As an American citizen, Morganelli still had to file her taxes in the U.S., but she was exempt from paying.

"I was able to save a big percentage of my earnings, and I made large payments on my debt," says Morganelli, who completely paid off her student loans in less than two years. "It felt so good to wipe them out, rather than truck along with the endless monthly payments."

In the process, she also learned that expat life suited her: Morganelli now lives in the Bahamas, but she's looking to move back to Qatar, where her husband just accepted a job. "My advice to those grappling with student loan repayments is to cast the net far and wide if possible," she says. "It will challenge you, enrich your life and potentially result in freedom from debt."

Couch-surfing to pay off college debt

Even though she dropped out before receiving her public relations degree, Nikki Yeager still owed more than $10,000 in debt when she left Syracuse University. And her job as a software trainer in New York City covered the bills and her $1,000 monthly rent — and that was about it.

"I ate nothing but ramen," says the 24-year-old. "And still nothing that I did made a dent in my debt."

So Yeager had to take drastic measures: She got rid of her apartment and became, technically, homeless. Then she turned to friends. "I asked, pleaded and begged every friend I had to let me stay on their couch for a few days," she wrote on xoJane. "My thinking was that if I could get four to five people to oblige, I'd have one month of extra money. If I could get more friends to agree, I'd have even more."

For an entire year, Yeager couch-hopped between apartments (sometimes with the help of couchsurfing.org). "I was still working and leading a typical life, which made sleeping on random people's and friends' beds a little strange," she says. "And, on top of paying off my debt, I'd try to repay hosts by doing odd favors — fixing clogged drains, taking care of pets — which was exhausting. But it was definitely worth it!"

Now debt-free, Yeager has her own apartment again, still works as a software trainer — and socks half her paycheck into savings every month. "I've always been a saver, so now that I don't have debt, I've been able to revert back to my old, good habits," she says.

Her advice to others? "Nothing about the sacrifices along the way feels good, but someday it does get better. Eventually, you can look at your bank account without cringing — even if it takes a year of sleeping on floors to get there."

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