I pledged that I wouldn't take out loans. Nor would I accept money from anybody, especially my mother, who, appalled by my experiment, offered to rent me an apartment each time I called home. My heat would be a sleeping bag; my air conditioning, an open window. I'd shower at the gym, eat the bare minimum and find a job to pay tuition. And -- for fear of being caught -- I wouldn't tell anybody.
Living on the cheap wasn't merely a way to save money and stave off debt; I wanted to live adventurously. I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to find the line between my wants and my needs. I wanted, as Thoreau put it, "to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life … to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."
It wouldn't be hard for me to remain frugal. After buying the van and making my first tuition payment, I was only a few dollars away from having to rummage through Dumpsters to find my next meal. I was -- by conventional first-world definitions -- poor. While I faced little risk of malnutrition or disease like the truly poor, I still I didn't own an iPod, and I smelled sometimes.
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. When I couldn't find work, I moved in with friends. My clothes came from donation bins, I had friends cut my hair, and I'd pick up odd jobs when I could. Nearly every dime I made went into my loans.
The idea of "thrift," once an American ideal, now seems almost quaint to many college students, particularly those at elite schools. The typical student today is not so frugal. Few know where the money they're spending is coming from and even fewer know how deep they're in debt. They're detached from the source of their money. That's because there is no source. They're getting paid by their future selves.