How Not To Be Anti-Materialistic. Beds Are Okay.

Posted on Apr 24, 2013 in Life | 1 comment

Ken Ilgunas lived in a van while a graduate student at Duke University.

Naturally, he wrote a book about it.  It’s titled ““Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road From Debt to Freedom,”Which confused me, primarily because of this paragraph:

“My secret was making it impossible to make friends, I was sleeping in temperatures as low as 10 degrees, and as a bachelor living in tight quarters, I was constantly inhaling air riddled with strange odors. Worst of all, I felt a terrible loneliness settle deep into me. To compensate, I began to sing and talk to myself with unprecedented frequency.  Walking back from the library one night, I spotted a few mangled slices of pizza lying in a box on the lawn. A savage hunger roared in my belly. Has it already come to this?”


When did freedom for the Western world become defined as being cold and lonely at night and only being able to eat rice and vegetables for dinner?  Isn’t this the stuff we’re trying to rescue the third world from with our micro-lending programs and innovative recycling inventions?


Perhaps it was the retelling of this moment that pushed me over the edge.

“Knowing that my tax refund was coming, I slackened my Spartan standards: I bought a case of beer, I dined at a restaurant twice, and at the field station I slept in a heated room on a comfortable bed. But treating myself made me feel a strange sense of guilt, as if I’d cut some corner I promised myself I wouldn’t cut. During my third night at the station, beleaguered with self-reproach, I dragged my sleeping bag outside and slept on the pavement under the stars.”


He was too guilty to sleep in a bed he had already paid for.

It’s possible I’m just sensitive to the word ‘guilty’, with my religious history and all.  If he had said, ‘I just preferred to be close to the ground and sensing the real world around me instead of a bed’, I wouldn’t have minded so much.

But he was too guilty to spend money to sleep comfortably and warm?

Other people sleep outside as well.  Society tries to help them.

It’s like he has swapped the burden of consumerism and the need for stuff for the burden of asceticism and needless misery.


I’m all for anti-materialism.  I feel as sick as the next person about the lines for the new iPhone 5 and people spending $500 on a pair of shoes.

But… have we gone so far in attempting to compensate for our ridiculous excesses that we now don’t even appreciate basic standards of living?


Surely what we aim for in a society is for every man and woman to meaningfully contribute, that is, to swap their labour in return for life-enhancing goods and services, with enough time and resources available to enjoy whatever their passions are; children, reading, philosophy, travel, adventure, the beach…

Every other website I come across these days is decrying this ‘awful regular life of 9-5’ work, stuck in a job with a mortgage, paying for stuff you don’t need.

Hang on!

All those people buying the books the websites sell are doing it with money they earned from a normal job. Same with the people paying to listen to the talk about some latest adventure climbing up a mountain. There are gymnasiums for this guy to shower in because someone started a business.  People can only offer a room to crash in for the evening on bucket list trips around the world because they took on a mortgage.  


What annoys me is the self-righteous rhetoric about how ‘free’ his life is compared to all these other normal people with a mortgage and stuff.  These people made it possible for him to live that life.  If everybody did as he did… well, not everybody could do as he did.

And that’s the point.  I disagree with any philosophy on living that is not applicable in it’s entirety to all of humanity.  I throw the same accusation against this ridiculous receipt which is at the other end of the spectrum.


Forsaking relationships to have $12million in the bank is as destructive and selfish a philosophy as forsaking having a girlfriend and your own shower to live debt free off other’s utilities out the back of a parking lot in a run down bus.


Society has come a long way and while we don’t need a new iPhone every year, for most people, coming home after a hard day’s work to cook a delicious tasting risotto before opening a good bottle of wine with a loved one is just the stuff life is made of.  Maybe if you’re in India it’s a curry.

It’s not excessive.  It’s just good living.

As a bonus, within limits, this can be done by the majority of the population without the economy collapsing.  *thumbs up* Living in caravans isn’t the answer, thank the stars. Something like the below video maybe?


Bit of light reading over your coffee?

  • cjschepers

    Thanks for pointing out the distortion of his journey! In truth, it’s probably more about him building his “platform” and selling books than any authentic choice to live on less. Like Albert Camus said, “It’s a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.”