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How I Avoided College Debt With a Low-Impact Life

My low-impact life did not grow out of my concern for the environment, or anything the least bit altruistic.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Bill Bilverstone

 
 
 
 

My low-impact life did not grow out of my concern for the environment, or anything the least bit altruistic. It sprang from my desire to get an education without falling into debt. Just back from caretaking an isolated Canadian fishing camp, I faced the challenge of finding an inexpensive place to rent in Bozeman, Mont., where the housing market had gone berserk.

An old friend invited me to stay in his junkyard while I looked around. Joe operated a towing and vehicle-repair business seven miles west of town, and an aged blue-and-white camper squatted among the wrecks behind his shop. It was stale and gritty from lack of use, but staying in it beat camping on someone’s couch. Besides, the neighbors were earthy and unflappable. A pair of cows grazed between the junks, and a lonely old buckskin named Dusty gobbled carrots from my hand.

A run of good news (my ancient community college credits would transfer, the state of Montana offered a tuition break for Vietnam vets) was tempered by the looming certainty that inexpensive rentals had gone the way of the triceratops. It was 1994, and Bozeman had begun showing up in magazines touting lists of “Best Places to Live.” I wasn’t going to find another inexpensive bunkhouse nestled in a canyon or $65-a-month cabin within sight of Bridger Bowl. Pushing 50, I couldn’t get excited about another winter in a teepee. Truth be told, I’d only lasted through November the first time, and that was back in the ‘70s.

One glum evening as I trudged over to Bozeman Hot Springs for a shower and a soak, I noticed a row of pint-sized cabins hired out to tourists. Next morning, I found Joe changing the oil in a battered green Civic and suggested I build a cabin in the junkyard. Build it on skids and rent the ground until I graduated and hauled it away.

Joe said he’d think about it.

Two days later I caught up with him as he pulled a handful of wrenches from a hulking red and chrome Snap-On toolbox.

“How about,” he said, “if I buy the materials and I own the cabin? You do the building and keep track of your wages, and once you move in, your wages go toward rent. After you burn that up, you pay me.

“How much?”

“$175 a month, including utilities.”

Joe is three inches taller than me and 40 pounds heavier, but I may have crushed the burly ex-Marine’s hand in my eagerness to close the deal.

Fact is, after 20 years of living on the fringe, I could tell some pretty good tales, but they didn’t feature terms like Dow Jones, equity or interest. In other words: My caretaking wages were all the money I had in the world. Purchasing materials would have meant putting off school an extra year or taking out student loans, something I was loath to do. I may not have been a corporate raider, but I hadn’t owed a cent in 15 years.

I began construction in June, dividing my days between the cabin and -- since I was saving my nest egg for books and tuition -- a landscaping job. I built a 12-foot-by-20-foot one-room frame structure with a gable roof and wired it for electricity. I built the bed a little high for the sake of storage room underneath it, the kitchen counter long enough to support a dorm-size fridge, and installed a pair of stoves: A propane stove for cooking and a woodstove for heat. I scrounged the propane stove, sink and fridge from the junkyard and rounded out my dorm-gothic furnishings with yard sale and second-hand store treasures.

 
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