The title of Mark Sundeen’s account of the revolutionary lifestyle and philosophy of Daniel Suelo was what first caught my eye. The Man Who Quit Money. At once, a concept that is entirely unfathomable but deeply alluring. A glance at the cover photograph of the man himself, Mr. Suelo, further captivated my attention. With an easy smile on his face, Buddy Holly-style glasses, and shaggy salt and pepper hair emerging from a friendly bolera hat, Daniel Suelo looks the part of the gracefully aging, Pacific Northwestern hipster. Though he is certainly not someone I would categorize as trendy after having learned about him, Daniel certainly embodies certain of the more intriguing aspects of self-righteous hipster culture but on an entirely different level.
Sundeen’s book is, as its title suggests, the story of a man who renounced currency, both the give and take of money in all its forms, including charity and government benefits predicated upon taxpayer dollars. How he manages to do it still boggles my mind (more on the logistics later). But Daniel Suelo’s commitment to a moneyless existence was not an experiment in poverty, an attempt to see how the other half lives, nor a concerted effort to reduce his carbon footprint, though he certainly did so in the process.
Raised a fundamentalist Christian, Daniel Suelo was a follower of Jesus from a young age and believed in the Bible in its most literal sense. Though he doesn’t look the part of it today, Suelo actually continues to lead a life fairly aligned with the religious values upon which he was raised. One of my favorite Suelo-isms from the book relates to the contradictory nature of religion in the United States. “This is a nation that professes to be a Christian nation… and yet it’s basically illegal to live according to the teachings of Jesus.” Suelo questions the concept of free will, believing in a purposeful God that provides for the needs of humans and all living creatures such that we don’t need to rely upon consuming in the traditional big box store, supermarket fashion to survive. He comes back again and again to the Biblical passage, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat of drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” It is this unyielding faith that led Suelo to leave his last $30.00 in a phone booth and give up money for good thirteen years ago.
Suelo’s life seems to have reached a content stasis once he gave up money. But the principled, rugged picture of Daniel Suelo that Sundeen draws for readers at the beginning of his book is the product of religious questioning, travels the world over, family struggles, and a battle against deep depression. The journey that brought Suelo to his current philosophy is a beautiful one, well-told under Sundeen’s hand. What I find most fascinating, however, are the tenets of that philosophy and how brilliantly they highlight the struggles inherent in any attempt to lead a good and moral life in the US.
“The more people have, the less they give. Similarly, generous cultures produce less waste because excess is shared, whereas stingy nations fill their landfills with leftovers.” Suelo’s experiences lead him to such a conclusion and I don’t know if truer words could ever be spoken. For some time Suelo struggled to live within the confines of capitalism, recognizing the way in which it was nearly illegal to avoid the use of money. As Sundeen aptly points out, the monetary system by itself creates loads of anxiety for people, from taxes to mortgages to the regular outflow of cash required to clothe, feed, bathe, and care for ourselves. For people who try to lead simple and moral lives within this anxiety-ridden capitalist culture, people who make those small changes like buying local, driving less, purchasing high-efficiency appliances, reusing and recycling, the anxiety is twofold. Not only do they struggle under the expenses of everyday life that we all face, they are also cognizant of the environmental and moral repercussions of each and every decision they make. Sure, reusing a plastic baggie keeps one more item out of the landfill, but we’re still using a disposable item made of plastic that will ultimately never completely disintegrate (a major moral struggle that Sundeen devotes quite some time to recounting in this book).
The beauty of Suelo’s lifestyle is that he escapes both of these struggles unscathed by eliminating money’s presence from his life. One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Suelo gives up those last $30.00. He thought his life couldn’t get much worse at that point, then realized that the money did not make a bit of difference. He was already at his lowest point with money, how much worse could it get without that measly sum wearing him down? The onrush of freedom he experienced by setting down those bills, by letting go of the confines of a monied mentality, was euphoric just to read.
And now Daniel is a practiced dumpster-diver, a go-to house-sitter among his friends, a cave dweller, an expert forager, and a faithful servant of God – all without a cent to his name. Dwelling in the caves of Moab, Utah, Suelo avoids the worries and fears that go with owning land and a house and all the possessions inside. By scavenging the area’s dumpsters, he reduces the size of our landfills, prevents perfectly good consumables from going to waste, and challenges notions of socially acceptable eating practices. His life offers a perfect exemplar of presence, the kind pursued by practitioners of meditation and followers of many Eastern religions alike, since he has nothing to worry about beyond the present moment. He enjoys free meals with friends, finds beauty in the natural world, and has absolutely no notion of private property.
But what may be most empowering of all is the sense of community Suelo has found, despite leading a lifestyle that at first glance appears reclusive. Quitting money proves, ultimately, to be a persuasive argument against the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality in America. Suelo is convinced that no person is entirely self-sufficient; he understands the world as a series of interdependent beings, from his dependence on the waste of others as a source of nutrition to his provision of joy and free labor and knowledge and friendship to others. Not only is this a beautiful way to view the world, it is a productive and practical one too.
Some, probably many, would call Daniel Suelo naive, an idealist, a dreamer, a quack. The roll call of derogatory names for someone like Suelo is seemingly endless. And that is one of the most frustrating but also hopeful things about a story like Suelo’s. He defies categorization in ways that confuse people. His ideology is difficult to grasp because it so deeply challenges that of our society. He is misunderstood beyond compare. But he also is one of the most principled, righteous, admirable, inspiring people I have ever learned of. I love individuals that push the boundaries of possibility, that challenge us to rethink what is accepted and expected. I find hope in the fact that someone like Daniel Suelo exists and that he has found success in his life. And I pray that people will read this book and find something of themselves in Daniel, whether it be similar religious upbringing, a passion for the outdoors, past travels to the same locales, a history of debilitating depression, mastery of the meditative arts, or any other commonality. In so doing, maybe we can all learn from, if not begin to embody, Daniel Suelo’s mind bogglingly wonderful means of existence. In reading Sundeen’s book, Suelo becomes much more familiar and his lifestyle, far less frightening.