The Man Who Quit Money
A Walden for the 21st century, the true story of a man who has radically reinvented "the good life".
In 2000, Daniel Suelo left his life savings-all thirty dollars of it-in a phone booth. He has lived without money-and with a newfound sense of freedom and security-ever since.
The Man Who Quit Money is an account of how one man learned to live, sanely and happily, without earning, receiving, or spending a single cent. Suelo doesn't pay taxes, or accept food stamps or welfare. He lives in caves in the Utah canyonlands, forages wild foods and gourmet discards. He no longer even carries an I.D. Yet he manages to amply fulfill not only the basic human needs-for shelter, food, and warmth-but, to an enviable degree, the universal desires for companionship, purpose, and spiritual engagement. In retracing the surprising path and guiding philosophy that led Suelo into this way of life, Sundeen raises provocative and riveting questions about the decisions we all make, by default or by design, about how we live-and how we might live better.
"Mark Sundeen's astonishing and unsettling book goes directly to the largest questions about how we live and what we have lost in a culture obsessed with money. Sundeen tells the story of a gentle and generous man who sought the good life by deciding to live without it. What's most unsettling and astonishing is that he appears to have succeeded."
-William Greider, author of Secrets of the Temple : How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country
"Maybe it's just this odd, precarious moment we live in, but Daniel Suelo's story seems to offer some broader clues for all of us. Mark Sundeen's account will raise subversive and interesting questions in any open mind."
Q: How did you first find out about Daniel Suelo and how did you approach him about this project?
A: I first met Daniel 20 years ago when we were cooks together in a diner in Moab, Utah. Over the years we'd lost touch, and when I heard from friends that he'd stopped using money, I assumed that he'd had some sort of mental breakdown. In 2009 when we were first understanding the severity of the financial crisis, a story about Daniel appeared in Details magazine, holding his philosophy up against that of the rest of us. It struck a nerve, and went viral, with thousands of people commenting on blogs and chatrooms. Some thought he was a prophet, others thought he was a derelict. Among those who found Suelo's story captivating were Geoff Kloske and Becky Saletan at Riverhead, who contacted me to see if I knew him. Becky wrote to Daniel to see if he would participate in a book, and suggested me as the writer. Daniel remembered me, and had read my books, and agreed to it.
Q: The first question that comes to mind when imagining a life without money is how one covers basic human needs: food and shelter. Where does Daniel live, how does he feed himself, and has he ever gone without?
A: He lives mostly in a cave in the Utah desert. But he also travels a lot, stays with friends, and is asked to house-sit. He's not a survivalist, or a hermit; he just doesn't use money. He gets most of his food from dumpsters, and as I can attest, it's perfectly fine food that has been thrown away because it reached a somewhat arbitrary expiration date. He also forages. He has occasionally gone a day or two without food, but that's rare. He usually has all the food he can eat.
Q: During the writing of THE MAN WHO QUIT MONEY, how much time did you spend with Daniel in his cave? What about his "home" did you find the most surprising?
A: I spent a few days with Suelo in two different caves (he moves), although for most of the months I was in Moab interviewing him, he was house-sitting. What was most surprising about his first cave was that it was tinyyou couldn't stand up inside. It felt like a hide-out for a mountain lion. The next cave was spacious with a great view of the canyon and a place to build a campfire. Three of us slept there comfortably. Daniel cooked his meals on a woodburning stove made from tin cans, and pulled fresh water from a nearby spring. At night you could see the stars and hear the creek rushing through the reeds. I could have stayed a while.
Q: Living without money, out in the wilderness without a phone or computer, seems like an isolated lifestyle. How often does Daniel see other people and does he have any strong relationships in his life?
A: He's incredibly social, more so than me! He goes into town nearly every day, and has tons of friends. He uses the computer at the public library where he maintains a blog and a Facebook page, so he is in constant contact with friends, some of whom date back to college, as well as with strangers from all around the world who have read about him and are curious. He loves talking philosophy and economics. He is also quite close with his parents and siblings, whom he visits regularly. He's had romantic partners, although he doesn't have that in his life right now.
Q: Growing up gay in an evangelical home and eventually coming out to his family, Daniel has a complicated relationship with his faith. What role do you think faith had in Daniel's decision to "quit" money?
A: From a young age Daniel wanted to follow the example of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets who gave up material possessions and lived a life of spiritual contemplation. Later as he became interested in Eastern religions, he saw similar teachings from Buddha and Krishna. But whenever he seriously considered living like this, he was told, "Well, we're living in different times now." Ultimately he rejected this idea, and decided that there was never an era when living a purely spiritual life was socially acceptable, and therefore now was as good a time as any to give up possessions and pursue his path. His family takes their own faith very seriously, and to them, wanting to live like John the Baptist was not all that strange. They aren't totally comfortable with his being gay, but they support his choice to live without money.
Q: Having studied Daniel's life with such care and respect, what do you see as the greatest risk in living without money? The greatest reward?
A: Ironically, I'd say the obvious risks like being cold, hungry and sick are not all that serious. Sueloand plenty of other people who choose to be homelesshave proven that they can survive off of society's excess. I think Suelo is often lonely, but that is a result of living alone, not of living without money. The main risk is the stigma, that is, when you announce to your friends that you're quitting money and going to live in a cave, they just think you're nuts. And for someone like Daniel, who is well-educated, has been in the Peace Corps, has held regular jobs, it's painful to be dismissed as a derelict.
I guess the main reward is escaping the anxiety that comes from living a life of worrying about whether you have enough, and worrying about the moral compromises you have to make. Most of us feel at moments enslavedto our jobs, debts, bills, taxesand simply swallow that bitter pill because we see no other option, though we try to find little ways to "live right" (and end up worrying about even those). Daniel doesn't feel split or anxious in those ways. He discovered that the anxiety he felt before he decided to quit money completely evaporated once he actually did it.
Q: Daniel has chosen to live without money as part of what can only be described as an extreme alternative lifestyle. Does he see this as a path others could follow? What do you see as the takeaway from THE MAN WHO QUIT MONEY for the average reader?
A: I don't anticipate a lot of people following his path, and neither does he. Daniel is not married and does not have children, so nobody relies on him for financial support. Many people who hear about him come to visit and try living without money, but most only last a few weeks or months. Most people, myself included, simply won't part with the freedom to buy dinner when we're hungry or fill up the tank when we want to drive somewhere.
What people can take away is: If he can survive on next to nothing, maybe we can survive with less. Of course there are a lot of Americans who think that such thinking is absurd: it is our right to have as much stuff as we want, so why should we try to have less? But there are an equal number who find the amount of stuff we have overwhelming, who would rather live a more simple life based not on luxury and convenience but on forming deeper connections with people, with nature, with God. These people might find in Suelo some inspiration to live more simply, and more in alignment with their deepest values.
Q: How have other people reacted to Daniel's decision to quit money? Has he met with any criticism?
A: Most people who know him well are supportive of how he lives. As he travels around the country, mostly hitchhiking, he meets a lot of people who are fascinated by what he does. Plenty of people disapprove, too, and believe that he is a parasite, un-American, a threat to productive society. These opinions seem to be voiced most loudly on blogs, rather than in person. The most common criticism is that he is a mooch, and although Daniel often workswithout accepting paymenthe refuses to defend himself against this charge, and basically says that whether or not he works is nobody else's business.
Q: Now, looking back on the experience, what were your biggest misconceptions going into meeting with Daniel about who he would be as well as his lifestyle?
A: I guess I assumed that Daniel had broken not only with money, but with all of society, and that he was living as an isolated hermit. This isn't the case at all. He still maintains close relationships, travels across the country to visit friends and family, goes to dinner parties, just like he did before quitting money. He arrives at potlucks with fruit and bread pulled from dumpsters. In some ways, it's no big deal for him. It's like when a friend stops eating meat or drinking alcohol: it might stop them from going to steakhouses and bars, but it doesn't necessarily transform them into a different person.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Daniel?
A: Daniel doesn't think much about his future, and I try not too, either! He has made no vow to live like this forever, so he might one day change. But he seems content. I imagine he will continue to live without money as long as he can take care of himself, after which he will either allow friends and family to take care of him, or he will walk off into the desert, and lie down and die. "We all gotta die sooner or later anyway" Suelo told me. "And what makes one way of death worse than another? Is it really worse to die from a broken leg in a canyon than dying a few years later with tubes in my arm in a hospital?"
Q: What was Daniel's response to the book?
A: Daniel is nervous about revealing so much of his life story, but he agreed from the beginning that if we were to tell it, we had to tell it all. He's read it, and he liked it. Daniel was pleased that instead of taking a sensationalistic tack, I took the time to understand the beliefs that have led him to live like this.
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