Daniel Suelo is 51 years old and broke. Happily broke. Consciously, deliberately, blessedly broke.
Not only does he not have debt, a mortgage or rent, he does not earn a salary. Nor does he buy food or clothes, or own any product with a lower case “i” before it. Home is a cave on public land outside Moab, Utah. He scavenges for food from the garbage or off the land (fried grasshoppers, anyone?). He has been known to carve up and boil fresh road kill. He bathes, without soap, in the creek.
In the fall of 2000, Suelo (who changed his name from Shellabarger), decided to stop using money altogether. That meant no “conscious barter,” food stamps or other government handouts. His mission was to “use only what is freely given or discarded and what is already present and already running,” he wrote on his web site, Zero Currency.
The question many people wonder: Is he insane, or a mooch, or simply dedicated to leading a simple, honest, dare we say, Christ-like existence?
They’re good questions. And depending whom you ask, the answers vary.
Suelo wasn’t always a modern-day caveman. He went to the University of Colorado and studied anthropology, at one point considering medical school. He lived in a real house, with four walls, a window and a door, and shopped in stores, not their dumpsters.
But over time he says he grew depressed, clinically depressed, mainly with the focus on acquisition. “Every time I made a resume for a job, signed my name to a document, opened a bank account, or even bought a banana at the supermarket, I felt a tinge of dishonesty,” he said.
He was born into an Evangelical Christian home in Grand Junction, Colo., and took his religion seriously. Eventually, he started wondering why “professed Christians rarely followed the teachings of Jesus–namely the Sermon on the Mount, namely giving up possessions, living beyond credit and debt–freely giving and freely taking–giving, expecting nothing in return, forgiving all debts, owing nobody a thing, living beyond payback of either evil-for-evil or good-for-good, living and walking without guilt (debt), without grudge (debt), without judgment (credit & debt), living by Grace, by Gratis, not by our own works but by the works of the true Nature flowing through,” he said.
Although he considered himself a Christian, he discovered that the same principles applied to Taoism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Mormonism, Shamanism, and Paganism.
One year he went to Alaska and worked on the docks. But that, too, he says, felt dishonest. Instead, he and a buddy decided to live off the land—spearing fish, foraging for mushrooms and berries. (Think Castaway, but with snow). Suelo (which means soil in Spanish) eventually hitch-hiked back to Moab with $50 in his pocket. By the time he arrived, his stash had dwindled to $25. He realized that he only needed money for things he really didn’t need, like snacks and booze.
He began toying with the idea of living full-time without money. He traveled to India, and became fascinated by Hindu Sadhus, who wandered without lucre and possessions. He considered joining them, but then he realized that “A true test of faith would be to return to one of the most materialistic, money-worshipping nations on earth, to return to the authenticity profound principles of spirituality hidden beneath our own religion of hypocrisy, and be a Sadhu there,” he said. “To be a vagabond, a bum, and make an art of it – this idea enchanted me.”
And soon, that’s exactly what he did. He says he left his life savings—a whopping $30—in a phone booth, and walked away.
But he didn’t do it in a vacuum; he maintained his blog for free from the Moab public library. Rather than just sitting on a mountain and gazing at his navel, he wanted to have an impact on others, to spread his gospel.
In 2009, Mark Sundeen, an old acquaintance he’d worked with at a Moab restaurant, heard about Suelo through mutual friends. At first, “I thought he must have lost his mind,” Sundeen, 42, said in a telephone conversation. But then he began reading his blog, and grew intrigued. Sundeen divides his time between Missoula, Mont., and Moab, where he was once a river guide, and he paid a visit to Suelo’s cave.
Gradually, he said he realized that much of what Suelo was saying made a whole lot of sense. This was right around the time the economy crashed, and “It felt like a lot of what he was saying was prophetic,” said Sundeen. “That money is an illusion, an addiction. That resonated with me after the collapse for the economy.”
Sundeen was so intrigued that he decided to write a book about Suelo, The Man Who Quit Money, which was published in March.
While the book reviews have been generally positive, Suelo has come under fire by some who say he’s a derelict, sponging off society without contributing. They are valid criticisms: This is a guy, after all, who has gotten a citation for train hopping (what would Jesus say about that?). And he’s not opposed to house sitting in winter–not exactly living off the land.
And besides: How is he actually helping others by going without? It’s not like he’s solving world hunger, or curing cancer.
Sundeen disputes these arguments. “He doesn’t accept any government programs—welfare, food stamps, Medicare,” he said. “The only ways in which he actually uses taxpayer funded derivatives is walking on roads and using the public library. So in that regard he’s a mooch–he’s using the roads and not paying taxes. But if you try to quantify the amount of money he’s taking from the system—it’s a couple of dollars a year, less than anyone’s ever used.”
Instead, he is actively promoting “his idea that money is an illusion,” Sundeen said. “The Fed just prints it up, it doesn’t mean anything and it’s going to lead us down the road to serfdom.” Suelo simply doesn’t want to contribute to that, and so he lives life on his own terms.
That said, Sundeen wouldn’t live the way Suelo does. “The appeal to me is the living outdoors part, but I feel like I got my feel of that working as an Outward Bound guide,” he said. “At this point I have other priorities.”
Suelo, for his part, has no plans to bring money back into his life. “I know it’s possible to live without money,” he said. “Abundantly.”