In 2000, Daniel Suelo gave up money, convinced everything he truly needed would make its way to him. (Photo by Benjamin Lesage)
Daniel Suelo, 51, has just finished sewing himself a summertime sleeping bag out of a flannel sheet and some dental floss. It’s not the first thing he’s resourcefully scraped together for himself. Over the past 12 years of Suelo’s moneyless existence, he’s made many things: ponchos, eyeglasses, even a “rocket stove” fashioned from a Christmas cookie tin and a flue of aluminum cans to carry the smoke out of his cave dwelling in Moab, Utah.
“I’m always making some little knicknack here and there. I like making things. That’s kind of what makes this lifestyle appealing—it puts me in a place where I have to be creative,” says Suelo, his voice crackling over the phone from his parent’s house in Colorado, where he hitchhiked just days before.
Some months ago, Suelo spoke to a packed house at the Capitola Book Cafe as part of the tour for The Man Who Quit Money, the book written about him by journalist Mark Sundeen. It graced the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list for six week and the Los Angeles Times’ for four. It’s also made some waves: the first online review received 15,000 comments on the first day alone.
The comments were a mishmash of genuinely passionate support and skepticism. Says Sundeen, there are “people who just don’t actually believe he's real, or they just don't get it, or they think that he's got a trust fund, or they think that he secretly uses the hospitals. By far the most frequent complaint is that he's a freeloader or mooch or parasite.”
Suelo, who did not receive any money for the book, says he “gets a kick” out of the skeptical comments. Meanwhile he goes on surviving one day at a time, without a penny to his name. He looks to the “gift economy” of wild nature for his inspiration, where balance is found from “freely giving and freely receiving.” For Suelo, it’s less about trading and bartering (though he supports and encourages the movement of timebanks and trade) than about reassessing his desire and knowing that if he really needs something, it will come to him.
“When I find myself in the state of desire, if I just sit with it I find, ‘OK, does my body truly want something, or is it just my mind thinking about what could be better?’ And most often I sit with it and I find that it’s just my mind, and as soon as I let the thinking go my craving ends.”
It’s a tale of survival and massive spiritual growth.
In his cave in Moab, Suelo keeps plastic buckets filled with scavenged wild edibles like honey locust beans, a tree legume. “They’re a little bit slimy. They can get tiresome if you’re eating them all the time, but they’re high in protein and you can just live off of them,” says Suelo. It suddenly makes sense why the thoughtfully spoken man has the trim and youthful physique of somebody half his age.
Suelo lives on wild watercress, prickly pear cactus, wild onions, fallen nuts and apples and, when he’s on the road, roadkill. (“If it’s warm and limp, then why not?” he says.) But the majority of the food he survives on comes from perfectly good trash.
“We’re in a world where millions of people are starving. We have so much excess that we’re throwing it away, and I just feel like this is an indication of our culture, where it’s at right now. It’s a critical time, we’re in such a mass mental illness, or anal retention, it’s like you’re retaining your waste, you’re so stingy you can’t give up your waste,” he says.
So he helps himself. Dumpster diving isn’t something that requires much skill, says Suelo. It’s more a matter of “getting over the mental thing.” Once he did, he realized just how much food is actually being thrown away, from bags of apples to meat that’s still good enough to eat. (The only time he’s ever gotten sick from eating out of the trash was when he overfed himself on donuts, which he says there are a lot of in Dumpsters.)
But contrary to how it may sound, Suelo isn’t some social outcast who eats garbage and lives in a cave. He’s a self-professed socialite, and erasing money from his life has infused his human relationships with an authenticity that wasn’t always there before.
“It’s not about being a hermit,” he explains. “But I would rather be a hermit than live in a society where all of our interactions are artificial. On the other hand, I feel like the point of living this way is to acknowledge my total dependency on other human beings as well as all other life.”
“When I first started writing this book, and even when I finished and I was on the tour, I would say the main point of the book was ‘Take only what you need and don't be wasteful,’” says Sundeen. “After a while, I realized that's not true. That’s not really Daniel’s message. I would say that the message is ‘Follow your heart, and do something that is meaningful and makes you happy,’ and what so many people find is when they do what they love, they suddenly need less in terms of material rewards.”
After all, sharing, giving up possessions, and doing for the sake of doing rather than for reward, is what Suelo says all of the world’s religions hold as a common value—a value he has wanted to practice since he was a child growing up in an evangelical Christian home, wondering why people don’t practice what they preach.
“It’s not overwhelming if we see that all of the tools we need are right here and right now. Wherever we’re living in this world, we can start taking steps toward freely giving and freely receiving, which is our true human nature,” says Suelo.
It begins, he says, with getting together with your neighbors. “What if we get everybody on the block to share washing machines and lawn mowers and cars and grills and we have neighbors over for dinner? Not only would we save resources, we would save expenses for ourselves,” he says. “And we might actually start having smiles on our lonely faces.”