(MOAB, Utah) — 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 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.”
Although he considered himself a Christian, he discovered that the same principles applied to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Mormonism, Paganism, Shamanism, Sikhism and Taoism.
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.
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 mooch, or a derelict, sponging off society without contributing. They are valid criticisms: This is a guy, after all, who’s gotten arrested 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.
Sundeen disputes these arguments. “He doesn’t accept any government programs—welfare, food stamps, Medicare,” he said. Instead, he is actively promoting “his idea that money is an illusion,” Sundeen said.
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.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ahiza Garcia, CNN
Sam Turner, Deseret News