Extreme personal finance: Daniel Suelo, the man without money

Previously in my semi-regular Extreme Personal Finance series, I've highlighted:

  • A couple who paid off their $220,000 mortgage in three years
  • People who live on ,000 a year
  • Don Schrader, the man who lives on $10 a day
  • Rina Kelley, the reporter who lived for one month as a freegan

Yesterday, my friend Castle sent me the story of a man who makes these other folks look like spendthrifts.

The Man Without Money

Writing for Details magazine, Christopher Ketcham profiles Daniel Suelo, the man who lives without money. From the article:

Nine years ago, in the autumn of 2000, Suelo decided to stop using money. He just quit it, like a bad drug habit. His dwelling, hidden high in a canyon lined with waterfalls, is an hour by foot from the desert town of Moab, Utah, where people who know him are of two minds: He's either a latter-day prophet or an irredeemable hobo.

Suelo lives in a small cave. Much like those in the freegan movement, he generally consumes wasted food from restaurants, grocery stores, etc. Suelo supplements his diet by foraging for plants, mushrooms — and fresh roadkill.

How did Suelo come to adopt this lifestyle? Ketcham's article describes the two years he spent in Peace Corps, posted to a remote Ecuadorean village:

The tribe had been getting richer for a decade, and during the two years he was there he watched as the villagers began to adopt the economics of modernity. They sold the food from their fields — quinoa, potatoes, corn, lentils — for cash, which they used to purchase things they didn't need, as Suelo describes it.

They bought soda and white flour and refined sugar and noodles and big bags of MSG to flavor the starchy meals. They bought TVs. The more they spent, says Suelo, the more their health declined. He could measure the deterioration on his charts. “It looked,” he says, “like money was impoverishing them.”

This experience (and many others) led Suelo to Buddhism and asceticism. It led him to give up money.

Cave-Blogger

There's a lot more to Seulo's life than can be summarized in Ketcham's short profile for Details magazine. Fortunately, you can learn more about a life without money from Suelo himself. Suelo uses the Moab Public Library to maintain a blog called Zero Currency, which he updates about once a month. His post last Tuesday included a brief response to the Details article. Suelo writes:

…My life is not really the life of an ascetic. Chris [the author of the magazine article] told me “this life seems hard”. I told him yes, but I also said that my life is easier than it ever was when I had money, and that it's easier than most anybody's life I know.

Really, though, Suelo's blog is less remarkable than his primary website, which is called Living Without Money. It's here that he answers all of the questions people have about his lifestyle. (Check out the list of frequently asked questions in the left sidebar, or read through his enormous one-page FAQ.)

Reading Suelo's writing is like peeking into the mind of a genius — or a madman.

Back to the Basics

When she sent me Ketcham's article yesterday, Castle wrote:

A good friend once said she didn't think I value money enough and I've thought about that a lot. I have always been uncomfortable with the concept of money and consumerism seems foreign me. I know, I know, I am poisoned by it, too. I've always felt a strong urge to go back to basics and I mean REALLY basic. This guy in this article has done what I've only vaguely dreamed of. Please read it and tell me what you think of his choices.

As long-time readers know, I too feel a pull “back to the basics”. I'm very much a part of our consumer culture, but I pine for an idealized vision of simple living. (I'm under no illusions that it's as easy and care-free as I'd like it to be.)

But Suelo takes it to an extreme. I couldn't live that way. I don't want to live that way. I'm all in favor of simplicity, but I believe there's a balance to be achieved. I don't mind living in the world of money; I just want to build a life where money and consumerism aren't my primary focus.

What's more, I don't believe this is a lifestyle that can be adopted en masse. (And Suelo's response to this particular point is unsatisfying.) If everybody chose to life without money, nobody could live without money. But the truth is, 99.99% of the population has no desire to live this way. And because of this, people like Suelo (and others I've profiled in my Extreme Personal Finance series) can do what they do. I wouldn't call them freeloaders (as some have done); instead, I'd argue they're exploiting holes in our consumerist culture.

To that end, I think what they're doing is great. Their lifestyle isn't for me, and their vision of an ideal world isn't for me, but reality of what they're doing in this world is fascinating, and much more interesting to me than, say, the life of Donald Trump.

For further discussions of Suelo's choices, check out:

Finally, Google Video has a low-resolution 15-minute film about Suelo called Moneyless in Moab.

Could you live a life without money? Does the idea appeal to you in any way? Do you find stories like Suelo's inspiring? Repugnant? Or something in between?

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Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

If a homeless guy adopts a manifesto does it make him inherently more interesting? That’s all I see here.

evan
evan

eh I don’t buy it. He attempts to draw a parallel between having money and health, but the tribe he cites got unhealthy because they didn’t know anything about nutrition. They just as easily could have used their newfound money for healthy food, or health care, and gotten healthier/happier.

Also there’s nothing unnatural or unhealthy about MSG, I wish people would stop acting like it’s the worst poison of the modern era.

J.D.
J.D.

Tyler, if that’s all you see here, then you’re not looking closely enough. Suelo is a highly-educated, highly-skilled man who chose to give up money. While there’s some portion of homeless people who live that way by choice, it’s not large. What’s more, the point isn’t that Suelo is homeless, but that he’s promoting a money-less lifestyle as a virtue, as something that more people should adopt. This is what’s interesting and worth discussing. I, for one, don’t think it’s possible. In his writing, Suelo cites the birds and the bees and the animals of the earth and how they… Read more »

Chett
Chett

I hope he never gets slapped with a late fee from the library.

Ophelie
Ophelie

I don’t know if I could live without money. I certainly couldn’t live without some sort of economic exchange, and I’ve been substituting bartering for some money transactions lately.
On an individual basis, I’m sure it can work for a long time. Problems would start to arise when more people started to do the same.

J.D.
J.D.

@evan (#2) I love me some MSG. For real. 🙂 @Chett (#4) Though I edited it out of the final post, I originally had a brief bit about how the whole “blogging from the library” thing was a curious case of cognitive dissonance. “I reject money, but not the taxpayer-supporter library.” I cut this, though, because I could buy an argument that this was an exception in order to spread his message. I also cut a long rant about Henry David Thoreau. Kris and I read Walden a decade ago. I liked it. Kris didn’t. But we both had trouble… Read more »

Emmy
Emmy

Oh, jeez. I think I always read stories like this with equal parts envy and disdain. It’s been pointed out that Suelo could not live his life this way if everyone else did, and it’s a bit of a cop out to answer that criticism the way he did. Obviously our society is dependent on currency, but if we all just dropped everything tomorrow and decided to live “in the now,” what would happen? The whole world would change, maybe for the better but maybe not. To me, it seems like it’s ultimately easier for Suelo to live moneyless, relying… Read more »

The Arabic Student
The Arabic Student

If everyone lived the way this guy did would we have any scientific research? Would we have modern medicine? Would we have the internet? Maybe this guy would argue that these things aren’t important, but if the goal is to live longer with more knowledge about the world then I’d say we’re doing pretty damn well with our modern capitalist system. Of course we could all go back to living like the “noble savage”. This dude just has a case of “back in the day” syndrome. You know, how so many think things were better in the past. The past… Read more »

ListenEllipse
ListenEllipse

My biggest criticism of his lifestyle is that he doesn’t help a single person in the entire world. He talks about people giving him donations and volunteering their services to help him, but when does he give back? I work a job, I pay taxes, those taxes help some people who are suffering. I also give donations to worthy causes. As my income grows, I will give ore to charity. How many African AIDS victims will Daniel Suelo help in his lifetime? How many acres of forest will he donate to a forest reserve? How many starving children will he… Read more »

Moneymonk
Moneymonk

Could you live a life without money? ahhh does the question really to be justified with an answer

Homeboy lost his screws!!

Living w/o money is like living w/o oxygen

June
June

Who pays for the library he uses?

Eden
Eden

It’s an interesting story, but I don’t see any real end game for him. So he is just going to hang out in his cave and die in the wilderness? Which is perfectly fine if that’s what he prefers, but what is he contributing to society? He is giving us a website about why we should reject money, but as many have pointed out, that can’t work if everyone takes that route. I do like the general push away from consumerism and stuff. There is no doubt we could make things a lot more simple and depend on money a… Read more »

kat
kat

LOL… Wow, I didn’t know you’d profiled Don Schrader. (I’m from Albuquerque and went to UNM.) Definitely an interesting fellow.

Jacque
Jacque

If the world population gave up everything they had an adopted this man’s lifestyle, I believe we would end up repeating the development of civilization all over again and would wind up at roughly the same point we are at now. Cave dwellers would band together in small communities because they are social creatures. They would recognise that it would be more efficient for the group if each member developed their specialties (carpentry, using JD’s example)and would develop a bartering system. Eventually, a currency would develop to ease the complications that come with bartering. Add thousands of years, and those… Read more »

Four Pillars
Four Pillars

I think he’s nuts – but that’s just my opinion.

I agree with Arabic Student – there seems to be a bit of a movement where people talk about living in simpler times, living off the land/grid blah blah blah.

If you go back a few hundred years then life was a lot simpler. It was also a lot shorter and people spent all their waking hours working to provide the necessities of life. In other words – it sucked.

xtina
xtina

The first thing that came to mind after reading this was that Suelo *does* use money. He uses the library that runs via donations and tax monies and eating discarded food purchased by others.

Stephen
Stephen

Interesting article, J.D. Mr. Suelo seems to misunderstand what money and materialism really are. Money is basically another kind of resource. How a person chooses to use it makes the outcome good or bad. Money and rising wealth do not in and of themselves create materialism. While they can influence a person towards materialism, materialism actually comes from within a person because it is an attitude that overvalues acquiring physical possessions. Living moneyless does not necessarily make a person less or more materialistic than someone else who does use money. What makes a person materialistic is his attitude towards physical… Read more »

Heather
Heather

While I admire the spirit of this endeavor, I find him to be a bit self-righteous about it. It’s been pointed out before, but someone pays for that library and computer he uses. What about the rides he hitches? That car was bought by someone, and it no doubt uses gas or electricity, which are certainly not free. If he truly believed in a money-free society, he would walk in order to travel. Travel is a luxury, not a necessity, after all. Who pays for his website? I think the lesson we can take from this is that there are… Read more »

Caitlin
Caitlin

I pretty much agree with the comments here, so no need for me to reiterate.

I couldn’t like like that, and I wouldn’t want to. I consider it to be “roughing it” in a hotel with less than 3 stars. ^_~

Money isn’t evil, it’s a tool like any other. Blah, blah, others said it better than I do.

Adrian
Adrian

Frankly JD, I found this to be a very interesting read, similar to the many other “extreme frugalist” articles you have posted. I believe the point that many readers are missing is exactly what you re-iterated in your response: this article was not posted so that others would convert to this gentleman’s lifestyle, or to boast that his lifestyle is better than any other, rather it was simply food for thought. It was a fresh and interesting perspective on living in a materialistic society with out being materialistic at all. On his website, Suelo doesn’t ask others to “be” like… Read more »

Liz
Liz

If that kind of life is Dan Suelo’s thing, then so be it and kudos for him for pulling it off for however long he can.

I couldn’t do it. Then again, I’m aiming to be one of those people in “The Millionaire Next Door.”

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski

J.D. You say, “This is what’s interesting and worth discussing.” He thinks we should become cavemen, as he has (quite literally), and that it would be an improvement upon modern society. His “moneyless” society isn’t just moneyless, it’s economy-less, and has no means of production nor trade at all. He is a hunter-gatherer with the benefit of being able to scavenge leftovers from those far more productive than he is, and he implies he’d continue even without that benefit. You’re right that this is interesting, but as a novelty. You and I and everyone else commenting here know that it’s… Read more »

Brian
Brian

J.D., I think you’re missing the boat with Walden. Thoreau wasn’t trying to convince us to go live in the woods, or to achieve for himself an independent lifestyle apart from society. His time at Walden was an experiment, to see what were the “necessaries of life.” His purpose was not to live apart from society, but to determine how someone can best live within society. After all, he eventually moved back into town and ran his family’s business (at one point, the pencils he designed and sold were considered the best available). If he had intended to propose that… Read more »

Richie
Richie

I originally had a brief bit about how the whole “blogging from the library” thing was a curious case of cognitive dissonance. “I reject money, but not the taxpayer-supporter library.” I caught this article yesterday, and this is the thing that came to mind. I would respect him more if he was choosing to live a life completely unassociated with money – but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s still taking advantage of government freebies, charity donations and garbage. Good for him – I don’t want to live like that. (Although the thought of living an extremely scaled-down life has… Read more »

Honestb
Honestb

This sort of reminds me of when I read Evasion, which is a book about the punk rock version of this lifestyle with a lot more petty theft. But first the romanticism of all of sucks you in. In the end, the protagonist/writer just seemed full of himself, didn’t seem to really understand the ideals he was claiming to represent, and ignored the fact that he could enjoy his lifestyle only because he was white, young and able-bodied. I wouldn’t go as far with Sueglo, he’s a genuine advocate for a gift economy (even if he doesn’t explain it very… Read more »

Gina
Gina

How can you say Suelo isn’t making a joke? He really seems to be.

I’d challenge him, if he’s really serious about living in his cave and detaching from the economy, to live solely on what he manages to grow himself or catch in the wild with his own hands, or using tools he fashions from the nature around him with nothing man-made. I’d further challenge him to not wear a stitch of clothing he didn’t collect the materials for out of nature, weave and sew himself.

Then he’d impress me. If he wants to unhook, go all the way.

Frugal Bachelor
Frugal Bachelor

Anybody who is ever caught using the world “need” within the context of budgets and expenditures should be sentenced to recite his FAQ every morning. Many people, especially ‘frugal people’, think they are slumming it when in fact almost all of them are living in the lap of luxury and unprecedented wealth and comfort. This guy is a gigantic kick in the balls. I love people who challenge the system like this. Even if we don’t want to live like him, no question we have tons to learn from him. Any thoughtful challenge to our lifestyle makes us reflect on… Read more »

Brenda
Brenda

Wow. I usually feel broke, but compared to that guy, I’m rolling in money.

I like having indoor plumbing and toilets that flush (and doesn’t come with the possibility of one getting bit by bugs or snakes while one ‘does their business’). I guess that lifestyle is ok with Daniel, but I don’t see how people can live like that happily, and not be bothered by the fact that they’re grubby, stinky and rolling in dirt. I guess I’m spoiled….I love my scorpion-free hot showers.

Snowballer
Snowballer

I have to admit I admire his primitive living skills, but yeah honestly all he’s doing is taking advantage of the byproducts of people who produce.

That and he alludes several times on both sites to people who have helped him out and given him stuff.

Really if I had a criticism of his lifestyle though, it’s that he can be helped, but he’s incapable of helping others.

Still an interesting case study.

E
E

I could never adapt this lifestyle, I don’t consider it ideal and I would not recommend it.

However. As #27 says, he makes a good point. He points out what can be gotten for free, in time of need. People at the extremes show us how to expand what is possible in the middle.
Not inspiring, exactly, but intriguing. Clearly living his way can be done. Given that, what more can I do that I haven’t thought of yet?

Very interesting, JD, thanks!

AJ
AJ

I would love to live a life without money.

Brahm
Brahm

I appreciate the value how open and fair minded people are being towards Mr Suelo, but that doesn’t make his actions any less selfish. We should really condemn his behavior as much as we should any deadbeat who refuses to get a job and lives off of the generosity of others. If Suelo wasn’t living in a cave, but was holding to his ideals about not having money while living in his parents house, eating their food, and being clothed by them. Would any of you think well of him? The only difference between what he is doing and mooching… Read more »

steve weaver
steve weaver

This was a GREAT way to make me take a closer look at money… and how all of us are affected by it. You also inspired this roving mind to continue my search for other views. That, in turn, led me to find this 5 part series on YouTube that starts here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVkFb26u9g8&feature=fvw
The thing that scares me is that I’ve known a lot of the information in these videos but never took the time to put it all together like this does.
I hope your readers get as much from it as I have.

Stephanie
Stephanie

“I don’t mind living in the world of money; I just want to build a life where money and consumerism aren’t my primary focus.” This I agree with. Life without money would eventually turn into anarchy and chaos, and a life dedicated to money is doomed…headed for major trouble. I agree that a healthy balance is the best way and I don’t think there is a stronger arguement for anything but balance.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.

Money isn’t the *core* of my life. Family, friends, and shared experiences with loved ones is. If I were to shift to living in a cave, my goals and actions would still be to do things that made life better for all those that I cared for. So I wouldn’t be going out and spending money on a large screen television. But, I’d still work to find small treats, such as making our beds more comfortable or gathering extra berries for dessert. The sheer act of working long hours to earn paper currency to go buy manufactured sheets instead of… Read more »

Linear Girl
Linear Girl

A stoner, 20-ish years ago, the morning after, speaking sheepishly: “Yeah, I had this great idea last night. We can do away with all the money. Everybody would just live, and work, and instead of getting money you’d get credits and you could exchange your credits for stuff or services and people would give you their credits and . . . and . . . Oh. Never mind. Heh.”

On a separate note, the comments are far more interesting than Dan’s lifestyle. Thanks everybody.

RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40

Living in a big city, I could probably live comfortably on $65-80,000/yr if i didn’t have my mortgage and rented. That doesn’t sound like very little, but when your average 2bedroom costs $3,000-$4,000 where I live (36-48K after tax), it’s not a lot of money. My spending habits haven’t kept up with my pay raises. And that in it of itself is probably my biggest success in personal finance. I have strayed a plenty, as I write in my blog, but if you can live off 65-80Kyr, but make 5-7X that through the write employer, industry and promotion, then retirement… Read more »

R Schiller
R Schiller

If this character truly lived “off the land”, the story would have some merit.
Any credibility is lost when he resorts to the highly unhealthy, as well as unapetizing practice of “dumpster diving” for subsistence.

Marcy
Marcy

Obviously, everyone can’t live the way he does. I’m not a pro-civilization, capitalism-is-great type, b/c every “advantage” we have comes at a terrible price. However, I’m not willing to live as spartan as he does. I like that there are people like him out there, b/c he reminds us all how little we really need to survive. I do respect some things about him, though. I like the fact that he eats road kill and discarded food and whatnot. To me, if you want to go without money, then it’s right that you live in a cave and eat garbage.… Read more »

JerryB
JerryB
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40
RB @ RichBy30RetireBy40

Going on any extreme is never healthy. It’s all about the middle way.

I don’t want to look back at my younger years and feel that I was so frugal, so miserly that I had to sacrifice so much to save.

Forgetaboutit. Live it up with what you got, but do so, so that your money lasts evenly throughout your entire life!

Rgds,

RB

Rachel
Rachel

FYI he’s not living off no money – he is using OUR money to get online at the Library and keep a blog. It’s called tax dollars. Just thought I’d throw that out there for free 😉

Edited to add: Just read more of the comments – guess I’m not the only one to notice that!

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme

Okay, I had to comment on the comments of this post. 1) What does this man contribute? He does not contribute to global warming and others forms of pollution and so be implication he contributes to cleaner air. He contributes to more resources for our descendants in terms of both minerals and DNA information. I could go on. While we have scientific results being concentrated in the worlds libraries and ever more fun ways to entertain ourselves—granted, it makes people happy and live longer (not necessarily better)—other resources are being lost at ever increasing rates. Of course this is a… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee

Isn’t it really just that he’s making the market more efficient by exploiting the loopholes? That sounds like the very essence of capitalism.

As I understand them, gift economies are no more or less ‘nice’ than sale economies. You’re just expected to giveaway your talents/things and the more you giveaway, the greater your perceived status.

Emmy
Emmy

Early- There are ways of contributing to society other than academia. It’s telling that Suelo actually worked for the Peace Corps in the past, but now what does he do? Write a blog and scavenge for food for himself. He was in a position to help others and gave it up for a personal goal. He doesn’t encourage others to emulate him; he doesn’t propose any real solutions. He lives his insular life, and he’s happy, but he’s not doing any favors to society.

Mark
Mark

I think what this guy is doing is great and I thank you JD for posting an article about him. I also think quite a few people reading this article felt bad for realizing how much money and resources the personally waste each and every day, so they have to attack this guy to make themselves feel better. And since this guy isn’t doing anything wrong, what did they attack? His usage of “community resources” — the library. Oh my God. What a waste. All those tons of CO2 his once-per-month blog posting requires. And we’re paying for it people!!… Read more »

Don
Don

@Mark >>>I also think quite a few people reading this article felt bad for realizing how much money and resources the personally waste each and every day, so they have to attack this guy to make themselves feel better. And since this guy isn’t doing anything wrong, what did they attack? His usage of “community resources” – the library.<<< No. People have been pointing out that he is NOT living on less, he is simply re-assigning the cost and living off others. Your taxes pay for the library and other community resources – those that aren’t paid by donations –… Read more »

David
David

Emmy: In most cases, after a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, you’re done.

Which is better: a large emergency fund, or the skills to live through a real emergency e.g. earthquake, hurricane, social upheaval? I daresay this man is better prepared for an actual emergency than we are with our cushy savings accounts and zero survival skills.

Losing your job is a bummer. It is not an emergency.

Raghu Bilhana
Raghu Bilhana

Suelo says somethings about being with the sadhus and spending some time in a buddhist monastery, is he concentrating more on spirituality at present? It is in the nature of humans to throw stones at other people and degrade them to make themselves feel good about themselves. I think Suelo should not worry too much about explaining his lifestyle to other Americans or to the world and why he is doing it. He should keep doing what he is doing. HE DOES NOT NEED AN AFFIRMATION OF WHAT IS RIGHT AND WRONG FROM ANY OF US MATERIALISTIC PEOPLE. One more… Read more »

Robyn
Robyn

I believe Suelo is doing the ultimate in contributing – he’s living his life by example. People can contribute to the world in many ways. I was inspired by this article. I will not live at this extreme but I love seeing that someone is doing it and I will look for ways to apply some principles to my life. I don’t think he has to propose any real solutions. He’s living an example of one solution as he sees it. People get to look at that and see if any of his life could apply to theirs. That is… Read more »

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