Hitch-hiking through Pennsylvania in 2000, Daniel “Suelo” Shellabarger had $30 left in his pocket, which he left in a phone booth. That decisive day over two decades ago led to 15 years of living without money for the former Moab, Utah local, who returned to monetary society in 2015 to care for his parents. He now lives in Colorado with his mother, pepper-haired and grizzled as if he were still living off the land.
Suelo made a home for himself near Moab during the 1990s before he gave up money. Sheltering in and out of caves, he foraged for wild edibles throughout the desert and learned what plants were safe to forage and consume in different parts of the continent. Hitch-hiking became his preferred method of transportation.
In conquering his pride and allowing himself to be helped, whether that was accepting a ride or a meal, Suelo realized the truth underlying his interactions with others: “By receiving things, I’m giving a service, and by giving things I’m receiving a service also. We’re in a culture where we think that everybody has to be the giver. If you’re the receiver, you’re freeloading or you’re a charity case,” Suelo continued. “That’s condescension, which doesn’t allow for equal reciprocation.”
There were times during those 15 years without currency that Suelo questioned, or even regretted, his moneyless lifestyle. One afternoon in Alaska, sudden rain caused his frayed backpack to disintegrate. With his few belongings scattered around him in the mud, he felt total despair. Moments later, Suelo looked ahead towards the trail and saw a strap jutting out of the mud, which drew an abandoned backpack out of the muck.
Suelo looks back on those years with fondness and appreciation, though he still grapples with the culture shock of living with money. “It was a complete and total change. I was always able to go anywhere I wanted and live outdoors, and now I can’t do that,” he said. But by releasing his identity as “The Man Who Quit Money,” Suelo is learning to be appreciative of the current moment.
“I was becoming attached to being non-attached — attached to moneylessness,” Suelo reflected. “That was becoming my identity.”
That identity quickly gained publicity worldwide, as profiles of Suelo were published in The Huffington Post, The Denver Post, The Guardian, and more. He gave a TED Talk in Grand Junction in 2018, which has amassed 13,000 views on YouTube. Penguin asked him to write an autobiography, but Suelo said he would only agree if the book was free. The publisher then approached Mark Sundeen, who wrote Suelo’s biography entitled The Man Who Quit Money, though Suelo refused royalties and requested that some copies be given away.
“Commerce is destroying our world. I don’t want to participate in that; I don’t want to have to put myself aside to make money,” he explained. “Why can’t I just do things simply because I want to do them — just from my heart? Why do I have to do everything only to gain a salary or reward?”
Beyond capitalistic theory and the fate of a consumerist society, Suelo has found that the only guarantee for a fulfilled life is authenticity. “I don’t really know anything — nobody really does — except just being ourselves, which sounds almost trite,” he laughed. “If in all of my interactions, I can just do things for the sake of doing them rather than for the sake of getting something — without ulterior motive — then things pan out.”
From those itching to leave their remaining savings in a phone booth to the majority who are not ready to give up money just yet, everyone can strive towards a more honest existence. “We can all re-wild ourselves,” as Suelo would say. And perhaps enjoy a more authentic life as a result.
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