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Marketplace Scratch Pad

No money, no worries?

Scott Jagow Jul 22, 2009

If you’re financially stressed, you could always do what Nick Suelo’s doing. He’s been living without any money whatsoever for nine years.

For the past three years, Suelo has lived in a cave near the town of Moab, Utah. A writer from men.style.com recently spent some time with him:

Unlike the average American–wallowing in credit-card debt, clinging to a mortgage, terrified of the next downsizing at the office–he isn’t worried about the economic crisis. That’s because he figured out that the best way to stay solvent is to never be solvent in the first place. Nine years ago, in the autumn of 2000, Suelo decided to stop using money. He just quit it, like a bad drug habit.

A little background:

He wasn’t always this way. Suelo graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in anthropology, he thought about becoming a doctor, he held jobs, he had cash and a bank account. In 1987, after several years as an assistant lab technician in Colorado hospitals, he joined the Peace Corps and was posted to an Ecuadoran village high in the Andes. He was charged with monitoring the health of tribespeople in the area, teaching first aid and nutrition, and handing out medicine where needed; his proudest achievement was delivering three babies.

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.”

Eventually, Suelo felt the same way. How he survives:

What about starvation? He’s never gone without a meal (friends in Moab sometimes feed him). What about getting deadly ill? It happened once, after eating a cactus he misidentified–he vomited, fell into a delirium, thought he was dying, even wrote a note for those who would find his corpse. But he got better. That it’s hard is exactly the point, he says. “Hardship is a good thing. We need the challenge. Our bodies need it. Our immune systems need it. My hardships are simple, right at hand–they’re manageable.” When I tell him about my rent back in New York–$2,400 a month–he shakes his head. What’s left unsaid is that I’m here writing about him to make money, for a magazine that depends for its survival on the advertising revenue of conspicuous consumption.

Suelo isn’t completely disconnected from society. He maintains a blog called Zerocurrency and the website Living Without Money. He writes from a local public library. An excerpt:

I don’t see money as evil or good: how can illusion be evil or good? But I don’t see heroin or meth as evil or good, either. Which is more addictive & debilitating, money or meth? Attachment to illusion makes you illusion, makes you not real. Attachment to illusion is called idolatry, called addiction. I simply got tired of acknowledging as real this most common world-wide belief called money! I simply got tired of being unreal. Money is one of those intriguing things that seems real & functional because 2 or more people believe it is real & functional!

It sounds like Suelo is happy living his life this way. He has no plans to do anything differently:

Suelo is 48, and he doesn’t exactly have a 401(k). “I’ll do what creatures have been doing for millions of years for retirement,” he says. “Why is it sad that I die in the canyon and not in the geriatric ward well-insured? I have great faith in the power of natural selection. And one day, I will be selected out.”

I’m sure a lot of people think he’s crazy, but considering the economic times, his perspective doesn’t sound crazy to me.

Hat tip, Planet Money.

I’m heading out for a couple of days (not to live in a cave). But hopefully, I’ll stumble across some good economic stories. Senior Paddy Hirsch will be filling in tomorrow and Friday. Talk to you next week!

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