Book Review: “The Man Who Quit Money” by Mark Sundeen

Mark Sundeen’s book The Man Who Quit Money depicts the experience of Daniel Suelo, an American man who did just that. And we can cut right to the chase, if you want: I read this in three sittings. It’s a wonderfully good read. It made me think, made me want to make changes in my own life, and introduced me to new ideas and new thinkers.

It’s a radical notion, the prospect of living without money, of extricating oneself from our system of IOUs and work and credit. It’s radical on one hand from a practical level, since modern life is structured entirely around this system. And it’s radical on the other hand from a social level, since, as Sundeen notes early on, “Begging may be the most shameful act in America. It’s how we define failure: If you don’t work hard and get good grades, you’ll end up on the street, panhandling for change.” Poverty, whether voluntary or not, carries a stigma, especially in American society where hard work obviously leads to great reward.

But Daniel Suelo successfully opted out of the money system. And, beyond that, even mostly opted out of any barter system, operating almost exclusively within a gift economy, in which everything—good or service, meal or ride—was given freely without expectation of anything in return.

The book is, in large part, biography. Sundeen has extensive interviews with Suelo, and also speaks with family members, friends from growing up, teachers, etc. Sundeen structures the story using Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure (from The Hero With a Thousand Faces), breaking Suelo’s life experiences into three phases: Departure, Initiation, and Return. To be honest, I was skeptical of this artifice at first. It seemed to give too much weight to this Suelo fellow. But as his life story unfolded, I came around.

The Initiation phase, in particular, does much to explain the foundations of Suelo’s thinking, as he travels and encounters Buddhism and learns to meditate and on and on. For Suelo is nothing if not a thinker. This is no gutter punk or teenage anarchist rebelling against the oppression of the State because of a song he heard, or that paraphrase of Kropotkin his friend has tattooed on their arm. (OK, I’m getting carried away.) No, Suelo’s decisions come after deep and deliberate thought and reflection. He is a philosopher at his core, in the tradition of the great religious thinkers.

This tradition is the second aspect of Sundeen’s book. The author places Suelo’s story in the context of the traditions of voluntary poverty and renunciation, particularly in the religious traditions, from the Buddha to Jesus and then the Christian mendicants to the sadhu in Hinduism. And more. Consider, for instance, that Suelo renounces money in the Utah desert—deserts, of course, being “where religions are born.”

The third aspect of Sundeen’s book is a thorough, but not dull, discussion of what exactly money is, what is it’s history, why it was created, and what have been it’s effects. The discussion necessarily includes credit and debt and usury, and then the market crash of 2008, all of which then leads into a thoughtful consideration of more resilient communities might look like, pointing to such books as McKibben’s Deep Economy (also a good read).

The book might not make you abandon money—money is a useful ledger of IOUs, after all, and it seems to me only becomes a problem with usury and debt, and when society is structured so that you can’t legally live without it. But it will definitely make you consider your financial choices and what you value, and might just inspire you to give something freely without expectation of anything in return.