Understanding The Man Who Quit Money

Right around the time I started reading The Man Who Quit Money, I was obsessed with buying shoes. I had just gotten a new job, and I needed a shoe that was both stylish and comfortable, versatile enough that I could walk through the city quickly without giving me blisters, but cute enough so that I felt in step with the other professional women carrying paper cups of coffee and sleek leather tote bags. (Don’t even let me get into my collection of handbags.)

I never found that shoe. Rather, I found many shoes: shoes I liked until I wore them once; shoes I bought and then felt guilty about and took back; shoes that were comfortable but looked like Jesus sandals; shoes that were chic, but hurt my feet if I wore them for more than two blocks.

I knew it wasn’t pure coincidence that at the same time I was reading a biography of a man who gave up his attachment to money, I was feeling more attached to mine. I live in a culture that, on street corners and bus stops, gas stations, magazines and computer screens, persuades me to believe that fulfillment comes from buying things.

Mark Sundeen talks about this phenomenon early on in The Man Who Quit Money. When Daniel Suelo, the subject of the biography, shows Sundeen and his friends a large garden full of squash and melons someone left behind to rot, Sundeen describes his own gluttonous behavior; he and his friends eat and hoard as much of the fruit and vegetables as they can. Suelo, on the other hand, takes only what he needs—one ripe fruit—and bicycles away, leaving them in the midst of their frenzy.

How much do we give up when we let ourselves be dominated by consumption?

According to Suelo, quite a lot. That’s why he left his remaining thirty dollars in a phone booth 12 years ago and since then, has lived by his own philosophy: “Use only what is freely given or discarded & what is already present & already running.”

To some, Suelo’s way of life will seem naïve and impractical. “Money makes the world go round,” they might say. And yet how many times have we caught ourselves discarding something that only hours, weeks or months before had seemed absolutely vital to our existence? How frequently do we find ourselves getting caught up in the illusion that more money will make us happier, only to find that when we have more money, we either feel exactly the same or worse? Oftentimes, more money makes us more anxious; so much of our mental energy becomes consumed with worry about losing the possessions and services we’ve grown accustomed to.

These questions about money should strike us on both personal and societal levels, especially as election season nears and we are forced to consider our values as a country. Beliefs about money coincide with how we operate in the world, how we interact with friends and associates, and even how we parent. When it comes to future generations, do we unwittingly assume that money and prestige are the solutions to life’s biggest struggles, rather than confidence of character and behaving with integrity?

In this installment of the Friends Journal book club, I hope we’ll share reactions, personal stories, and questions about the role of money, as well as what we hope to achieve both individually and as a society based on the insights of Daniel Suelo’s story.

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