Mary Beth Writes

 As many of you know, I follow a website called The Non-Consumer Advocate, written by Katy Wolk-Stanley who defines herself as “… library patron, leftovers technician, Goodwill enthusiast, utility bill scholar, labor and delivery nurse, laundry hanger-upper, mother and citizen.” She has purchased very little newly-manufactured consumer goods since she joined The Compact; a movement of people who choose to rethink mindless consumption.

This was my newspaper column back in 2006. I think it is still relevant:

August 12, 2006

I've heard about this phenomenon several places lately.  There's a growing group of people in the US who are pledging to not buy anything for a year.  They call their experiment the "Compact" in honor of the folks who sailed to America on the Mayflower.

The "new land" they are exploring and settling is the space where people are something besides consumers.  And yes, there are plenty of logical exceptions to the no-buy experiment.  They will continue to purchase groceries (though will try to buy as much as possible from locally-owned businesses), things needed for health and safety, and underwear.

What strikes me is this.

In the United States this is a cutting-edge social experiment.          

For most people on earth, this is normal life.


I stayed a few days last winter with a Maya family in the mountains of Guatemala.  Twelve people from three generations of this family live in four little rooms that open onto a hard-packed dirt courtyard. 

It was Sunday evening; supper had been spaghetti pasta served in small bowls of chicken broth; made from a chicken who'd been up and walking recently.  I'd been given a chunk of meat in my soup since I was a guest, the children just had broth and noodles.  We also ate corn tortillas, plus drank oddly pleasant coffee made by boiling instant coffee in a kettle of water, then sweetening it with a startling amount of sugar. 

The three sons of the family, ages 14 to 25, had ridden away on their bikes that afternoon.  I don't know where they went, I suppose to work or to visit friends.  In any case, we finished our supper before the sons returned home.  

I happened to be looking at the woman who was matriarch of this family when the sons came in.  In that fraction of a moment the light in her eyes changed and I could see weariness come into her expression as if she'd just remembered her worries again. The wrinkles around her mouth deepened almost as if she wanted to be angry, but since that wouldn't do any good, she swallowed it and looked around her small domain.

I'm a mom.  I understood what was happening.

It was late. She hadn't expected to need to feed more people that night, but there her young men were, hungry.  She didn't have enough food to fill them easily or well.

That moment took a kind of courage we don't know.

The wife of the oldest son scraped the last spoonful of pasta and broth from the pot into an empty bowl, then passed it to her husband.  He smiled at her, then slurped it down. 

There were enough tortillas left for each son to have two.  The mother lifted, from a nail on the wall, a plastic bag that had a few slightly stale white bread buns in it.  She must have been planning to serve them the next day.  The sons each ate one.

So that is what the sons had for their supper.  Tortillas and bread.  Keep in mind all of them had come home via miles-long bike rides up and down mountain roads.

This is just as true.  This family is not pathetically poor.  They own some land, they had a corncrib of corn, chickens, even a pig out back.  There are four adults and two teenagers in the family who contribute work and money to the running of the family. The children are in school, everyone's working hard towards a future they hope will be less oppressed than the past from which they have come. 

This is still not the whole story.  Here's the rest.      

No one complained.  There was no conversation, that I could tell, about the lack of food.  The sons simply leaned against the wall and ate their tortillas while talking a fast combo of Spanish and Cakchiquel, regaling their family with the stories of their day.  The oldest son who was also father to the infant in the family, lifted his baby from his wife's arms, tucked her in his arm for a while.  His 6-year old son walked over to lean against his dad, who smoothed his glossy black hair. Their little girls, for whom I'd twirled a jump rope most of the afternoon, leaned against me. 

There weren't even enough chairs so everyone could sit down yet as the evening grew chilly, the woodfire in the brick stove glowed. For more than an hour this family talked and laughed together in their small kitchen on the edge of the world. 

I think one of the tricks to being rich is to notice when you are.

The woman and daughter-in-law are two of about 250 MayaWorks artisans in Guatemala.  MayaWorks is one of dozens of Fair-Trade organizations around the globe. One of the reasons this family is stable is because these women earn money for their family through their weaving and sewing.


April 18, 2019

We are traveling through Christian Holy Week and Jewish Passover, a week when many adults more deeply contemplate their religious faith.  A good time to reexamine what we will and won’t buy. A good time to realize that when we make a choice to spend a little (or sometimes quite a lot) extra to buy Fair Trade products, we are not spitting in the wind.  Our extra dollar ends up in the apron pocket of women all over the globe, for whom that extra dollar means food and school for her family.


Fair Trade Federation

Fair Trade chocolate companies



Thank you for bringing this message home. In a season where there is a huge amount of consumption, it is important to be brought back to reality. My world in 2019 is very different from most. I need to be aware of that and move my purchases to help others. Mindfulness, never out of season...
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you. Me, too. It is more than easy to go to any store today and buy, buy, buy our way into "Easter". It's harder to sit still to remember what we really want and care about, then find a way to cook that food item, take that walk, hug those kids, breathe in some Spring. And to remember folks for whom a simple full belly would be the amazing treat.

Thank you so much for sharing this story. It gave me a chill and it's so good to read that FairTrade is making a difference! I always hope so when I buy - even though it's mainly coffee as I try to not buy clothes and if, not buy new ones.
Mary Beth's picture

The $5 here and $4 there we spend - makes a powerful difference in the lives of people who are living in parts of the world where many are living on $2-5/day. I think we don't know how powerful Fair Trade is because so few tell the story. It isn't perfect, it isn't all calmness and meaningfulness - but it's a real solution in a tough world. Me, too. Fair trade and co-op produced food - as much as possible. For their lives and for the integrity of mine.

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Frugality Hacks or how I saved $64,000,000, so far.

I read the ‘frugal things I did’ letters in other people’s huge and interesting frugality blogs. I figured I could list some of the ways I saved some money this week (this life). I’m pleased to say I saved about 64 Million.

Quarantine Diary #645 - Granola

Two recent tweets : Someone named Kate Harding tweeted; “What haunts me is that I am not just smart enough for so many people to be this much stupider than me.”

And from Di, Obstinate Hoper; “I’m starting to think of pandemic caution like labor: buckle down during peaks, relax a little between them. Hang in there, folks. It’s a damn long labor.”

Frugal? Road Trip to New Mexico

If our finances were stretched we wouldn’t have gone to New Mexico. We are doing fine despite the advice that says one ought to retire with a million dollars in the bank. Imagine that.

1. We and, at this point, about half the nation, have had our Covid vaccines so we felt safe and ready to see something new. However, we traveled to a place where they had worked WITH the effort to fight this pandemic. This limited our choices and is the #1 reason we didn’t go to the Badlands. How we spend $ is our power.

The Mindful Chickens are Wordy Today

Other people call them “frugal things I did lately”. I call them Mindful Chickens because they are about:

  • Being Cheap (cheap, cheep).
  • Being thoughtful about how choices affect our community and our earth.
  • Paying attention to the constant tumble of dollars and choices.

This is my collection of wise choices and dastardly schemes from the last two months.

ONE: Our electric toothbrush/water pick would no longer hold a charge but a new one costs more than $100. Len took it to the battery store where they replaced it for $15.

Mindful Chickens - Plastic & Hunger 12/20/2020

I went for a walk on Wednesday and saw this mitten on a sidewalk. When I was at the same spot on Friday, it was still there, so I brought it home because it is a hand-knitted kid mitten, ya know? Any knitters out there interested in making it a mate, so that we could give it to a kid in my community or your? It's 7" from top to ribbed bottom. 


The point of “Mindful Chickens” is to spend less money while being mindful of the environment and our human values. We can try, right?

Holy Mackerel! Mindful Chickens 12/12/2020

Yamiche and Weijia licking out the mackerel bowl this morning.


I said I would write “mindful things” we did this week. The agenda of “Mindful Chickens” is to spend less money plus be mindful of the environment and our other values at the same time. Sometimes, one of those purposes wins over the other, but we can think before we spend, right?

1. I cut my hair. This is not a particular skill of mine, but I can do it well enough to not look like the Pittsburgh Paint Dutch boy.

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