The push-pull of spending/saving/not-working

Retire by 40 had a post up recently wondering if he’s too cheap.  Since he quit his dayjob, they’ve had less income and the easiest thing to do was to cut out  extra spending.  No more date nights, less restaurant eating, and so on.

We’re struggling with this right now with DH’s impending job leaving, albeit from the other direction.  As we’ve been discussing (and as we discussed last week), we have the money right now but in a few months we’ll lose 40% of our income.  How much should we cut now?  Should we stop eating out once or twice a week?  Should we stop buying so much fancy cheese? We’re already spending at comfortable levels, but we may have to cut next year.  So do we cut now?  Do we start budgeting now?  When we have a relatively high net worth, do we really need to cut at all?  But our net worth isn’t high enough to generate enough income to finance our spending without drawing down our savings or at least not adding to them (we didn’t hit the financial independence cross-over point before DH quit his job).  That line is hard.  It is much easier to have more money than you know what to do with!

I left that comment on Rb40’s blog, and he suggested that we start living at 60% income now.  But really we have been doing that.  We spend XK/year.  My take-home pay (not including summer money) will be XK/year.  The difference is that we will no longer be putting away DH’s salary in mortgage pre-payments, extra retirement saving, and so on.  (In previous years we banked more than DH’s salary!  But kids can get expensive, especially when you choose private school and daycare.)

The problem is that when you spend XK/year and you make exactly XK/year, you’re living on the edge.  Even when that XK/year is actual money spent including emergencies and not some dream budget, there’s still the worry that some month you’re going to get hit with too big an emergency and you’re not going to make it.  It’s really easy to bank all your extra money when you have almost double what you need coming in every month.  Even if you make a little mistake this month, you’ll just redirect some of next month’s money before the credit card bill comes due.

It’s not so easy when your income matches your expenditures almost exactly.  I know, the standard response is to bulk up the emergency fund.  A large emergency fund is something you can draw on in an emergency

And that leads to the push-pull part.  On the one hand, we can bulk up the emergency fund now without much difficulty (and we are doing that).  On the other hand we could cut spending so our outgo is not equivalent to our in-flow, and in theory we’d get used to that new level of spending.

Normally you need to cut spending to less than your take-home pay in order to bulk up the emergency fund, so you get into that spending-less habit before you have the emergency fund set up.

But our emergency fund is already set-up with our current levels of spending.  We could make it bigger, but that wouldn’t really cut into our spending, just our savings.  And it seems silly to have a huge cash emergency fund when that money could be going towards the mortgage or tax-advantaged savings instead.

So I dunno, we’re just going to keep going back and forth on this.  Emotionally I’m probably going to end up cutting spending because I hate not having that monthly (flow) cushion no matter how much we have in an (stock) emergency fund.  I just can’t handle it.

How about finishing with a challenge update:

So the minute I decide to limit spending, I feel like I need to spend.  Probably because I’m thinking about spending, which is something I’m normally too busy to do.  And then I can’t spend.  I hate that.  (Related: cash flows through me like water, but I rarely use my credit card.)

Our entertainment budget is on track with its automated billing from Netflix.

Went to target once to get  replacement white flappy things for my breast pump, and that is all we got.  Went a second time to get diapers (the mother’s helpers don’t do the EC or cloth) and nuts.  Amazingly did not walk out with anything else.

We went a bit crazy with groceries.  The weekend before last we had a dinner party.  Then we ran out of yogurt and some other things in the middle of the week so DH decided to do a midweek trip before childcare came in the morning.  We took advantage of some good sales to buy a few things in bulk.  This weekend’s grocery shopping hasn’t posted yet, but we’re well over $300 at this point.

We have not eaten out once.  Why not?

Because, to quote Erasmus… “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”  I ended up on my amazon wishlist and saw that a geometry textbook that I want to buy before DC1 is in middle school (many years from now) had dropped in price from $111 to $31.  So I bought it.  Couldn’t help it.  I told myself, “That’s one meal out for the family.  We won’t eat out this weekend.”  So we didn’t.  Then DC1 brought home a Scholastic order and we came up with $54 of books that we wanted to buy.  So we did.  And I thought to myself, “That’s an expensive lunch or a dinner out for us.  We will not eat out this weekend.”  And we didn’t.  But really, lentils are quite tasty if you add enough bacon!

And $20 for a school fundraiser.

So, grumpy nation, if you had to choose among spending less so that your take-home income was more than your outflow, staying in a job you didn’t like, or spending exactly what you earn (not including mandatory retirement saving), what would you pick?  What would help you make a decision?

54 Responses to “The push-pull of spending/saving/not-working”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I think you will naturally spend less once you have one fewer earner because he will have more time to cook and organize and go to the library. Maybe you can invest in cheese making equipment now so that you can have your expensive cheeses at a lower cost. Stock up on the expensive stuff that doesnt go bad like spices and paper products. Then once the income goes away you can have your spending challenge with a nice stockpile in hand. I spend the most on the discretionary stuff when I have the least amount of time. I dunno what floats your boat but I know DH enjoys cooking and learning New things so the food thing will be fun I think. Ooh I think it’s kind of exciting thinking about the things you can do more of once you get the luxury of time.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      sadly: all the milk around here is ultra-pasteurized which means it’s no good for most cheeses

      (DH has cycled through the cheese making hobby)

      • Linda Says:

        Ugh! I get frustrated by this, too. I’d love to try my hand at cheese-making, but it is very hard to find the type of milk I’d need. I can get cow milk that is not ultra-pasteurized pretty easily, but I’m not supposed to eat cow milk or cow milk products very much. If I could get goat milk that is not ultra-pasteurized without a minimum two hour drive involved, I’d be trying cheese-making a lot!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        HAHAHA! We should trade. We can get raw goat milk really easily! But I HATE the taste of goat milk. Cow milk requires a long drive.

      • chacha1 Says:

        I love goat cheese and goat yogurt, but I don’t want to do the work required (read the excellent book Goat Song). My scheme in retirement is to offer free pasture to a local dairy goat person in exchange for cheese etc. Think it’ll work?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        depends on where you live… here the pasture is pretty plentiful, but I’m sure you could come up with something else to exchange

  2. retirebyforty (@retirebyforty) Says:

    Thanks for the mention! I agree with Sandy. You’ll most likely spend less with one income. I guess it really depends on what DH wants to do in the long term. If he’ll get back to working at some point, then it’s probably fine to draw down on your saving. I can’t stand spending more than I make so I cutting back was my first response. It seems like you feel the same way too. I’m sure you’ll find a way to generate a little surplus. Good luck!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      He’s planning on working from the get-go, it’s just a matter of figuring out what to do and what opportunities come his way. He’s a highly skilled STEM person, but we live in the middle of nowhere.

  3. Leah Says:

    We’re debating whether or not I’ll stay in my job once we start a family. I strongly dislike commuting, and I have 35 minutes each way right now. Thus, we are saving as much as possible. I would say that we’re cutting our spending, but, realistically, we’re not. This job represents the most money I have ever made. I am saving somewhere between 50 and 75% of my take-home with no major effort, so we are spending more than we used to. This summer, we plan to sit down and re-evaluate for next year, depending on if I get a contract for another year. That’s where we might decide to save even more of my income to really bulk up our savings and give us the option of making whatever decision when the time comes.

  4. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Knowing my DH, I think it’s likely there will be new things to spend on once he has more time. There’s a lot of deferred maintenance that will get done, but that costs money (we’re thinking maybe even of putting aside a separate fund for that when we do the final reckoning in October). It’ll be easier to take the whole family on business trips. DH will want to get out more. And so on.

    • Leah Says:

      Maybe that’s where his own hustle will come in. When I was pulling down far less money/had a lot of free time, I would do all sorts of extra stuff to pull in the money I needed. For me, extra stuff was babysitting, proctoring ACT/SAT, being a ropes course instructor, and teaching enrichment science classes to youth. Obviously, DH’s take on this will vary. But I found that my nerves about money, when I didn’t have much, and my need to do things in my free time combined to make me ambitious to get enough money to pay for the things I wanted to do.

  5. NoTrustFund Says:

    I love that book quote. And I am so not worried about you and your finances when you go down to one income. You are so careful with your money, even if you spend like normal for the next few months, everything will work out when you go down to one income.

    With respect to the options. I really like to have discretionary spending. So I would probably try to reduce as many fixed costs as possible so I could still go out to dinner and have some fancy cheese. And isn’t there a 4th option? Get out of a job you hate and find another one.

    • NoTrustFund Says:

      Oh and if you like lentils, smitten kitchen’s most recent lentil soup recipe is amazing!!! I love several of her soups but this is my new fav. And it makes a ton. :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The hope is that DH ends up doing something he doesn’t hate, but when you’re location-fixed that can be challenging. It’s nice knowing that if we moved to Silicon valley he’d never be unemployed (for long), but then my career would have to take a drastic change.

      • NoTrustFund Says:

        Can he do something remote? The job market is so tight is SV that a lot of organizations are willing to hire remote employees. I know of a surprising large number of people who do this near me. I’m sure he does not need career advice but just thought I would mention it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        He’s working on it. Doing a lot of networking, but it’s hard.

  6. bogart Says:

    Well … there’s the template advice (in various flavors) on the size of the EF, and so on. And then there’s the question of your own circumstances. Arguments in favor of not cutting back (as much or as soon): you already have second-tier “serious emergency” funds you can access, right? Good credit, and options including recasting the mortgage, withdrawing principal from Roths, and/or borrowing against your 403b. You have major job security and with it, major health insurance security (I know the ACA is supposed to provide better access to the latter, but … we’ll see). Your kids are little which, in some contexts (paid childcare followed by public school) would make them disproportionately pricey now. Arguments in favor of cutting back: as you say, increase in expenses (e.g. home repairs/improvements) once DH leaves his current position. No expectation of reduced school costs once DC2 is bigger (if anything, the contrary?).

    As I’ve said here before, I personally have favored drawing on cheap credit in order to be able to max retirement savings in a context where (apparently) I find cutting back enough to do so difficult otherwise. But I’ve also kept enough of my retirement savings (the Roth) in cash that if I had to pay everything off tomorrow, I could. So basically I’m paying a small fee (~3% every time I have to transfer a balance, which works out roughly equivalent to the APR for the loan given the terms of the BT, completely ignoring the ROI and the tax savings associated with what goes into the 403B) for the privilege of maxing retirement savings now rather than foregoing those amounts (contributions) forever. If we had a big, real emergency tomorrow, our retirement savings (account balances) would take a hit. But my personal feeling is, better to save and risk that possibility than accept the hit up front and not save (as much) at all.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      In theory we could ditch the private school once DC2 hits middle-school or high school. Apparently 5-12 is much better about gifted kids, it’s just K-4 that isn’t.

      Sounds like you’re doing well with retirement ans so on too!

  7. J Liedl Says:

    We also live in the middle of nowhere. Combine that location issue with my tenured job (not much chance to move at this time) as well as Autistic Youngest’s support needs and the result is that my partner is chronically underemployed. Right now he works part time at another local educational institution but at least he likes his boss and the job! We try to budget as if we’re a one-income family because his job is contingent and unpredictable. But mine is really stable, I envision being able to work past 65 quite happily while I continue to build a healthy retirement account to which I’ve contributed for decades.

  8. Rosa Says:

    I really hate feeling stuck in a bad job – much more than I hate actually having a bad job, even, it’s the feeling of not having a choice that makes it so bad – and I also hate being forced to think about not spending all the time. I’m the underemployed one on our partnership – liberal arts instead of engineering, and then the salary inequality means I’m the one who cuts hours when parenting stuff gets intense. Luckily my partner loves his job so we’ve never had to try to cut to live on my salary so he won’t be stuck, it would be a lot harder.

    So I would do what you’re doing, I think – keep beefing up the emergency fund while you can – but also angle spending down toward the one-income-with-savings level. That has the double effect of making it aspirational (in order to have more dinners next year!) instead of reactionary, and also being a gradual change instead of a sudden drop off the cliff.

    There’s no way we would cut things like mortgage prepayment before dinners out, but that’s because my partner would FLIP OUT if we cut out all savings. Emotionally, it’s not the money for him but the need for me to be working – my first post-baby job netted $0 after paid child care but stopped my partner freaking out about money all the time because it made him less anxious.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yes, that feeling of being stuck is the *worst*.

      I think I’ve relaxed a bit about money over the years, but I understand your partner’s concerns, even if I think he should lighten up on the stress a bit.

      • Rosa Says:

        Luckily he makes enough more than me that we can meet his basic savings goals (set amount of overpayment on the mortgage plus 529, 401k & Roth) on his income and still have adequate fun money. If we were living on my earning power it would be all ramen and rags and no savings.

        He has actually lightened up a lot, I haven’t been working for about a year and a half this time and he doesn’t seem anxious at all. I think most of it the first time around was the anxiety of being a new father more than the actual money.

  9. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    Can DH do a little side work/consulting a few hours a week while he’s figuring out his next move? He’d be earning some money, which you could save, thus satisfying the need not to draw down savings. He’d be keeping busy, which could short circuit the desire to go to Target and buy random stuff. And he’d be networking and seeing more aspects of his field, which would be helpful for future job searching.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      He’s working on finding side work/consulting (and really, that’s an end goal, not an intermediate goal if we keep following my career instead of his), but it’s hard and we don’t want to count on it at least for the first two years (at which point we regroup and re-optimize). If we were living in a city it would be easier and if we were in the SF bay area, he’d even be able to work in his specialized industry.

  10. chacha1 Says:

    I spend a good deal less than my take-home pay because DH spends every penny he makes. :-) He comes from a family with no concept of “saving,” and we both overconsumed in major ways in young adulthood, so he is just now coming around to the idea that he is “making enough” to not spend it all. I have hopes for next year … I think we may start saving from both sides. Woo hoo!

  11. Linda Says:

    I’ve been staying in a job I don’t like because I love the income and the benefits. I saw a career counselor a couple years ago and he described my situation as “a golden prison,” which sounded spot on.

    I’m not giving up entirely, though. I’ve been trying different angles and negotiating assignments with my boss, plus I’ve joined an outside networking group and have been polishing my resume. For now I’m trying to find something I’ll like better inside my (fairly large) company, and a couple opportunities are in the works. I’m still open to looking outside, too, but it seems really cold and harsh out there and I have no spouse to provide back up.

    Fear is what has kept me in place. I am afraid that if I left this job I would be jeopardizing my ability to save enough for retirement and continue living a comfortable life in the present. I like that I can max out my 401(k) without a lot of sacrificing. I like taking vacations every year. I like not having to scrutinize the grocery spending. I like going out to eat at the many awesome restaurants in Chicago. I like not having to learn how to fix my plumbing or install light fixtures or any of the other things I can pay someone else to do.

    If I did have to do something more drastic around my income/expenditures, I have ideas on how to create extra income (take on another roommate or promote my extra room through Airbnb; sell some stuff that I don’t need) and cut spending (more careful meal planning and less luxury items at the store.) I’d also have to defer more projects around the house, although I think I’ve gotten pretty caught up with the stuff that costs the most. Deferring critical home maintenance would be the last thing I’d cut. My home is a huge asset, plus deferring some maintenance can end up costing a lot more to fix down the road. (I’m thinking of how my neighbor had her sewer main crack and start dumping sludge into her basement. I had a company come out and rod my sewer line a month later, and will add that costly service to my maintenance roster every two to three years.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, that’s hard. On the one hand, financial independence is great for taking measured risks in one’s career, but on the other hand some of us like having the little luxuries more than we want financial independence. I hope things work out!

  12. oilandgarlic Says:

    Hmm.. I am probably the wrong person to answer since I am pretty sure we’re spending more than we earn right now, if we include my insistence on continuing contributing to 401k and Roth. We’re probably right on budget with no wiggle room if we don’t count savings. We’ve been pretty frugal pre-kids so I feel Ok in spending down our savings since the kids are so young. I tell myself it’s temporary and if worse comes to worse, we find ways to cut back. Having said that, I try to be pretty conscientious about spending. If we have a big expense, we don’t go out to eat. I just think all things in moderation is key and sometimes you just need to go out and eat (and it looks like you guys can still afford some luxuries every once in a while).

  13. anandar Says:

    You know, I think you are over-thinking this. You have an e-fund. You are about to lose income, but your remaining income will cover expenses, and if there are unexpected expenses you will tap your e-fund and/or reduce your expenses. In the meantime, focus your planning mind on how to support and move forward on the independent contracting work that will allow your family at some point in the future, hopefully sooner rather than later, both to spend and to save at the levels you prefer.

    If this were my STEMish husband, the risk would be that he’d get too comfy puttering around the house on home or personal projects, and the paid work would take too long to get going.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      haha, yes, no doubt over-thinking it

      But once everything is settled in my mind, I’ll be able to stop thinking about it. I think the problem is I keep choosing a logical answer but the fact that I keep thinking about it means that it’s the wrong answer for us. Sort of like flipping a coin just to figure out what you really want.

      And YES on the puttering. But it makes them adorable, right?

      • chacha1 Says:

        Ugh. There is a time and a place for puttering. If that’s ALL a member of the household does, I have a problem with it. I want equal productivity from everybody. When DH spends ten nights futzing around with a client’s computer (he is a therapist, not a computer repairman) instead of doing OUR STUFF it pisses me right off. :-)

      • anandar Says:

        Yeah, I mostly find the puttering endearing, since it is usually reasonably “productive” even if non-income generating. But we’ve never been in a circumstance of open-ended unemployment. We’ve thought about making a similar transition once both kids are in public school (I would stay on at a salaried job, husband would become an independent contractor with more flexibility than his current, teaching-intensive job allows), so I am very curious about how this goes. I do worry that DH’s work habits would not lend themselves to efficient billing of clients (though as a teacher, he is efficient in the face of an overwhelming workload, so maybe I am not giving him enough credit).

        As to a time and place for “puttering”–this is a guy who spent a significant amount of time setting up a spreadsheet to track contractions, while I was in active labor. He cut it off when I told him to, so I remember this fondly!

      • MutantSupermodel Says:

        So when you DO flip the coin, what do you actually want?

  14. Galroc Says:

    I have been following your blog off and on for a few months, especially when you write about saving/spending issues.

    Three years ago, my wife and I really started to cut back on spending and focused on paying off debt. The only debt we currently have is our mortgage and a HELOC. No student loans (my wife’s was substantial). No car payments. No credit card past 30 days. We use credit cards to our advantage, rather than the other way around now…(earned about $2300 cash back over the last 30 months).

    We now have two kids in college. DC1 is finishing her BA this May, without any debt. It helps that she went to a state school. We paid off her student loans as well. I figured it was easier for me to pay $25K then for her to take 10+ years and to pay $40K+ eventually after interest. Paying off her student loan delayed paying down our HELOC but I thought it was worth it. DC2 is just starting an engineering degree at a state school and we are paying for it without the need for student loans.

    Educational costs are a substantial part of our monthly budget. We are squeezing the budget everywhere else to make up for it. We go out to dinner about once/month. We always order pizza every Friday night. I bought a fuel efficient and inexpensive vehicle in 2009. I cut out our home phone. Only creditors for relatives and political organizations were calling anyway. We all have cell phones. My monthly cell phone bill is $100 for four smart phones. We purchased the smart phones outright, and then pay for a SIM only plan (T-Mobile).

    My wife and I are both state employed with a defined benefit retirement plan. With that in mind, we do have room in our budget to pay additionally to our mortgage/HELOC or into a 403B. I just bumped up our 403B contribution to about 38% to 58% of our maximum allowed at the start of this year but I really want to pay off our mortgage/HELOC. I know very few people who own their homes outright.

    I could easily max out our 403B contribution but I think I will pay off the mortgage/HELOC instead. I want the mortgage payment to be low enough that we could afford it on our lowest of our two incomes because we might not always be dual incomes. When DC2 finishes college in 3.5years, we will definitely max our 403B…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sounds like you’re on a really great track!

      Is it true that the value of your house isn’t counted in college financial aid formulas?

      • Galroc Says:

        The equity in your house is not counted in FAFSA. Neither are your retirement plans (403b/457). I would not pull any equity out of your house to pay for college.

        Your income, 529 plans, investments and your savings are all counted towards the Family Expected Contribution (FEC). Schools will offer a combination of financial aid and loans to met the FEC. If you are a 529 saver, the schools will see that money and reduce their financial aid package that they offer you. You are inflating your FEC by having a 529 plan. They won’t do the same with money in a 403b/457 plan,

        We did not start a 529 plan because the fees and return on investment wasn’t that great. Plus, we had kids young, and just started to earn reasonable income in the last 5 years.

        After going through the college application process with two kids, it appears that most liberal art colleges will offer a substantial financial aid package ($15K to $20K) to everyone. Don’t believe the up front tuition costs. It is a price war colleges are playing with each other. State colleges won’t offer substantial packages but they are already low cost. Colleges that I consider tier 1 most likely won’t offer any financial aid package unless the child is in the top 10-15% of the incoming class to get any sort of reasonable aid.

        I personally would not pay any more than $25K/year total cost for any child going to college that isn’t a tier 1 college. If the school isn’t offering any package, then that might not be the school for them. Engineering colleges don’t tend to offer packages because they believe their future graduates can afford the loans. Both my kids turned down substantial aid packages from private colleges to go to state schools.

        BTW, I have been a big MINT user for the last two years.

        GTG, DW picking me up.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We’re hoping not to be financial aid eligible by the time our DCs are in college, though obviously that will depend on what DH decides to do (my income is high, but it isn’t that high!). The 529 money isn’t counted 1 for 1 like most schools count scholarship money though, it only reduces aid by the same amount that other non-retirement savings would.

        I actually got very good financial aid at a top SLAC, not because I was one of their top students, but because my parents were low income, so I had financial need.

      • Galroc Says:

        I didn’t know that about 529 plans in regards to aid calculation. However, still doesn’t really change my mind about 529 plans as not worth it.

        When I talk about financial aid packages, I really mean academic scholarships + need-based grants + student and parental loans (enough to bring cost down to FEC). My kids qualified for academic scholarships at almost every private college they applied (bringing the cost close to state universities). Only this year, with two kids in college at the same time, did we qualify for small need-based grants from their college. It won’t happen next year when we will only have one child in college.

        Today, college costs between $90,000 to $220,000 for four years. Every $200K plus school that accept by kids offered substantial academic scholarships to bring the cost down closer to $100K.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        With me it cost less to go private than for me to go to our public flagship. The opposite was true for #2. I think the main difference was that my parents were well beneath a certain needs threshold and the privates could support that but our flagship couldn’t.

  15. hush Says:

    I would probably choose the path of least anxiety, which for me would be to either/both spend less or to stay in a job I didn’t like (as long as I wasn’t being actively abused or harmed there) – but spending all that I earn would make me too anxious. You know, that proverbial rainy day and all.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh yes, that makes a lot of sense. I also like calculated risks, not actual risks. I’m glad that DH can take a calculated risk– I think he’d be miserable stuck in a job he didn’t like.

  16. Cloud Says:

    Interesting question! As you know, we aim to have a big enough emergency fund that one of us could quit (or, more likely, get laid off) and we could just keep going without too many changes for about a year. So here I am, in a job that I’m on the fence about with some ideas about what I might want to do next… but I’m not quitting my job. It is hard to take the leap, and I *like* our income. So yeah, what do I know? I can’t even do what I say I would do…

    In your position, I think I would look around and figure out what biggish things I’d need for the next year to feel happy (a new shoes splurge? A new computer? I don’t know) and do that now. And then cut back my spending to get to a level I’d be comfortable with when the income constriction happens. But given what I wrote above, who knows what I’d actually do.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think there are any big consumer goods we want. However, there may be consumer goods we will need (things have been dying this year), but they are unpredictable. So I can’t just say, hey the fridge is going to die, and then buy a new one.

  17. frugalscholar Says:

    My husband and I are reflexive savers, so that is what we would do.
    I tend to go over (and over) various permutations for financial disasters–most of which have not occurred. So–in a do what I say, not what I do–I would suggest having a general template for what you will do and then STOP WORRYING. I have squandered a lot of time on figuring out my strategy for future events.

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