This article is by staff writer April Dykman.

Several years ago, my husband and I were planning to build a house. We bought the land and cleared the build site. We then started working with an architect, which is how we lost $12,500 in a matter of months.

Here’s how it went down.

Losing thousands

When I hired this architect, whom I now refer to as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I thought I’d done my due diligence. The guy was profiled as one of the top architects in green building. He specialized in the type of house we wanted to build. We met with him, we toured two homes he designed, and we met with one of his past clients.

After a couple of meetings to discuss rough sketches and photos of the design elements we wanted, we seemed to be on the same page. So we signed on the dotted line and sent him the first payment.

Things went well at first. He sketched a design that was almost what we wanted, but not quite. “No problem,” he said. “I can make those changes.”

Weeks later, we got back a new design. It looked nothing like the first design. Everything was different, from the elevation to the square footage to the room layouts.

I told him that I actually liked the very first design; we just wanted those few changes we’d discussed. I got back a third design that looked nothing like the first two.

It was pretty bizarre. Some of the weirder changes included replacing a staircase with an attic ladder and designing a tower that actually leaned, like some sort of purposeful Pisa or something. My dad, a stone mason with 30+ years of construction experience, was dumbfounded, and losing his patience.

Still, I kept my emails to the architect civil and professional, trying to work with him so we could get some finalized plans.

Finally, he sent over the finished plans. Again, they were completely different than what we’d discussed. And they were incomplete. We took them to a contractor, who verified this. As it turned out, the contractor actually knew He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named by reputation, and the reputation wasn’t good. My stomach sank.

When I tried to talk to the architect, he got defensive. He insisted that the plans were complete, and he said that our changes were the reasons that the plans were so wildly different from one round to the next. Now, I do get that one change can necessitate other changes. Only, he didn’t actually incorporate the changes we’d requested. The plans were just different. It became clear that we weren’t getting anywhere, and then he started copying an attorney on his emails to me.

So, things ended badly. We were already $12,500 in the hole, and I refused to send him the final payment without complete plans. He threatened to put a lien on our property, so I consulted an attorney in my family. Basically, the attorney said that if The Dark Architect tried to put a lien on our land, we could do something about that. But as far as getting our money back, he said we’d have to go to court, and he didn’t recommend that course of action. Apparently it would open us up to greater liability, and it wasn’t worth it for $12,500.

I was angry and sick to my stomach. That was no small sum to us. It took a lot of time and sacrifice to save our money, and now we had nothing to show for it. The plans were worthless.

Losing millions

Although we lost what was a significant amount of money to us, to others, it’s pennies. For instance, entrepreneur and author James Altucher has written about his experience with losing a million dollars a month until he was eventually flat broke.

After James sold his first company for $15 million, he lived it up. “I bought an apartment for millions,” he writes. ”I rebuilt it. Feng Shui! I bought art. I played a lot of poker. I began investing in companies. A million here. A few hundred thousand there. One IPO I put $2 million in at $20 and watched it go to $0. They made wireless devices for deaf people. Huge market.”

He started a company; he invested in companies. Then came the bubble burst. “From June 2000 until September 2001, I probably lost $1 million a month,” he says. “I knew nothing about stocks or valuations or anything resembling rational thought. I doubled down. Then quadrupled down. Then 8-upled down. I couldn’t stop. I was an addict.”

His account balance was spiraling toward zero. “I felt like I was going to die,” he writes. “That zero equals death. I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been … I was going to zero and nothing could stop it. There were no jobs, there was nothing. “

He lost his house, he couldn’t sleep, he dropped down to 130 pounds. “I went from feeling immortal to feeling dead all over,” he writes. “There was never a moment when I didn’t feel sick. I had let everyone down forever.”

Finally, he decided he could either wither away and die, or he could feed his family. So he focused on his health and well being, and eventually, he was making millions again. Which he lost, again. And then he made it back a third time.

“And I hope I can keep building,” writes James. “I hope I don’t revert to my addictive tendencies. I think this time I learned. Every day without fail I focus on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.”

It’s quite a story (and worth reading in its entirety). [Editor's note: This link to James Altucher's story requires that you confirm your email address in order to read the story.]

An expensive lesson learned

As for the conclusion to my own story, the architect never tried to put a lien on our property. It was just an attempt to scare us into making another payment. And while I’d love to say that I let it go long ago, the truth is that I rarely talked about the situation because his name brought up feelings of anger and frustration for years, hence the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named moniker.

“Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, who, while he lost several billion on the day of the Facebook IPO still was worth billions of dollars, a significant financial loss is going to hurt you, financially, emotionally, and spiritually,” says Jason Hull of Hull Financial Planning. “Address all of the aspects of the loss so that you can move on.”

Today, I have moved on. Time has passed. And more significantly, my priorities radically shifted when my friend Frank passed away last year. I just don’t care about losing that money or feeling suckered anymore. And in many ways, we were lucky. Losing the money didn’t put us out on the street — it just sucked, was all. So now I’m able to chalk it up to a very expensive lesson in one of our GRS tenets: No one cares more about your money than you do.

Readers, what’s the most amount of money you’ve ever lost? How did you react, and what did you learn from the experience?

This article is about Frugality, House and Home

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This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

I’ve been cooking for years. Although, if you ask my husband, I’ve been screwing up fried eggs for just as long. (His secret: Fry them on low to avoid cooking the egg too quickly.) So I am no genius in the kitchen, but I am getting better.

Flexible cooking

I used to follow recipes exactly, afraid to deviate at all. (Didn’t have all the ingredients? Find another recipe!) But then I discovered a recipe in a cookbook that had the same basic ingredients (meat, pasta, diced tomatoes), but the recipe authors gave suggestions on how to use different spices (chili powder or Italian seasoning) and cheeses (mozzarella vs. sharp cheddar) to totally change the taste of the dish.

Since then, I have been trying my hand at doing a little kitchen experimentation. And I came up with “Flexipes” or flexible recipes. (Uh, at least I thought I coined the phrase. I guess not.) Flexipes are recipes that allow you the flexibility to create delicious, delicious dishes while using up what you have in your pantry.

And how does cleaning out your pantry help you from cleaning out your wallet? Wasting less food, fewer last-minute trips to the grocery store, maybe even relying less on eating at restaurants. Because once you gain confidence in your own meal creation skills, you may prefer the challenge of creating a delicious meal out of random parts, so to speak.

I often rely on skillet dinners (dinners that can be cooked entirely in one pot) to feed my family. And sometimes this means I give myself points for fewer dishes to wash later.

If you’re just starting out with flexipes, a skillet dinner is an easy place to start. Much like a universal muffin recipe from Amy Dacyczyn’s “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” here is one of mine.

Lisa’s universal skillet recipe:

Around one pound of meat and/or beans Because I’m trying to cut down our meat consumption, I will usually use half a pound of ground beef, along with a cup or two of beans (black, cannellini, and pinto beans are favorites).

Vegetables If I have onions (which I usually have since they’re cheap and store well), I use them in all my skillet creations. Diced tomatoes (or a can of salsa), celery, frozen corn, garlic, sliced cabbage, bell peppers, green chiles, and greens have all had their turn. Denser items like carrots and potatoes may need to be chopped into small pieces and precooked or added at the beginning.

Pasta/grains While I haven’t branched out too much beyond macaroni and brown rice, I see no reason why quinoa, couscous, or other grains wouldn’t work. Another original recipe called for Minute Rice, which cooked right in the pan. Dried macaroni also can cook in the pan if enough liquid (water or tomato juice) is present. However, if I am using something that takes longer to cook (like brown rice), I cook the rice separately (creating another dish to wash) and add it at the end.

Extras Depending on the flavor I’m going for (and what I want to use up), I may add some sliced olives, green chiles, or cheese — but it’s usually cheese.

Herbs/spices Chili powder, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper are just to get you started; but the sky’s the limit when it comes to spices, as long as they’re complementary (which is not to be confused with complimentary: My, paprika, you’re looking good today.)

A flexipe example

Here’s how a recent meal went down.

I had about half a pound of a ground-beef-and-black-bean mixture left over from another meal. To that, I added some brown rice, chopped up a very ripe tomato, added another can of diced tomatoes and green chilis, some Mexican blend cheese, salt, pepper, chili powder, and a couple of diced bacon strips (because bacon makes everything better). I served this with corn tortillas and it didn’t taste at all like leftovers. Sophisticated? No. But it was good, gave us some fiber, protein, and veggies for a quick and easy meal.

Other dishes that make excellent flexipes are soups. Vegetables can easily be swapped in soups, along with the liquid base and different types of proteins.

Egg dishes like quiches and frittatas can easily be manipulated, depending on what you have on hand. Use a basic quiche recipe and then create a spinach and artichoke version. Have tomatoes to use up? How about a tomato and basil quiche? Stratas use bread, eggs, milk, cheese and, sometimes, vegetables to make a delicious meal.

Meeting flexipe challenges

One of the challenges with flexipe cooking is finding flavors that do complement each other. Since I discovered Leanne Brown’s Eat Well on $4/day cookbook through one of April’s recent articles, I have been (literally) devouring it. Her recipes lend themselves to flexible cooking, and she also gives tips on adapting the recipes.

When you’re just starting out, you can also look for inspiration in the restaurants and recipes around you. This is a very simple example, but I see mushroom and Swiss burgers everywhere. So this morning, when I sauteed some mushrooms and added some scrambled eggs, Swiss cheese was thrown in, too. Simple and delicious.

And that’s the thing. These meals probably won’t bring gushes of admiration from your dinner table diners, but if simple and delicious peasant fare (check out the comments on this excellent article) is what you’re going for, this will probably be enough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a refrigerator to raid…

My ideas are undoubtedly influenced by my farming/Midwestern background, so I am interested to see how this is received in other areas. Can you create meals from your pantry, fridge, and freezer that don’t follow a recipe? What are some of your favorite flexipes?

This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

It’s both fascinating and useful to calculate the value of your time. Financial freedom gives you options and flexibility. But without time, that means nothing. Time is a precious resource that we should spend wisely. But you already know this – we’ve written about it quite a bit.

Knowing the value of your time is helpful for a variety of reasons:

  • If you’re a freelancer, it can help you decide on gigs.

  • It can help you decide whether a frugal habit is worth it.

  • It might convince you to pay someone to help you with tasks.

There’s a pretty standard method for calculating the value of your time. Simply figure out your hourly wage by dividing your income by the number of hours you work. That’s easy enough, but there are a few problems with that approach:

  • You don’t get paid for your free time. You’re only paid for the time you spend working. So the better question might be: What is your free time worth?

  • You might not enjoy your job. I hated the low-paying job I had during my first year of college, and I didn’t want to work any more than I had to. So while I wouldn’t give up an hour of my free time to earn an extra $5.75 at that job, I would have spent an hour on some frugal task that saved me $5.75 — maybe even less.

  • It doesn’t consider how busy you are. The value of your free time should also depend on how much of it you have available.

  • Not all time is valued the same. As a freelancer, when I take a vacation, I lose money. So the value of my time is actually in the negative. And I’m okay with that because, dammit, sometimes you need a vacation. At the same time, I would not wait in line for an hour to save $30 on something because I hate to wait in line.

Because of these reasons, the idea that you’re worth a certain amount per hour has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Ever heard that fun fact that Bill Gates is so rich, if he found a $100 bill in the street, it wouldn’t be worth his time to pick it up? I’ve always thought that was silly. First, it takes a quarter of a second to bend over and pick up that bill. Even if he’s “on the clock,” he’s not trading in that time for anything — he’ll be paid whether he picks it up or not. Plus, at this point Bill Gates’ income is passive. He earns money in his sleep. So picking up that bill would still be an extra $100 on top of whatever he makes. It’d still be a drop in the bucket to him, but you get the idea.

Calculate a better value of your time

When I came across Clearer Thinking’s “time worth” tool, I figured it was another standard hourly wage calculator. But once I started reading, I found out that it’s actually a pretty detailed and personalized survey on how you value your free time.

Here’s how they describe it:

“This tool will ask a series of questions to help you estimate how much money each hour is worth to you, so that you can make wiser decisions about how to spend that time. It’ll also provide you with a customized report based on your results that highlights any inconsistencies in your answers and makes concrete suggestions for applying your newfound knowledge in your daily life.”

Basically, it’s designed to estimate how much you value an additional hour of your time (your “free time,” in so many words, or the time you spend on top of your current schedule).

“So if you currently work 35 hours a week, for instance, this tool will estimate how much money you’d need to put in a 36th hour of work. Here’s another way to think of the same idea: the additional hour value of your time is the amount of money you’d pay to free up an hour of time.”

Who should use it

They write that the tool was designed “with employed individuals in mind.”

So if you’re unemployed or retired, you might not find the tool very accurate. After all, your free time is measured by different considerations. They add another caveat:

“If you have very low savings or an unstable income, the calculator may overestimate the value of your time and underestimate your need for funds. If you fit this description and this tool recommends that you spend more money or reduce the number of hours you work, please be very careful about acting on its advice.”

With that disclaimer, let’s jump in and see how it works.

How it works

First, the survey asks you some basic questions about your current work. How much are you paid per hour? How much do you enjoy your job? This survey serves as a point of reference for all of your decisions.

From there, you are presented with four scenarios. In answering these questions, you should consider the numbers, yes. But you should also consider how busy you are, how much you enjoy your job, and how much you like or dislike the task presented in each hypothetical. It’ll make more sense when we look at each scenario.

Scenario 1: The wage you’d accept for 1 hour of work

In their first hypothetical, they want to know how much you’re willing to work per hour if you lose your job so they ask you to determine the minimum hourly wage you’d accept for a similar job that you like just as much and that would require the same number of hours per week. (You should also suppose that you can easily find another similar job even if you passed up this new opportunity.)

Of course, in answering this, you want to consider how much you’re earning now. So basically, how much lower would you be willing to go for the same workload and type of work? Your answer helps determine how much you value your work time.

Scenario 2: How much you’d spend on a time-saver

If there was a tool that could save you time, how much would you be willing to spend on it? This helps them gauge how much you’re willing to pay for your free time.

Scenario 3: How long you’d wait for a gift

In the third scenario, they want to know how long you would spend waiting in line for a gift card. For me, this value varied considerably from the first two, because I don’t enjoy waiting in line, even if I am being mildly entertained. So I’d rather skip out on the gift and work in that time, or just do nothing. Still, it’s a good hypothetical because it helps round out your value.

Scenario 4: Your rate for a longer work week

If you had to take on a longer work week, how much extra would you charge for your time? Say, for example, that your company wants you to transfer to a similar job that you would enjoy just as much but that would require an extra 10 percent of your time than you currently work. You could ask for a raise to take on the new position, so they ask about the minimum total amount of money you’d accept to agree to the new job. Again, this answer helps determine how much you value your free time.

My results

After averaging out the numbers you enter for those four scenarios, Clearer Thinking gives you a dollar figure for your time. Mine was $31.25, pretty close to the standard method that I criticized earlier in this post.

But using the quiz rather than the standard method actually gave me insight into how I value my time, not how my employer values it. The customized rate for my time was only about a dollar more than my current work rate, and that’s good. I enjoy my work and I’m not overwhelmingly busy, so this makes sense.

You can get some really personalized advice based on your own numbers. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “If you’re considering waiting in line for 20 minutes to get something free, ask yourself whether you’d be willing to pay $10.42 for that thing. If not, you probably shouldn’t wait.”

  • “If you’re thinking of buying a time-saving device (e.g. a dishwasher or garlic press), estimate how many total hours it will save you. If it costs less than the number of hours it’ll save you multiplied by $31.25, it’s probably a good purchase. So for example, if it will save you 10 hours, pay no more than $312.5.”

  • “If you’re debating whether to purchase an item worth $20, you should spend much less than 38.4 minutes making up your mind. If you spend longer, the value of the time you’ve devoted to deciding whether to buy the item will exceed the value of the item itself!”

The survey isn’t absolute. But then again, it can’t be. It can’t take every scenario and preference into consideration. The value of your time varies depending on how you feel about all the different ways you spend it. And sometimes your time is just priceless — it doesn’t always translate to dollars.

But if we’re going to calculate our time-value, this tool does offer insight beyond simply knowing how much your boss pays you per hour. Check it out yourself, and tell me what you think.

[Editor's note: The "Time and Money Calculator" at www.clearerthinking.org appears to use cookies in order to recognize where you left off in their questions.]

This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

Earlier this year, I started volunteering at my local library for a couple of hours a week. I’m a big fan of libraries, and I wanted to find a way to give back. And for some odd reason, I felt compelled to do something good. I couldn’t really pinpoint why, so I chalked it up to getting older.

At the library, one of my duties is to make sure one of the weekly programs doesn’t go over capacity. Most buildings have occupancy regulations, and the library is no different. I politely tell people, “Sorry, we’re full for this program. But we have another one starting soon.”

You’d think people would be understanding, and for the most part, they are. But each week, at least one person throws a fit, says awful things, and then proceeds to tell me they’ll report me, a volunteer, for suggesting they wait 15 minutes for the next program.

I’m not going to lie. It feels good to publicly vent about this. But more than just annoying me, their behavior has me thinking a lot about entitlement lately. While my entitlement doesn’t manifest itself in temper tantrums, I’m still guilty of it. I get wildly impatient over stupid, first-world problems — waiting in line more than five minutes for my groceries, for example. Having to take off my shoes for airport security.

Entitlement annoys the hell out of me. It makes people rude, unpleasant and unhappy. Take anyone off the street and ask them, “Hey, what do you think of entitlement?” and they’ll tell you, “It’s terrible. I hate it.”

Yet everywhere I go, I see people yelling at cashiers, barking orders to wait staff and leaning on their car horns for silly, unjustifiable reasons. If everyone hates entitlement, why is everyone so entitled?

Our environment and background

Sharing his own thoughts on entitlement, J.D. speculated that where you grow up has a lot to do with it.

“If you’ve never been hungry, never wondered where you would sleep, never had to go without shoes, then your sense of what is by rights your due may be askew.

“If every winter your family went on vacation to a warmer clime, if every summer you went to camp, if each fall you started the new school year with a fresh wardrobe and all the school supplies you could imagine, why would you think you were entitled to any less as an adult? Even if you haven’t got the income to support it, you have no idea why you can’t have everything you want when you want it. And if you’ve been handed a pile of credit, no doubt you’ll satisfy your sense of entitlement, damn the long-term costs.”

To put it bluntly, this has to do with being spoiled — growing up with luxuries you don’t even realize are luxuries. And, yeah, I’m spoiled. I never had a fresh wardrobe or went to camp. But I did grow up with plenty of food, lots of modern conveniences and few worries.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine my mother ever throwing a huff about having to wait 15 minutes for a free program or even standing in line for her groceries. In fact, she doesn’t complain about much. When your childhood memories consist of hunger pangs, you tend to be a little more grateful for an abundance of food and shelter later in life.

Our consumer culture

But it’s our consumer culture, I think, that makes us more entitled than anything. We want Stuff. We convince ourselves we need Stuff. And we work hard, so we must deserve it. But there’s a difference between feeling you deserve something and feeling you’re owed something. The problem is that the line is really, really fine.

Sue L.T. McGregor, an economist, researcher and Full Professor in the Faculty of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University, discussed this topic in a paper titled, “Consumer Entitlement, Narcissism, and Immoral Consumption.” In the paper, McGregor points out how easy it is for consumerism to take over our behavior.

Entitlement makes us rude. All of you can probably think of a negative experience you’ve had in dealing with someone’s entitled rudeness. MGregor writes:

“Remember that, in a consumer society, people have very high expectations for personal gratification.”

Well, what’s wrong with that, right? Except that:

“People feel that they are entitled to have all their expectations met. Life should be easy…. Not surprisingly then, a sense of entitlement can lead to destructive, as well as aggressive, consumption behaviors. An entitlement mentality holds that the world is theirs for the taking, regardless of possible harm to others.”

And this isn’t such a big deal when the patron who wants to get into the library program yells at me. But this mindset can be a little more destructive when you consider that most of us consume despite the moral conflicts. We read about a company doing something terribly corrupt, and we’re briefly appalled. Hell, we might even tweet about it with a convenient little hashtag. But then, we go right back to being consumers — or, worse than that, we turn a blind eye to it altogether and chalk it up to capitalism. Not to sound too judgmental — in my life, I’ve done both.

We become so engrossed in what we’re owed, we become disconnected with where our goods and services come from. As McGregor explains, our “consumption decisions are adversely affecting the next generation, those not yet born, those living elsewhere, and the environment.”

I do think this is changing a little. Consumers are starting to become more interested in shopping responsibly. Whether or not we’re acting on it is an entirely different question, but we’re at least interested in it, and some companies are beginning to take notice.

The Other Extreme

It’s hard to talk about entitlement and consumerism without sounding like you’re on a high horse. So let’s look at both sides of the coin. There’s another side to this argument.

For example, my mom is probably the least entitled person I know. That is one of her best qualities. She once told me a story about how, when she was a child, she worked for a candy company, packaging the candy. She didn’t describe it as sweatshop labor, but considering what she was paid for what she did, that’s pretty much what it was.

“That’s awful,” I said, appalled.

“No!” she barked. “You kidding? We were starving. I was lucky to have that job!”

It makes me sad to think that, as a child growing up in severely impoverished conditions, my mom saw sweatshop work as being lucky. And even to this day, I feel like she doesn’t truly understand her value. She shortchanges herself a lot. My aunt is the same way. You tell these women how amazing they are; they scoff and say, “What amazing? I’m lucky to be alive!”

Which is kind of endearing and inspiring, but it can also work against you when it comes to things like asking for a raise. So we go from one extreme, entitlement, to the other, a lack of self-worth.

Consumerism isn’t all bad, right?

And I’ll take another step down from my anti-entitlement high horse.

We’ve had a few readers speak up in the comments about consumerism. What’s so bad about earning money, finding financial independence, and then spending that money on things you enjoy, they ask. Even if it’s a car or a boat or a fancy suit?

Nothing. Not everyone agrees 100 percent with this, but I buy the argument that, at its core, there’s nothing wrong with consumerism. The problem is, most people don’t do it in a responsible way. For most people, it leads to negative things — not just the emotional issue of entitlement, but practical problems, too — like lifestyle inflation and debt. Maybe the problem is less about consumption and more about overconsumption. There’s nothing wrong with buying stuff; but when your whole life becomes Stuff, that’s when things seem to get a little nuts.

A solution

In her paper, McGregor talks about narcissism and consumerism. That’s the lack of connection she mentions — when we’re so engrossed in ourselves and our consumption that we don’t consider others.

We don’t consider that the waitress might be going through a devastating time in her life, making her vulnerable to simple mistakes, like forgetting your side of beans. We just yell at her, make her feel stupid, and take it out of her tip.

Maybe she’s not going through a tough time. But narcissists don’t consider it either way. All they see is their lack of beans. A lot of people are guilty of this. You see it every day.

But there’s another side to narcissism McGregor brings up when she talks about the solution to entitlement.

“If people crave attention by being a consumer, change the focus of their attention to being a global citizen first and a consumer second. Then, create a situation where they crave that sort of attention. If they need to focus on rights and entitlements to gain power, shift their attention to being morally powerful…”

With this solution, narcissists still get their egos fed. They still get their “narcissistic supply,” as McGregor calls it. Only they’re contributing to something positive now and not being jerks to everyone around them. It seems like a big shift; but as she points out, “narcissists will transform themselves into anything to get and keep attention.”

She suggests narcissists make this shift by focusing on conscious spending. Volunteering at a library will probably also work. (Ahem.)

Am I calling myself a narcissistic consumer? Kind of, yeah. Just one who has shifted her focus.

Really, I’m not much different from the people who come in, yell at me, and expect to have things their way. They’re demanding something they feel entitled to. But I’ve realized that, so am I. As much as I really do love the library and really do want to give back, there is a slightly more selfish motive: I want to feel good about what I’m doing.

It’s not an attractive thing to admit, but there’s a part of me that wants to pat myself on the back and feed my ego a bit. There’s a part of me, semi-deep down, that volunteers because I want to be appreciated and respected and important. I feel I deserve those feelings.

Ugly, right? Like the entitled consumer who craves control and power, I, too, have a “narcissistic supply.” I’m not immune to entitlement and ego.

But I have to say, there is an important difference: My entitlement happens to be a little more productive.

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