Financial enlightenment does not come from charts

I've always looked at websites and apps that purport to solve your financial woes and set you on the path to fiscal happiness with skepticism. It's not that I think they're not useful; but I think that making charts and graphs and having the ability to Tweet your receipts is, while fun, not essential to financial health, and sometimes even a distraction. I think of this association as breast self-exams are to breast cancer: useful, even recommended, but not going to save you from getting breast cancer in the first place. At best, they're detectors, diagnostics.

That theme keeps repeating itself in my world of financial media, so I've been thinking deeply about it.

In a post on my financial relationship with my husband, for instance, I mentioned tracking my expenses. When he was home on leave at the end of October, he told me this was great. “Let's sit down with your list of expenses,” he said, “and we'll go through it. I'll put a line through the ones I disagree with. Then we can discuss them.”

I balked. How was this going to help matters? A retrospective give-and-take over my spending would, at worst, bring up arguments over what I'd spent; at best, our discussion would give me a sense of pride over what I'd spent, hardly getting at any underlying financial issues.

Seeing all my spending through someone else's eyes — even seeing it as percentages or pie charts — was not going to fix my financial problems.

My financial problem is that I often budget carefully, and I generally do spend sensibly, but when it comes down to a decision between buying something and not buying something, I'm making that decision only looking at the upside (whether the purchase is a wise one and frugal to boot), not at the downside (whether I'll have money for my other obligations after I spend on this one).

I leap first and do the math later.

This is not the best way to approach financial life, at least, not in my currently limited financial situation. I'm working on it! But no matter how often I fill out my expense-tracking spreadsheet, no matter how many cool “sumif” functions I run (I could tell you, for instance, exactly how much money I spent on coffee in coffee shops as opposed to the money I spent for coffee beans and brewing equipment; how much I spent on meals and how much I spent on snacks and treats; how much I spent on babysitting for social functions and babysitting for writing), I am not getting at this core issue.

I can only get at my real problem — not through helpful lessons on budgeting tips or advanced iPhone apps — by real, hard, careful work on self-improvement.

I can only get at my real problem through psychology. Through practice.

I think the true path to financial enlightenment is something like those 10,000 prostrations I read about in someone's memoir. I forget the details, but do the prostrations, day in and day out until you get to a big number, and you move to the next “level” of spiritual enlightenment. Doing the right thing over, and over, and over again is the only way I'm going to put my financial house in order. (Or a huge windfall might be nice!) (No! That's not useful thinking!)

Over the past few weeks, right after having this financial epiphany and resolving to spend a bit more sensibly than I had been for the past year, I had less cash than I had planned due to some surprise bills. I found myself with about 10 days between the end of my cash and the next planned payday. What I wanted to do was to juggle, to promise to pay and to borrow from one account so I could buy (for instance) Irish Breakfast tea, and easy snacks for my kids' lunches, and a book for my book group, and another that I discovered my name was in (I'm a “Notable” in Best American Essays!). Not to mention my usual small luxuries, like cappuccinos, salty-herby bagels and roasted vegetable cream cheese when I go to meet friends for work sessions in cafes.

But I had just had this talk with myself: I need to practice financial fidelity. So I did my best.

It's not like I don't know how to do this; I just don't want to do this. I have a stocked pantry and plenty of resources. I did the frugal thing.

Instead of buying a new box of tea, I made do with the seemingly endless variety of bits of loose tea I've purchased over the last few years. Instead of buying easy snacks for my kids' lunches, I got creative with the freezer and the pantry, making them meatballs, and biscuits, and healthy oatmeal cookies, and lots and lots of carrot sticks (luckily, they love carrot sticks). Instead of buying that book, I decided to get it at the library (I know! You keep telling me!). I made a stack of books the local bookstore would be likely to take in exchange for the one with my name in it. I looked for change under the couch and in the bottom of my bags to buy plain, ordinary coffee when I went out to meet friends, and ate oatmeal before I left home.

I planned ahead for busy days, making a huge pot of beef vegetable soup and lots and lots of mashed potatoes (my CSA has me overflowing with potatoes, cabbage and carrots!). I was so proud of myself.

The thing is: This is only the smallest, most beginning step toward meeting my financial goals.

Spending time on practicing my financial philosophies instead of recording them or analyzing them or even searching for great tips and tricks on Pinterest that fit “frugality” or whatever I want to call my philosophy was great. And I think it gets to something we often forget as personal finance writers: the psychology of money is far more important than the math.

If you want to be smarter about money, you don't necessarily have to be smarter. You don't ever have to learn how to do one of those “sumif” functions in your spreadsheet software (though they're totally fun); you don't have to be able to tell me what percentage of your “vice” budget was spent on coffee, and what was spent on chocolate. You have to be able to behave the right way (right = most sensible to reach your financial goals).

Any journey in personal finance is a journey in behavioral psychology.

I'm always amazed when I listen to the personal finance shows on the radio and hear variations on the same question. Either the caller is doing fantastically well, making far more income than she is spending, and wants to know whether (for instance) to spend more money paying off a debt or saving for retirement. Or the caller is in some variation of a dire situation brought on by bad habits. I relate to the dire situation and think, “Oh! I'll do so much better! Because I understand the behavioral psychology behind this!” and then… I try.

I am a classic do-first, think-after person. Lots of time it works out brilliantly — it's the perfect sort of trait for a creative overachiever, and I get a lot done! But it's not the best approach to my finances, and I'm practicing like a yogi to do the numbers before I whip out the debit card.

What is your financial practice? Have you found charts and tracking sheets more useful than I have? Are you a scion of a noble line of disciplined financial gurus? Or are you, too, in need of 9,000-some more prostrations before financial enlightenment is reached?

More about...Psychology

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KAD
KAD
7 years ago

Good for you for pushing yourself to be creative! I agree, it feels good, and I’m always proud of myself when I do what I know I should do, rather than what’s convenient or familiar. It’s hard! I couldn’t help shuddering, though, when I read this: “Let’s sit down with your list of expenses,” he said, “and we’ll go through it. I’ll put a line through the ones I disagree with. Then we can discuss them.” Argh. Really?? I hope eventually your husband comes to see the two of you as partners solving problems and meeting goals, rather than himself… Read more »

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago
Reply to  KAD

Lol, my wife and I came up with a plan like that for a couple months. We tracked our spending using excel and colorful graphs, and we went over what we each spent. This made me/us realize two things: (1) this is a great way to start arguments. Each pair of the couple should get some money for the month to spend on whatever they want and they can’t go over (and no discussion about what they spent on); (2) colorful graphs and app stuff is cool to help you see where you’re going wrong, but like she said, in… Read more »

Neel Kumar
Neel Kumar
7 years ago

What frustrates me about my wife is that she buys something, then she thinks and then she returns! I keep telling her that our limited time is worth at least something – far more than she values it when she spends 2 hours deciding to buy something then spends an hour returning it.

Luckily for us, our tastes cost less than we can afford.

Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
7 years ago

I was (and sometimes still am) just like you: spend first, think later. The trick I use is asking myself if the item I am buying is going to get me closer to where I want to be or is it to fill a short term need/want? Usually when I ask myself this question before buying the item, I put it back and move one. Sure there are times i ignore my trick and buy anyway because I can’t completely deprive myself of things, but it certainly helps to keep me in check.

Holly@ClubThrifty
7 years ago

I think that it gets easier with time. I used to track all of my spending but now I don’t have to watch so closely anymore. My spending (or lack of) has become the norm now and I no longer have to monitor myself.

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago

We’re big trackers, and I think it helps diagnose the problems later. Not in the sense that we cross out purchases that the other disagrees with, but in the sense that we can look at past months and see what was different. We actually wrote about this on our blog today since we blew the gas budget the last two months. I went back to our gas spending and figured out that Mr. PoP was filling up his tank every 4 days instead of 5. Well, that explains the spending, but why was Mr. PoP filing up more often? That… Read more »

Dawn
Dawn
7 years ago

I agree, I have to do it and not just talk about it, or analyze it. Great tea, snack, book examples. I will try to remember them for inspiration this week when I’m faced with the desire to go against my financial plan 🙂

William @ DropDeadMoney
William @ DropDeadMoney
7 years ago

“Any journey in personal finance is a journey in behavioral psychology.” That, I think, is the key to it all. Thanks for sharing, Sarah.

Jill
Jill
7 years ago

Yes, it is. I used to think when I was in college that all folks in debt needed was a windfall and then they’d be OK after that. I was so naive that it took me until my 30’s to realize that people got into the pickles they were in (not just financial) because of their choices, or behaviors. My sister-in-law inherited $80K when her husband’s father died. They lived in a trailer that was up on blocks, and she used to complain about how bad it looked and the shape it was in. I figured they would do some… Read more »

Neel Kumar
Neel Kumar
7 years ago
Reply to  Jill

$80K is nothing. My father’s 3rd cousins (3 brothers in all) pissed away (in India) what would be equivalent of about $20 million. They sold lands that had been in the family for 8 or so generations (lands that were usually rented out to tenant farmers) and the money simply melted away. They have gone from being literally “owners of all you can see” to renting a 2 room apartment to have a roof over their heads!

amber
amber
7 years ago

Excellent article Sarah!
I agree the concrete examples are things we all have in our own lives. The one major problem I run into with this though is I get decision fatigue. I will try too hard saving on small things only to lose my willpower over something more *useful*, but more expensive. Just like dieting or keeping up an exercise practice.

Sheryl
Sheryl
7 years ago

I think tracking can be a great tool when you’re first creative a budget, or wanting to review a budget. But once a budget is in place, for me tracking is somewhat useless as well. At the point where a budget is in place and you’re just struggling to make it work in some ways it turns into a matter of willpower. There’s still plenty of tricks that are possible to help out at that point (cash budgets, envelope systems or multiple bank account, debit cards that automatically dump money into a savings account every time you spend) but tracking… Read more »

Sam
Sam
7 years ago

Charting and tracking has, for me, been extremely valuable. When we were paying off our unsecured debt in 2007, working that debt snowball and updating the Excel spreadsheet that Mr. Sam made for me, was extremely motivating. Watching our debt numbers drop and our pay off bar chart go up from day to day, week to week, helped keep us on focus. After we got our unsecured debt paid off, $55,500, in 2007, we turned to using the same habits by implementing yearly savings goals. And we are are still using an Excel chart to track same. And while we… Read more »

Budget & the Beach
Budget & the Beach
7 years ago

No, I’m exactly with you! Pie charts and graphs do nothing for me. Deep down I know what has to be done-it’s just a matter of practicing it day in and day out until it becomes a habit.

jxm
jxm
7 years ago

In the very beginning, tracking my every expense was the only way to keep myself accountable so that I would be less likely to fall back into my old trends. I could see if I was veering off my path and correct my behavior before the week or month was over. Being able to compare month to month made me feel better about my behavior and habits towards money because I could see, high-level, what exactly was going on with my money. Currently, I don’t update any tracker sheet – at all. Seeing the ultimate number is what keeps me… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
7 years ago

I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t meeting our finacial goals and finally decided to do some real detailed tracking at one point and it really showed where we were spending money, and in unanticipated ways. It lead to an understanding, and some eye opening, of where we could and should cut back, but also what we felt was important to us. Eventually we went to a less stringent system, but you have to see where the money is flowing before you can decide to increase, restrict, or dam the flow. I will also call foul on your spouse for… Read more »

Babs
Babs
7 years ago
Reply to  getagrip

“Pure planners never get off the ground”
Yep. That’s me. I have to resist inertia constantly.

drea
drea
7 years ago

When I start to feel lifestyle inflation creeping in I take a hard look at my income and why I feel so liberated to consume and then decide how much more I can put towards my savings and debt pay-off. I pay myself first, pay my bills second, then put as much as I can towards my student loan debt as I can till it hurts!

Evangeline
Evangeline
7 years ago

Well written article. I agree with Dave Ramsey,who says finance is only 20% money. The rest lies in actions and your mindset. And, yes,yes,yes!! Always budget a little fun money. Like a little treat keeps you from blowing your healthy food plan, a little pocket money keeps you from blowing the budget.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
7 years ago

Congrats on the nod from Best American Essays–that is very cool.

WWII Kid
WWII Kid
7 years ago

I find charts and graphs a waste of time and energy. This was one of the problems I had with GRS and JD – – He charted and graphed us to death with his micro-managed written breakdowns of how much it cost him to make a pizza at home vs. buying one or how many string beans he got out of his garden per seed. On paper, he was “earning” $5 an hour by doing something himself but it was never revealed where that actually $5 bill was going to appear from. And there never seemed to be any enjoyment… Read more »

Jen2
Jen2
7 years ago

I have been charting my spending and finances for close to a decade now and I love it. I love seeing where I came from and where we are going. My spending has increased exponentially with getting married, buying a house, and having children but my husband and I look at the charts regularly to make sure we are on the same pages. I do track spending but in larger categories. I use my credit card statements to tell me where most of it has gone and divy it into categories that I have tracked consistently. My husband and I… Read more »

WWII Kid
WWII Kid
7 years ago
Reply to  Jen2

So many couples just don’t talk about it.

Kiernan
Kiernan
7 years ago
Reply to  Jen2

I’m the same way. I’ve been tracking for ages and honestly kind of love it. I don’t find it a chore at all, and the process supports my larger goals. But that’s very much in line with my personality type, and I can certainly see how it wouldn’t be the case for others.

Anne
Anne
7 years ago

I think I’m a bit confused about deciding whether or not you can buy something. If you have a monthly budget and every single dollar is accounted for……you have your answer.

If your “book” budget is blown (or whatever category it would fall into), then you can’t afford the book.

Wouldn’t that take a whole lot of exhaustion out of the daily decision making?

I find it fairly simple to look at my montly budget and see what is left.

I pretty much never run short.

Jenne
Jenne
7 years ago
Reply to  Anne

I tried that recently. I think it depends on what you need to budget for and how much you have that’s not a fixed expense. Once I took out all the fixed expenses, what was left, when divided into the other intermittent expense categories, didn’t enough to do anything with in any category. Taking it out and putting it into little envelopes to save so I could, say, pay for auto repairs the next month if I had to have them done this month didn’t work out so well. 🙂

Kate
Kate
7 years ago

I think it’s worth looking at your decision-making process. If you’re not using the numbers to make your decision, there’s not much point in tracking and budgeting. So use another technique instead: put a picture of your savings goal in front of your credit card in your wallet, or withdraw a set amount of cash for the week instead of using plastic. But don’t spend a lot of energy generating numbers that aren’t even part of your decision-making process. I happen to track, and I check the budget for certain categories before I even shop. Other categories, like groceries, we… Read more »

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago

Like other folks are saying, tracking is useful when you’re starting out and don’t have a lot of money compared to expenses. It’s less useful when you know what you’re doing or your income is already greater than your expenditure. Liz Pulliam Weston used to have a great article up on MSN money about when you no longer need a budget. Basically it boils down to the income-outflow gap (and automation). If you’re not happy with how your spending relates to your earnings, then perhaps it is time to try things, even if they’re unpleasant. If you are happy, then… Read more »

Edward
Edward
7 years ago

That’a girl, Sarah! Best article on GRS in a long while! Making do with what you already have can actually be great fun. I’ve probably put too high an allotment of my income toward savings/investments and occasionally find out–“Uh, oh! It’s going to be tight this week!” But it’s sort of become like a game. There’s always stuff in the freezer I should use up, so I’m not going to starve. I can raid my change jar for coffee money. When I do make it through those tight 4 or 5 days without having hit an ATM to withdraw money… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

I think it all depends on what works for individual people/couples/families. Some people like visuals and find apps and other tools to be motivating. Some don’t. Nothing wrong with questioning the effectiveness of your methods and doing what works for you, IMHO. Everyone has different learning styles. I use a spreadsheet to track the “big stuff” — expenses, savings, investments, etc — and I find it motivating to see how my net worth increases every month. But tracking every item of my spending? Using charts? I always feel like they’re things I “should” be doing, but I think Sarah’s right… Read more »

Christa
Christa
7 years ago

I often agonize over tiny purchases so that we can make big purchases when necessary. It’s kind of frustrating, though, to debate which loaf of bread is the better choice, but when I can buy what I need later, it’s helpful!

BC
BC
7 years ago

What is your financial practice? We don’t track, we do a budget for each month that takes into account changes, like a 5 week month or travel. We do cash allowances for my husband and me for our pocket money/eating out and cash for groceries. I budget a fixed amount for a cushion to cover unexpected items. We have been very successful with this system. We also keep a sense of humor about things and are flexible and sensible. I don’t want us to turn into one of those people on Extreme Cheapskates. 🙂 Have you found charts and tracking… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

I think there’s a bunch of problems here that’s hard to separate. There’s the couple’s relationship,. Then there’s Sarah’s own approach to spending. And there’s the issue of the usefulness of charts, which marginally touches on Sarah’s own approach to spending– but charts are not the meat of it. To me, this is the most interesting issue here: when it comes down to a decision between buying something and not buying something, I’m making that decision only looking at the upside (whether the purchase is a wise one and frugal to boot), not at the downside (whether I’ll have money… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Big yes to the part about trade offs! I used to look at every purchase as an obstacle to paying off my student loan, saving for a home down payment, etc. Then I automated more of my financial goals and gave myself an allowance — automatically transfered to a savings account that was not accounted for in my net worth.

I still debate about what to do with my fun money, but at least I know my other goals are taken care of.

KSR
KSR
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I read the post this morning and was taken aback by the optional eschewing of budgeting principals considering the relative ease of today’s tracking options. Only thought: 50-30-20 is desperately needed here. And knew–just knew–Nerdo would jump in and say it –since I am not skilled in the art of eloquence or written diplomacy. Ha! I racked my brain in trying to figure out how to convey the fact that all of this psychological over-thought–well, it does little more than have you soul searching like a damn hippie (don’t get me wrong, I love OLD hippies) and boasting a thespian… Read more »

Adult student
Adult student
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

50-30-20 only works if you make enough, and can have a low enough cost of living, that you only need 50% of your income for the basics, though. It’s a nice idea for people with enough to spare but some of us are in times of life where we can’t spare 50% for savings and discretionary spending. Of course increasing your income is a good strategy but that isn’t usually a fix that you can make instantly, whereas expenses never seem to end. Edit: I mixed up the numbers for what is what, but I do think that in a… Read more »

Kelly@Financial-Lessons
7 years ago

Well you certainly understand the underlying issues that relate to money problems and personal finance. I totally agree that its the “behavioral psychology” that needs to be sparked in someone for them to really make conscious progress in their money management skills. Really cool post and very important for people to understand!

Jamie
Jamie
7 years ago

First of all, I want to say that I LOVE that I don’t agree with this article. I don’t disagree with it in a bad way; just in a difference-of-opinion way. If I agree with every article of a personal finance blog, that means I am not exposing myself to enough different opinions from my own and I am stunting my own financial knowledge and growth, which is why the other blogs I frequent are managed by bloggers with very different religious and political backgrounds from my own. Sarah, I really enjoyed this article. Especially the ways that you found… Read more »

Kathleen @ Frugal Portland
Kathleen @ Frugal Portland
7 years ago

This is why we need tricks — I’m convinced that the more you practice these things, the easier they become, and once you realize you are just borrowing from your future self (who, I have on good authority, would be PISSED at you!) you’re better able to “make do” with what you have.

Petra
Petra
7 years ago

Na, I disagree with you. It would have been a perfect way to learn more, discussing your expenses with your husband.

Tina
Tina
7 years ago

I agree with some points of this article. I love seeing the progress on paper, have a budget plan and do a quarterly evaluation of our finances, and track interest bearing accounts to see when they will be paid off by using different programs like “whatsthecost”. It even tells you after an account is paid off and how much to apply of that to another bill.I HAVE to see it on paper because it helps me. But this doesn’t always work for everyone. Papers and charts don’t work for my husband. He is a “give it to me vocally” guy… Read more »

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago

Agree with El Nerdo as (almost) always. I don’t pay much attention to my various categories of spending although I do have an app with my bank that does all that tracking for me – complete with pie charts and everything. I only care that I stay under $x,xxx of spending on average per month and don’t care what I spend it on. Generally, you should only have to look at your fixed (needs) expenses maybe once a year or so and make changes accordingly. Here’s one thing that tracking *can* give you – a tally of all these things… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

I tried replying to this earlier but the server ate my answer (“too fast!” it said). Anyway, yes, of course tracking is important, especially when things don’t fit correctly, but that doesn’t mean we need to track every time we buy a pencil or put 25 cents on a meter. It’s the big expenses where things make a difference. Just the other day I had saved $900 for car repairs, and when I get to the shop– surprise!– ended up paying $1400. This was legit and not a scam, real problem with real evidence I just didn’t know was there… Read more »

stellamarina
stellamarina
7 years ago

I think than rather than charts and tracking you just need to make limits. A statement in a recent article said that those who carry ATM cards with them spend 25% more than those who leave it at home. See how much you would save by just limiting carrying the card. Take out a set amount on payday, divide it up into envelopes and do not go over the limit. Done

Bella
Bella
7 years ago

Sarah, I have to say that you are really hitting your stride. Another great article with ‘just enough’ personal information to make it relevant. First off – nice to see you and your husband starting from a place of – we’ll talk about what we don’t agree on, rather than just starting with arguing about what ‘should be spent on’. But I wanted to say that I totally get your – only moral compass is consulted – method of spending. Only thing is, it won’t get you ahead. I very much followed that philosophy all the way into a big… Read more »

bob bolesic
bob bolesic
7 years ago

Great article, this is where i struggle most as well. Even if i’mu tracking expensesdaily daily, i still need to be able to say no to myself consistently to reach my goals. Thanks for sharing!

bob bolesic
bob bolesic
7 years ago

Disagree with El Nerdo (tho i do like ur articles)… in your case, the Balanced Money Formula works great. It may occur to u that others of us have tried it with less success. To my mind nearly every want becomes a need, and i tend to do fuzzy mental math and not really know where my money’s going. By tracking it with something like PearBudget (free version) i know the big picture and the details and can see where i’m bleeding money. I resisted doing this forever, but a number of my more successful friends use it and i… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  bob bolesic

Hey Bob, Haven’t ever heard of Pear budget but it sounds interesting. I’ll take a look. I have to disagree with you though that with the BMF “every want becomes a need.” The system doesn’t work like that, there is a very clear definition of what is what, and there is no gaming the system. Usually it’s the people who rely on hearsay and haven’t read the book that confuse those things. “Needs and wants” in the BMF are technical terms, not mere dictionary words. Once you read and understand the book, the distinction is crystal-clear. Disagree with me if… Read more »

Geralis
Geralis
7 years ago

I love charts etc. however I wanted to chime in on the coversation with your husband. Perhaps if it was reframed as “this is how much money we have, what are our goals and how do we want to spend it” it would be more effective. Getting those higher stakes needs taken care of means the other purchases work as long they fall within the amount they should.

Tackling Our Debt
Tackling Our Debt
7 years ago

I am not into charts or graphs either, but I seriously started tracking our expenses in January of this year and it has made a HUGE difference for us.

We too use to spend first and think later. Actually many times we never gave our spending a second thought. We always just figured we would catch up with our credit card bills eventually. But eventually never came.

Now we have reduced our spending to just what is necessary, along with the occasional treat. Each month we get better because we are tracking it.

Rachel
Rachel
7 years ago

There’s a book coming out by Luna Jaffe called “wild money” that helps you look at the variety of sides to your relationship with money because it’s not all just about spending.

Also, I recently finished “The Money Book for Freelancers. . . ” and it has been really helpful in setting how to spend money with a variable income.

The two books have really helped me.

Cat
Cat
7 years ago

I think it’s important to find a system that works for you, and also to remember that if you mess up every now and then its OK to say.. “ok now I will keep chugging along” sometimes its easy when you mess up to just give up completely. That’s what works for me. I also like to write down my exact net income for the next few paychecks and subtract my known expenses from it in advance so I know what I will have left over, and then put it in places accordingly. It’s almost like using a spreadsheet but… Read more »

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