How to compute your REAL hourly wage

Like many Get Rich Slowly readers, I credit Your Money or Your Life with changing the way I approach my personal finances. This book transformed my relationship with money, and helped me to understand that by spending beyond my means, I was sacrificing a secure future for today's passing pleasures.

One of the book's key insights is that time really is money. Or, approaching it from the other direction, money is time. The authors write:

Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for. Our life energy is our allotment of time here on earth, the hours of precious life available to us. When we go to our jobs we are trading our life energy for money. This truth, while simple, is profound…

Our life energy is more real in our actual experience than money. You could even say money equals life energy. So, while money has no intrinsic reality, our life energy does — at least to us. It's tangible, and it's finite. Life energy is all we have.

I know this sounds a little hokey. In fact, when I first read Your Money or Your Life, I dismissed this section as New Age mysticism. That was a mistake. If you can look past the unfortunate terminology, there's a lot of power to this concept. What Dominguez and Robin are actually saying is that time is money.

Your Money or Your Life uses this notion as the foundation to its philosophy of financial independence: time and money are intertwined, and the relationship between them frames all of our financial decisions. To illustrate, the authors encourage readers to calculate their real hourly wage.

Nominal Hourly Wage

We don't earn as much as we think we do, write Dominguez and Robin. You may be paid $15 an hour, but your real hourly wage is less than that. Possibly much less.

Let's say we have a friend named Joe and that he's a plumber. Though Joe hopes to earn $250,000 a year eventually, he currently makes the national average for his profession, or about $48,000 a year for a 40-hour workweek. His nominal wage is approximately $24 per hour.

Based on these figures, if Joe the Plumber decides to buy an iPod nano ($150), he's exchanging about six hours of his time for it. (6 hours worked x $24 per hour = $144 total wages, which is close enough.)

Ah, but it's not that simple, argue Dominguez and Robin. Joe's real hourly wage isn't $24 — it's something lower.

Hidden Expenses

Think about your job. Think of all the things you do and the money you spend that you wouldn't if you did not work. How long does it take to drive to work? How much does the gas cost? Does your job require that you own a suit or a uniform? Do you have to take vacations to cope with the stress in your career?

Your Money or Your Life lists eight such possible job expenses, including a few which might be applicable to Joe:

  • Commuting — Joe's office is 20 miles from his home. Every day, he spends an hour commuting to and from work in his 2000 Ford Focus, which costs about 38 cents per mile to operate. His weekly commute costs 5 hours and $76 (38 cents times 200 miles).
  • Clothing — It doesn't take Joe extra time to get dressed in the morning, but it does cost him a little extra money. Several times each year, he has to buy new work clothes because the old ones keep wearing out. Maybe he spends $300/year doing this.
  • Food — Joe might take a sack lunch if he were on his own, but he works with a partner who prefers fast food. Joe likes McDonald's and Subway, too, so he's happy to go along for the ride. Each day, Joe spends about $5 and one hour for lunch.

Though Your Money or Your Life lists several other ways in which work can cost you money, these are Joe's only expenses. His job costs him about 10 hours per week (or 500 hours per year) and about $107. We'll round it down to $100 per week, so that's about $5000 each year.

Real Hourly Wage

Once he's estimated the extra time and money he spends on the job, Joe can compute his real hourly wage. The equation is actually very simple:

  1. First, Joe subtracts his work-related expenses from his annual salary to find his actual earnings.
  2. Next, he divides his actual earnings by the total number of hours he spends each year on work-related tasks (including business trips and Christmas parties, etc.).

This simple equation produces Joe's real hourly wage.

Using our earlier figures, Joe the Plumber's actual salary would be $43,000 per year ($48,000 base minus $5000 for commuting, clothing, and food). Joe leaves the house at 6:30 in the morning, and does not return until 4:30 in the afternoon, which means he's devoting 50 hours per week — or about 2500 hours per year — to his job.

Joe is spending about 2500 hours per year to earn $43,000. His real hourly wage is $17.20. Not bad, but still much lower than the $24 per hour he thinks he's earning.

Knowledge is Power

Why does your real hourly wage matter? Remember that time is money — literally. When he's making $48,000 a year, it only takes Joe six hours to earn enough for an iPod. That's less than a day's work. But based on his real hourly wage, it would take Joe nearly nine hours to earn the same amount. To earn the money for anything he wants to purchase, Joe has to spend 40% more time working than he thinks he does.

Computing your real hourly wage allows you to see how much you're really getting paid, which can change your perspective. When I first did this in 2004, it had an immediate effect.

At that time, I was spending a lot of money on comic books. After I calculated my real hourly wage and applied the number to my expenses, I was able to see how much time each book was costing me. Was it really worth three hours to buy a collection of Aquaman stories I'd probably never read? For me, the answer was “no”, and I began to reduce my spending.

This “real hourly wage” is also a great tool for comparing prospective jobs, especially when there are a lot of variables. All things being equal, a job with a higher real hourly wage is better.

Now that I've spent several hours of my life energy explaining this concept, later today I'll describe an even better way to look at spending decisions, one that takes into account taxes and living expenses.

Note: If Joe really did earn $250,000 a year, and all our other assumptions remained the same, the iPod would only cost him an hour-and-a-half of his life energy.

How Much Time Does Stuff Actually Cost?

After you've computed your real hourly wage, you can use it to measure how much things cost. An iPod might cost nine hours of work, or a new sweater might cost three. (You don't even want to consider how much a new car would cost…)

But does it really make sense to look at spending this way? Does this really tell the full story? During our discussion last week about unconventional money tips, BW wrote with a better way to look at spending. He points out that not every dollar can be counted as disposable income:

I don't like to think about how many hours I worked for an item I want to buy because it makes the item seem too cheap…A better way to think about it is to subtract fixed expenses from pay first.

He's right. Let's say your nominal pay rate is $24 per hour. You compute your real hourly wage as recommended by Your Money or Your Life and find that it's $17.20. But that's not the end of the story.

From this money, you must pay taxes, purchase housing and transportation, buy food and insurance, and more. If we make the arbitrary assumption that your fixed expenses (including savings) consume 80% of your pay, your actual disposable income would be $3.44 per hour.

This provides a drastic change to the length of time needed to work for a $150 iPod:

MethodRateiPod Cost
Nominal Wage$24.00/hour6.25 hours
Real Wage$17.20/hour8.72 hours
After Expenses$3.44/hour43.60 hours

Using this example, it doesn't take you just a day to earn an iPod, but an entire week.

Now, I don't recommend that you walk around evaluating every buying decision based on “real wage after expenses” units. While educational, this is likely to quickly drain the joy from living. (You might run the numbers once and examine some hypothetical scenarios.)

However, I do believe it's important to be mindful of your spending. Evaluating your purchases based on the time required to pay for them is an excellent way to become more aware of the actual costs for the things you buy.

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Jan
Jan
11 years ago

(I know it’s a smidgeon off-topic, but it’s been on my mind for weeks)
I’ve been thinking about making a somewhat-related calculation about “bulk savings”.
The idea is that yes, I *can* save a lot of money on X pieces of Y, and I use, say 3X per year. However, at savings Z, does it make sense to buy 1X, 2X, 3X, etc. instead of paying down my debt? Where’s the sweet spot? 🙂

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
11 years ago

JD,

An excellent discussion of just what composes our real wage. There’s an economist in you!

Allison
Allison
11 years ago

JD, I just finished reading Your Money or Your Life (borrowed from the library, of course) and it really changed my thinking too. An important job-related expense for many people, is the money and time they spend to “unwind” or to reward themselves after a hard day’s work. If Joe’s plumbing job is so stressful that every night he comes home and spends 2 hours vegging in front of the TV with a beer, then he uses (loses!) an additional 10 hours a week, and whatever he pays for cable and beer. Or if Jill the plumber relaxes on weekends… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
11 years ago

JD, just another thought…we did this in my simplicity group, but we made sure to include benefits such as health insurance or retirement that our work was also paying, because those are things that we’d have to pay for ourselves otherwise. This tends to make the real hourly wage inch up, even if only incrementally. Just a thought. 🙂

Susy
Susy
11 years ago

Mr Chiot’s and I always try to calculate this when we’re bidding for jobs for our business. We also have to add wear & tear on the equipement, electric used at home, time driving, filming & editing, supplies. Plus you have to add in all the time you spend bidding jobs you don’t get, all the time e-mailing, etc. etc. I think this is why many businesses don’t succeed. They never stop to consider all the things that eat away at the bottom line!!!! Certainly things like trying to change to a 4-day week, carpooling or taking the bus so… Read more »

Rachel
Rachel
11 years ago

I have been doing this using a million different variations lately! I found out recently that I am being laid off from my job on the 1st off the year and there are so many different options to take into consideration…. Do I continue to work in the “big city” that is 50 miles from my house one way? Do I not take a job till January and get the severance check, but risk being on unemployment for a while? Do I trade in a long commute and high pay, for short commute low pay and possible bad hours? All… Read more »

Tyler @ Dividend Money
Tyler @ Dividend Money
11 years ago

Yes, I agree wtih the above that we must include those benefits that we would have to pay for ourselves.
It is a good exercise, but there are other intangibles to certain jobs – like career growth for example.
Taking a lower paying job with less associated costs might be great for the short-term, but if there is no long-term growth opportunities, you will find yourself further behind going forward.

Rob M.
Rob M.
11 years ago

Also, you should take into account 401(k) matching (if offered) and paid time-off (although I think the example included PTO since they based the 2500 annual hrs off 50 weeks instead of 52).

So, if Joe worked for a company with such benefits as 5% matching 401(k) and 2 weeks PTO a year:
401(k) $48k*5%=$2,400
PTO 2 weeks annually

($48k – $5k $2.4k) / (50 * (52 – 2)) = $18.16 per hr

@Rachel
As far as tax estimations, use the 2007 Tax Rate Schedules (Form 1040 Gen Instr. p87) and add 3% (for inflation). That should get you close.

A. Dawn
A. Dawn
11 years ago

I just reviewed Your Money or Your Life as well. Here is the link – http://adawnjournal.com/2008/10/16/your-money-or-your-life-a-dawn-journal-book-review/
Cheers,
A Dawn Journal
http://www.adawnjournal.com

LiveWellSimply
LiveWellSimply
11 years ago

Interesting. I’ve never put this idea into so many words, but I’ve always tried to avoid commuting because of the time=money equation. I’ll have to go do the math now and find my real hourly wage 🙂

leigh
leigh
11 years ago

so as a graduate student on a monthly stipend, i already only make something like $5/hour before i take out commute time and work related expenses… doesn’t that just make me feel valuable. but being a mechanic on the flat rate system, especially with the economy down and business slow for over a year now, that’s a huge drain on your entire life. husband used to leave the house at 6am and not return until 9 or 10pm for not nearly enough money to justify those hours. most of it was standing around not getting paid to wait for work… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
11 years ago

This idea had a big impact on how DH and I have shaped our lives and our priorities (starting 12 years ago or so). Based on this analysis, new cars, impressive houses, and cable TV fell far down our list of worthy expenditures. We think long and hard about the value and payback we need to get from an item to be worth the life energy. Similarly, we don’t buy stuff for the kids based on their momentary “I wannas”, but based on what we think they’ll enjoy, use, and learn from long-term, as well as items they’ve shown interest… Read more »

Curt
Curt
11 years ago

Consider using this calculation to start your own business.

If you are working long hours at your job, then maybe you can earn the same hourly wage working for yourself – while building value in your own business.

Mostlyharmless
Mostlyharmless
11 years ago

I lol’d at the Joe The Plumber reference.

But a great point JD. If I did not work, I wouldnt have needed the car. And if did not have the car, I do not need the insurance. Add gas to it and I would have been saving 600+ every month!! Thats more than 1/6th of my salary!!

Wayward
Wayward
11 years ago

Amanda beat me to it, but while it’s important to consider all costs associated with your chosen work into a “real” hourly wage, it’s just as important to factor in those portions of the benfits package that contribute to overall compensation. The employer match on a 401(k), the employer contribution to an insurance premium, the employer’s contribution to state and federal programs, and any other perks you may be able to take advantage of. I work for a book publisher/distributor and one of our perks is that we can take advantage of wholesaler discounts on any book title that the… Read more »

Jane
Jane
11 years ago

And don’t forget the thing that can potentially decrease your wage the most if you need it – daycare! Right now I work part-time, but once I factor in childcare for my infant son, I am only making around $9 an hour (before taxes). Since I am not the primary bread winner, I mainly work just to have a break during the week (10 hours when I don’t have someone drooling and spitting up on me!). Don’t get me wrong, I love my son more than anything, but the short time back at work has done wonders for my mood.… Read more »

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson
11 years ago

I think it’s important to evaluate your worth per hour beyond your employment. While your employment may be your only source of income, evaluating your worth beyond it can be an eye-opening experience. You simply take how much money you bring in in a week and divide that number by 168 (# of hours in a week). The result is the amount of money you make an hour throughout your life. With this evaluation, your mind can generate some new ways of making money outside of your job. I think that it important to realize that your job does not… Read more »

Tina
Tina
11 years ago

I’m actually three quarters of the way through the book, which I borrowed from the library of course. I really enjoyed the whole concept of real wage but after getting to the part about the thousands of ways you can save, I put the book down. I will finish reading it just to see what the author has to say, but I think I have a better understanding of nominal versus real than my peers since I’m currently attending college and majoring in economics. The concept isn’t so new but he puts it in a new perspective that allows everyday… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
11 years ago

Wow! I’ve been hearing so much about this Joe the Plumber character lately!

🙂

CoolProducts
CoolProducts
11 years ago

Definitely not a new concept to me, something I’ve always considered when weighing the odds of this offer compared to that offer. I have done the best I feel I can to optimize the dollar amount/ hr that I make @ my job. I found one with a higher wage than most other offers, and @ the same time being closer to home. I do not take a lunch break, which helps to extra fuel costs as well as the costs associated with the temptation to go out and eat somewhere. I definitely feel that money is time. It amazes… Read more »

Pat with SPI
Pat with SPI
11 years ago

I really hate thinking about money this way (a la this many hours of work bought me this). It makes me feel really bad when I purchase something rather significant, and I get a kind of sick feeling in my stomach.

When I first started working, I used to do this all the time. Now, I try not to think if money in this way.

Pat
http://www.smartpassiveincome.com

takabanana
takabanana
11 years ago

I agree – except subtracting the clothing and food part. You should only have to subtract the clothing wear/tear DIFFERENCE (versus not having a job), and same with food. Even if he stayed home, he’d still eat lunch. Sure, he will probably stay in and make his lunch, so the cost subtracted should be (McDonalds Cost – Homemade lunch cost). Same with the clothing – if he stayed home, he still has to wear clothes (or so we’d hope!). Even if he had to buy work-only clothes, that’s *less* wear-tear on his home clothing – so that “saves” money on… Read more »

RenaissanceTrophyWife
RenaissanceTrophyWife
11 years ago

Thanks for the concise explanation, J.D. I know you’re focusing on accounting costs here, but thought I’d raise another related point. Opportunity cost, or the foregone value of the next best alternative, may weigh heavily in career decisions, even if it’s not factored into the hourly wage calculation. (ex: if you invest money in stocks, the opportunity cost is the forgone interest that money would’ve earned in a bank account.) If Joe’s plumbing job requires him to be available at odd hours for emergencies, taking away time he could spend with his family, that might make a higher hourly wage… Read more »

Jonathan E
Jonathan E
11 years ago

I was thinking about this concept of real hourly wages last week, so this post was really interesting and relevant to me.

However, I had a funny thought in my head, and it had to do with productivity. See, as I’m writing this I’m at work, I’m not working. Can this time be considered part of my real wage? Basically, should we subtract those hours spent on youtube, NYtimes.com or sketching cars (I’m an industrial designer, but not in the auto industry) from the “hours spent on work-related tasks?”

Snickers
Snickers
11 years ago

That’s an interesting article. I having something similar to your article today on blog except that I was encouraing readers to come up with a number for what they are worth that might help them choose the right career.

Rachel
Rachel
11 years ago

Oh and don’t forget – if you don’t pay all your taxes like Joe the Plumber that saves you some money too!

Oh wait… he has to pay those still? 😉

Simple Sapien
Simple Sapien
11 years ago

This article is very interesting. Staying above water financially is a tricky thing. Imagine applying this concept to the ones who are making minimum wage. It is ridiculous. Minimum wage is hard enough to live on even without all of the extra job costs.

I have been thinking about time worked whenever I spend money for the last few years. It helps me resist temptation when I know that I would have to spend a full work week to obtain the particular item. Thanks for the great article.

– Jack Rugile
Simple Sapien

easy
easy
11 years ago

When I was laid off I found that I saved $120 a week in commuting charges, $25 in weekly Starbucks costs, $35 in lunch money and probably some clothing money – over $200 a week easily. But that amount paled when compared to the money I spent on unneeded purchases in my visits to the mall (all on super-sale items), the money I’ll have to spend to take off the weight I put on puttering around the kitchen till noon every day, and the therapy sessions to help me through my depressions from being fat and unemployed.

Greg
Greg
11 years ago

@ Jonathan E In a Robert Fulghum book, I recall reading that the French have a word for this, it translates as simply “The Hat.” And he says that it is traditionally understood that the time one spends on small personal tasks and thoughts at work tends to be balanced by the time one spends on tasks and thoughts about work while at home. My personal experience usually bears this out, whenever I work at anything that involves problem-solving, I’m trying to think of solutions all the time. @ easy Good points man. a lot of books about personal finance… Read more »

Charlotte
Charlotte
11 years ago

JD,

You did not count taxes which is the biggest reason why the IPOD actually costs him more hours of work. I also agree that to be fair, the benefits of work such as health insurance, 401K etc should be counted.

-Charlotte

Ariella
Ariella
11 years ago

I think this is a terrific post and everyone should know their “real” hourly wage, as opposed to the one they think they’re making. That said, I think it’s important to emphasize caution when making decisions based on the “hourly wage.” An example: I am an attorney in the midwest and I make $52k/year salary, with the possibility of a bonus. Leaving that aside, I also teach Legal Research and Writing at the local law school, for which I am paid $8k from October through June. I teach two hours per week during that period (excluding holiday breaks). But the… Read more »

Kristen at The Frugal Girl
Kristen at The Frugal Girl
11 years ago

I really should read that book…I keep hearing such wonderful things about it.

On topic, I think things like real hourly wage are a good thing to keep in mind regarding frugality. People tend to think it’s better to earn more than to spend time doing frugal things because they overestimate their true hourly wage.

Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller
11 years ago

I wholeheartedly subscribe to this method of calculating the worth of an essential or non-essential expenditure. I clean other people’s houses. Whenever I’m contemplating making a purchase and the least bit on-the-fence about it, I ask myself, “How many toilets is that?”. This makes saving a lot easier.

Prabu Rajasekaran
Prabu Rajasekaran
11 years ago

JD,
How has this affected your buying decisions?

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Prabu, this has not yet affected my buying decisions. I only learned about this on Thursday. The “real hourly wage” did affect my decisions, however, which I covered in the earlier post.

Pat with SPI
Pat with SPI
11 years ago

I had said this earlier, but I hate thinking about the things I buy as hours spent on stuff. I used to have a bad habit of doing this, and I used to get sick when purchasing things.

J.D. how many hours would your mini cooper cost, do you think?

Kegnum
Kegnum
11 years ago

Whenever I think I might make a frivolous purchase, I always calculate how many hours of work it would cost me, whether its worth my time… usually its not.

BW
BW
11 years ago

Another way to think about it is that if you were to borrow money today for the Ipod at zero interest, it would take a week to pay it off assuming no other disposable income purchases.

This approach also strongly illustrates that if you want to change your financial situation, you have to change your fixed costs so they are a lower percentage of income.

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

How about this: just save up for things.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Pat, now you’re just being mean! 🙁 Actually, this is one of the reasons I haven’t gone out and bought a Mini yet. I’ve actually begun to think in terms of “hours of work” for buying a car. It’s not a pretty sight. It just gives me additional motivation to keep using the Ford Focus, you know? On the other hand, replacing the Focus with the Mini would decrease certain expenses, so my actual cost might be less than I think. I should note that this “hours of work” mentality not only keeps me from buying comics, it also keeps… Read more »

Zee
Zee
11 years ago

*clutches beloved iPod to chest* lol. I can totally see what you’re saying though, and it makes a whole lotta sense!

FekketCantenel
FekketCantenel
11 years ago

This is an equation that has occurred to me many times in the past, but I like that you put it into words and numbers. Let’s see… I make a nominal $10/hour. My work-related expenses are mostly taken care of by my work, or else are too tiny to count. The exception is payroll taxes, which takes away about 23% of my wages. Therefore, my Real Hourly Wage is about $7.50. 80% is a good estimate of my overhead. Therefore, my After-Expenses Pay is $1.50! Holy crap! I’ll experiment to find a healthy medium between reminding myself of this fact… Read more »

Sparky
Sparky
11 years ago

Something like an iPod is essential to my work and wellbeing. I spend much of my time on the road and podcasts/ audiobooks are a lifesaver. If I average the cost of the iPod over the 2-3 years of listening pleasure/ entertainment. There are so many free podcasts out there. My favorite lately are from NPR’s planetmoney.org. Maybe the iPod is not so great an example. How about those magazines I buy at 4-6 dollars a pop versus the time worked to buy them? A confession: A few weeks ago I purchased a new iPod Classic just as the economic… Read more »

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

But a car would be part of my fixed cost. If it isn’t written into my budget then I have no business having a budget. Same thing for a lot of my expenses. In fact the second step of fixed costs doesn’t apply to me because I am budgeted almost to the dollar including all discretionary expenses. But on the subject of a car, so many people have never done the math for how much car ownership costs on a per mile/per day basis. Over the past few years I have been working hard to decrease the number of miles… Read more »

Jay
Jay
11 years ago

When I was a young single parent trying to finish my training as a Chartered Accountant (the Canadian version of CPA) I worked out what my after-fixed-expense-wage-per-hour was. It was less than a dollar per hour (and a Canadian dollar at that!) I had already known I was broke, it just made me cry to realize HOW broke I was! If ipods had existed, it would have taken me more than six weeks to buy one counting that way. Honestly, it made me wonder why I was working at all when welfare could have paid a better “wage”. Thankfully I… Read more »

Pat with SPI
Pat with SPI
11 years ago

@ J.D. Sorry, I didn’t mean to burst your mini-cooper bubble, because I honestly want one too (actually, my fiancee does). A ford focus is a nice car, and with “Sync”, you’d have a good time telling your car what songs to play. Hehe! As far as things that you could splurge on, like comic books for you, or electronics for me (used to be magic cards..hehe!), its actually a good way of keeping control of how you spend. So I definitely agree with you there. It’s just the large purchases that make me woozy. By the way, I read… Read more »

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

Yes, yes, yes!!! This is one of the best personal finance formulas around and you DEFINITELY have to take account for your fixed expenses before determining your discretionary income per hour. Understanding this formula will help you see the effect your fixed expenses have on your discretionary income. If you can cut back on your fixed monthly expenses, that’s like having an hourly raise without technically getting one. It really puts into perspective some of those mid-range purchases. Sometimes we need a nudge one way or the other on a purchasing decision, and this one can help you see the… Read more »

Nami
Nami
11 years ago

… this peeked my intrest, and I must admit, the figure I came out with is somber. oh my! will definantly keep that in mind from now on.

I really like that you posted this article, couples with the “real hourly wage”. I don’t see it as a scare tactic more as a splash of cold reality to the face (and budget). while I have been working on budgeting, I never actually though how many hours I worked a week for the alotment of “my money” urg.

PDXgirl
PDXgirl
11 years ago

Okay…. I run a pretty tight ship on my fixed expense, they come to about $4.83 of each hour. My pretax 401(k)contribution are $.95 which makes my taxes per hour $2.91 (note, if I did not have my 401(k) deuctions this would be $3.13… so I’m saving there as we all know) That comes to…$8.69 of every $13.61 earned that is spoken for. I’m not counting what’s going toward debt repayment and emergency fund because I’m still playing with those numbers every month, it ranges from 10-30% each month. My discretionary income is $4.92/hr. I got my iPod for free… Read more »

Charlotte
Charlotte
11 years ago

…and I used to justify my latte purchase on my way to work by saying: “By the time I finish drinking this coffee, I would have already made that money”.

I’d like to think that I am wiser now. I never go to those coffee shops anymore unless I receive a gift card or on vacation. I make my own coffee at home and it even tastes much better than the commercial quality ones.

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