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J.D. Roth Interview & Your Money: The Missing Manual Review

By David Bakke

jd rothWe recently had the honor of conversing with J. D. Roth, creator of the incredibly successful personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. In just five short years, J.D. has managed to build a following of roughly 85,000 readers! J.D.’s story is a fairly simple one, but one that rings true to us all. He found himself deep in debt, and finally, one day, decided to do something about it. He parlayed this story into a wildly popular personal finance blog, and recently authored his first book on the subject, entitled Your Money: The Missing Manual.

The work is fashioned much like his blog — there are no get rich quick schemes, just simple, relevant advice on how to get out of debt and stay there. It’s all based on the simple premise of “spend less than you earn.” We all know that this is sometimes easier said than done, but J.D.’s book provides you with a blueprint on how to get there. He provides you with the info you need to make sensible financial decisions regarding spending, saving, and investing, the three cornerstones to financial freedom. He writes about proven methods for debt reduction and also gives you a lot of simple, painless ways to control how money comes into and goes out of your life. The book also provides information on how, when, and why to set financial goals. The title of his book is key; for most of us, we truly need a “manual” for how to manage our money.

Here is an excerpt of the conversation we had, which you will almost surely find just as insightful as his daily blog postings:

Your blog has been around for going on five years, at last glance you had about 85,000 registered readers, and your articles consistently garner 100 or more comments. To what do you contribute your amazing success? After all, isn’t your story very similar to many other people? Deep in debt, woke up one day, busted tail to get out of debt. What sets you apart from all the other PF blogs out there?

JD: When people ask what has made Get Rich Slowly successful, I tell them it’s a combination of hard work and luck. There’s no question that keeping a blog for five years requires a ton of commitment. This is a full-time job for me, and I’m constantly striving to improve my writing. Plus, I do my best to respond to my readers. But despite the effort I put into it, I’ve been fortunate to make some key connections, and to get noticed by some bigger financial writers.

I do think my story is remarkably average. But I think one thing I do differently is go out there everyday and talk about my experience, for good or ill. Money is still a taboo topic in the U.S., but for nearly five years, I’ve been writing every day about the things I do right and wrong with money. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I don’t hide what I’m learning either.

What role do parents play in the personal financial habits of their children? How early should they start teaching them about personal finance?

JD: Parents play a key role in imparting financial habits to their children. Whether they know it or not, kids inherit financial values from their family. I like to call these “financial blueprints,” the unspoken guidelines that guide how we deal with issues like debt and wealth.

I don’t have kids, so I can’t say at what age parents should start giving an allowance or start teaching about debt. I do know, however, that kids model the behaviors they see in the home. So, it’s not so much about what you overtly teach them as it is about what you and your partner do in day-to-day life. You can say all you want about avoiding debt, but if you’re racking up credit-card bills or fighting about money, that’s what your children will see.

So, yes, I do think parents ought to teach kids the basics — the importance of saving, the dangers of debt — but I think it’s even more important to model good financial behavior.

A few weeks back one of your writers did a piece on charity (“Using Consumerism for Social Good”). What are your thoughts on charity and the role it should play in personal finance? Should a person in debt still donate some, or any, of his money? And, what charities are on your short list?

JD: This is a great question. I was raised in a family that didn’t give to charity. We were poor, so we were always worried about how to care for ourselves, let alone care about others. As a result, it’s been a struggle for me to make charity a priority as an adult, even now that I’m out of debt. I take a lot of (deserved) flak for my lack of charitable giving, but what can I say? It’s an issue I’m wrestling with. I’m not perfect!

Having said that, I do believe charitable giving is important. How important? Well, I think that’s up to each person to decide. There are some folks who feel strongly that you should always donate 10% of your income, even when you’re deep in debt. Others argue that “charity begins at home,” that you can’t effectively give to others until you’ve taken care of your own financial needs.

As for myself, I’ve found that I’m much more inclined to give to real people rather than faceless entities. I’ll give a homeless man on the street $20, even though he might use the money for booze. Last year, I anonymously donated $1000 to various friends who I saw were in need. If they needed it, I’d buy school books or sports equipment for my young nieces and nephews. That personal connection is important for me, and I’m much more inclined to give to a real human being than to a charitable organization (especially a big charitable organization).

In short: I’m just starting my journey toward charitable giving. I tend not to give to large groups, but instead to individuals.

You bring up the point early on in your book that “We’re all seeking happiness, not riches.” Do you think the average American Joe realizes that he or she can achieve a great degree of happiness without being overly “rich”?

JD: I don’t think Americans — or anyone else, for that matter — have given much thought to what makes them happy. It’s a question for philosophers. All the same, there are things that do and don’t make people happy.

I think that the mass media has an enormous influence on our culture, mostly for the negative. It’s not just the mind-numbing bread and circus effects of the media, but the subtle peer pressure. We see something on TV, and we believe it’s normal. (Especially if we’re exposed to it repeatedly.) And no matter how much anyone protests that advertising doesn’t affect them, they’re wrong. Advertising does affect people, even you. And studies show that those who think they’re least influenced are actually most influenced. That’s why advertisers are willing to poor billions of dollars into marketing every year: because it works!

The net effect of all this marketing and advertising is that we come to believe we “need” things in order to be happy. And in order to get these things, we need money.

The main problem is that to some degree, it’s true that having more money makes us happier. Rich people are happier than poor people, and rich nations are happier than poor nations. But over a certain amount, additional wealth has only a marginal impact.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. In my own life, I’ve tried to reduce my exposure to advertising (I think I’ve watched three hours of television this year, for example), and I make a conscious effort to remember that it’s very possible to live a happy, fulfilled life even without a lot of money. But I’m not sure that’s a message that will ever reach the American masses. There’s no money in it!

It is a very impatient society we live in. Everything is based on “faster, faster, faster.” However, for those deep in debt, it’s almost as if patience needs to be “learned” in order to overcome debt. Can one “train” oneself to be patient?

JD: Absolutely! This is a great question because it gets at the heart of what it means to be successful, not just with money, but with many other aspects of life. I’m in the middle of a mass weight loss program, for example. I’ve lost 40 pounds since January. But especially now that I’m nearing my goal, the weight loss has slowed. The progress comes in fits and starts. I have to keep reminding myself to be patient, that success doesn’t come overnight.

Two years ago, I read a book called “Mastery” by George Leonard. Although it has nothing to do about money, it’s the best personal-finance book I’ve ever read. Leonard argues that mastering any ability is not about the quantum leaps to great improvements, but about learning to live with the plateaus — those long stretches of time where nothing seems to happen. You spend two years paying off a single credit card. You spend six months losing your last five pounds. You spend five years editing your novel. These plateaus require mental toughness. They make most people quit. Yet, these plateaus are where success is actually achieved.

So, yes, patience can be learned. But learning it is very different for each of us. And it’s something that has to be worked at all the time. While we’re biding our time on a plateau, we’ll occasionally fall off. We’ll backslide. It’s very important to learn how to cope with these mistakes without derailing all of the previous progress.

You seem to be a big fan of the “debt snowball.” However, from a strictly financial standpoint, following the “debt snowball” ideals will cost you more money to get out of debt rather than eliminating your debt from a “highest interest rates first” type of mindset. Shouldn’t the goal be to get out of debt by spending the least amount of money as possible?

JD: Not necessarily. The goal of getting out of debt is getting out of debt. I argue that if people made mathematically optimal choices, they wouldn’t be in debt in the first place. So why insist that they start making them now? Instead, I think it’s important to focus on the debt snowball — or any other method that actually works to let you get out of debt.

Besides, the “high interest rates first” method only saves method if it works. That is, if the person following it is able to do so without failure. In my case, I couldn’t do it. I’d try the high interest rates first method, but give up because it took so long. (See? Lack of patience!) It ended up costing me more in the long run because I’d backslide.

But once I gave my permission to follow the debt snowball — to pay off debts from small balance to high balance, ignoring interest rates — the successes came quickly. I didn’t derail once. Yes, I paid a little more in interest than I would have if I’d followed the mathematically optimal method, but that’s a small price to pay for having actually been able to pay off the debt, you know?

The key thing to remember is that personal finance isn’t about knowing the math. I know the math. I kicked ass on the math portion of the SAT, placed well at the National Math Exam, and even was one of the top kids in the nation at Business Math when I was in high school. You don’t need to explain the math to me! But money management isn’t about math — it’s about emotional maturity. The debt snowball method helps build that maturity.

If you could improve one facet of your personal financial life, what would it be?

JD: I still spend too much to indulge myself. If I see something I want and I can afford it, I buy it. I think a little deferred gratification would stand me in good stead.

If you could sit down with the newly elected Republican-led government and give them one piece of financial advice for getting this country out of its economic woes, what would it be?

JD: Ha! Economics are like a black box to me. Besides, I’m apolitical. (I’m a small-i independent.)

Still, it seems pretty clear to me that whatever the Bush administration did screwed things up in a big way. A lot of people blame President Obama for the present economic crisis, but he didn’t create it. His administration has done a piss-poor job at dealing with it — no question — but his policies didn’t get us into this mess. The blame for that rests with the previous administration. I’m not sure why so many people ignore this.

I think the real solution isn’t palatable to either political party. From a personal finance perspective, you’ve got to retain positive cash flow: you have to raise your income and decrease your spending to stay out of (or get out of) debt. Why can’t the government do this? That means cutting government spending and increasing taxes. But you know what? That angers folks on both the left and the right, so it’s never going to happen. (The Obama administration did things exactly backwards, in fact: they cut taxes and increased spending. How does that make sense?)

Anyhow — that’s more political opinion than I’ve provided in almost five years of writing at Get Rich Slowly. I try to stay away from politics because it’s not really relevant to personal finance.

You devote a chapter of your book to the topic of goals. Do you see a downside associated with goal-setting that’s too aggressive? If someone is $20k in credit card debt, and they set their goal to cut that in half in the first six months, if they fall short, couldn’t you see this discouraging them and causing them to give up?

JD: Yes, aggressive goals can lead to problems. That’s why I advocate setting realistic goals. Look at what other people have achieved, and use these successes as a basis for your own goals. And run the numbers. Figure out what’s realistic and possible, not just what you hope you can do.

Most importantly, learn to make course corrections. I think too many people think of goals as immutable — once they’re set, they’re set. This is dumb. If, after three months, you see that your “get out of debt in six months” goal is never going to happen, then shift the target. Don’t let it discourage you; just use it to improve your aim next time.

Let me return to my diet for a further example. I set a goal to lose 50 pounds in 2010. That’s not going to happen. To date, I’ve lost 38 pounds — and I may lose 3-4 more by the end of the year. But you know what? I’m not going to let that get me down.

For one thing, I will have lost more than 40 pounds, damn it! That’s a success! Even though I missed my goal, I accomplished something remarkable. For another, I will lose that 50 pounds…it just may take me a few more months. But I’m willing to be patient. I know I’ll get there.

In 20 words or less, what is your #1 best piece of advice for maintaining financial health?

JD: “Spend less than you earn; invest the rest.” It’s basic advice — so basic that many people just dismiss it as trivial — but it’s also the fundamental law of wealth. In fact, in Andrew Tobias’ excellent “The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need,” Tobias writes that the following budget is all you need to know about building wealth: [this list is a quote from the book]

1. Destroy all your credit cards.
2. Invest 20% of all that you earn. And never touch it.
3. Live on the remaining 80%, no matter what.

All financial advice comes down to “spend less than you earn; invest the rest.” All of the millions and millions of words written on the subject are in support of this fundamental principle.

As a writer of a personal finance blog, you have to come up with good short articles just about every single day. It seems that “writer’s block” would be an even bigger obstacle for you than even for most book authors (one book, one topic, every year or so). How often do you experience writer’s block and how to do you overcome it?

JD: Oh, good grief. I experience writer’s block nearly every day. How do I overcome it? Well, I have several methods:

1. I have a staff of writers. I recognized years ago that I wasn’t going to be able to continue writing Get Rich Slowly full time by myself. I could see that the well would run dry. So, I starting bringing on guest authors. And from there, I moved to actual staff writers. This lets me share a variety of voices at Get Rich Slowly, and it gives me time off.

2. Any time I have an idea, I jot it down. When I get writer’s block, if I really need to break the block, I can dig through my stacks of paper to find one of hundreds of ideas just sitting here.

3. But the real secret? Exercise. No joke. When I get stumped, I have to fight the urge to sit at my computer, staring at the screen. I make myself go outside and go for a walk. Or mow the lawn. Or go to the gym. When I do this, I invariably come up with a story, and often a great one. Some of my best pieces at Get Rich Slowly are a result of me moving away from the computer and doing something else.

Writer’s block is a very real thing. The key is developing coping mechanisms to minimize its effect.

Note: A special thanks goes out to J.D. for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with us, and, the next time you find a particularly creative post on his blog, just remember that it was probably inspired by a spirited workout at the gym! Thanks again, J.D.!

And don’t forget, three copies of J.D.’s book, Your Money: The Missing Manual, will be given away to three lucky commenters on this post!

Update: The 3 winners of J.D.’s book, Your Money: The Missing Manual, are Jeremy, kscritch, and Mary G with their comments below. Congrats!

David Bakke
David started his own personal finance blog, YourFinances101, in June of 2009 and published his first book on ways to save more and spend less called "Don't Be A Mule..." Since then he has been a regular contributor for Money Crashers. He lives just outside Atlanta, GA and most all of his free time is taken up by his amazing three year old son, Nicholas.

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  • lostAnnfound

    Thanks for this interview. I have been reading GRS for about two years now. What I like most about JD is that he has been there and done that. He’s been in the same boat most of us are/have been and is very willing to tell his story, in a down to earth way, about his journey toward personal financial awareness.

  • Sam

    Both MC and GRS are my fav PF blogs. I’m in for the book giveaway.

  • Rebecca

    That was a great interview. I would love to win JD’s book.

  • Donna Kramer

    If I had the book, I might find out why I am missing money.

  • Sharon Abar

    Great interview! Thanks for the chance to win the book.

  • Lauren Y.

    This was a great article. I’ve heard of JD’s blog but I haven’t gotten around to visiting it. Looks like I have a new blog to add to my personal finance roster!

  • http://financiallypoor.com Kevin

    Great interview. A lot of great points and Ideas.

  • Hana

    I’ve often read GRS.I think the most important thing said in the interview is the discussion of plateaus. That is so imprint for money management and everything else.

  • Kelly

    I’d love a chance to win the book. Thank you!

  • Mary G

    I’ve been reading Money Crashers for a while, but I will check out Get Rich Slowly. This was a good interview, and it’s always good to be refreshed about the basic advice, “save 20%, live on 80%”. Something so hard to do with unemployment (for me) and decreased income (for spouse). The kids are beginning to understand, but this is a learning process for them too.

  • Alex

    I love reading Get Rich Slowly and Money Crashers. I would love to read JD’s book!

  • Rick

    I’ve been a reader(and “subscriber”) of Get Rich Slowly for over three years and don’t miss a day of advice from the site. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward checking it out each day. I think the down to earth advice is what I enjoy the most. Keep up the good work!

  • Kevin Eldridge

    I agree wholeheartedly with the advice regarding investing 20% and living on the remaining 80%. It worked very well for me in the past and I am working on paying off all my debt so I can start doing that again.

  • http://mortonfox.livejournal.com Morton Fox

    I’ve dipped into Get Rich Slowly now and then over the years. The advice in this interview is pretty basic but everyone needs to read this.

  • Tracy

    Great advice that I plan to implement for 2011 – enough is enough!

    I haven’t been to Get Rich Slowly, but I am heading there RIGHT now :)

  • http://liverealnow.net Jason@LiveRealnow

    Fascinating. I love digging into what makes people tick.

  • Debra

    I enjoy reading GRS not only because JD has been through it, but because he doesn’t act like the be-all expert as a result but just shares ideas of what worked for him.

  • Em D

    Awesome interview- I would love to read his book.

  • http://www.strayeru.com/2010/10/11/family-matters-building-a-support-system-when-returning-to-school/ Christina D

    I agree that when you are stumped for ideas, you should get up and move around. Getting enough exercise and rest allows you to come up with better ideas. Good interview.

  • MarilynBr

    I can’t affirm strongly enough the power in getting rid of credit cards. My advice to young people would be never to get them in the first place. I would love in win this book.

  • kscritch

    I follow Money Crashers on Twitter, but now I will do some research on Get Rich Slowly. Great Interview! It all comes down to having some maturity with money and not bowing to the little kid that each one of us has inside wanting to just go buy whatever we want. Getting out of debt and spending wisely requires some strong inner maturity and treating money as a tool. My problem has alway been running with emotions – especially when it comes to larger purchases like houses and cars. I am going to start with an emergency fund and the debt snowball while setting a realistic goal of 18 months to 2 years to get out of debt. It will not happen overnight by any means. Thank you!

  • Stefanie

    I would love to win this book. I have been a subscriber to both MC and GRS for several months and love the advice from both blogs!

  • http://sharronclemons.co.cc/ Sharron Clemons

    Great advice that I plan to implement for 2011 – enough is enough! I haven’t been to Get Rich Slowly, but I am heading there RIGHT now :)

  • Shari

    I am a consistent reader of Get Rich Slowly and really enjoy the content. Good tried and true advice written from personal experience with real tangible steps. Thanks for the interview!

  • http://www.wealthyimmigrant.com/ Wealthy Immigrant

    Great interview! It has some good ideas that I can use for my blog next year :-)

  • gina

    I am a big GRS fan and would love this book! Nice to see that JD struggles with the same issues that we all have–I always appreciate his honesty!

  • maria

    I am currently reading this book and it is great( which I won on another blog) . Would love to win one to give as a gift to help someone else out!

  • http://www.lazymanandmoney.com Lazy Man and Money

    As usual, J.D. gives it too you straight with no sugar coating.

    I think I definitely dismiss the psychological aspects of personal finance a little too much. Being a math-first guy actually works for me.

  • Ladam8518

    Great Interview

  • yueni

    What an insightful interview.

  • Procrastamom

    I’ve been a fan and avid reader of GRS for over two years now. Great interview, JD!

  • Claude

    Interesting article. I especially like the answer to 20 words or less question.

  • http://upfromthestump.com Simon

    Thank you JD! I’m a GRS reader for a couple of years now, and continue to like it in the face of those arrogant “expert” blogs. JD blogs in an honest down to earth manner. Thank you again.

    ps – nice to see a good political commentary as well. :)

  • Kai

    That was an interesting interview. Grats on getting JD to talk about politics.

  • sukeina

    I read GRS daily and would love to win the book!

  • Nola

    I’ve enjoyed JD’s blog for a couple of years now, and always enjoy his authentic voice.

  • http://www.groceryalerts.ca/ Steve Zussino

    I would also like a chance to read this.

  • lisa

    Great article. It was honest and tactful. The way JD answered the political question was very good. I’m not so sure I could have answered it as nicely as he did!

  • http://firstgenamerican.com Sandy L

    I would love a copy of the book. I enjoyed the interview and you both seem like you put a lot of thought into the session. I’ve been reading JD’s blog for years. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://backdoornaturalist.com Kelly

    Enjoyed the interview and have been reading GRS for several months now. I’ll be adding Money Crashers to my reading roster. Thanks for the book contest, it would be nice to win JD’s book.

  • Ms. Brown

    I would love to have this book. It would help me stay on track.

  • Matt

    This really is a great, insightful interview! I came here from GRS and will have to give Money Crashers a look-through. I hope I can win the book so I can read it then give it to one of my friends!

  • Jo

    Great interview! I am a GRS fan for many years, and would love to win the book.

  • Katharine

    Love J.D.’s blog, and would love the book.
    What a thoughtful, well conducted interview.

  • http://nocureforbaldness.com Michael Elkins

    Good interview, thanks.

  • Greg Wheeler

    Great interview! I’ve been reading GRS for about a year now, and I love the fact that I can realte to JD and he speaks from the heart. He doesn’t sugar coat things, and he doesn’t claim that anything is easy when it comes to personal finance.

  • Dean

    Wow… I love hearing that happiness is when you own your stuff (not the other way around).

    Thanks.

  • http://moonlightcrew.com Tom

    Thank you for the tips about overcoming writer’s block. I try to write down an idea when it comes to me, and I’ll definitely be getting better at it after reading this. And I’ll look into my own coping mechanisms (while copying yours: Exercise).

  • Char

    I love JD’s writing!

  • Rachel

    I like this interview. In terms of learning patience, I found that cooking did that for me. The onions take as long to brown as they take. You just have to be patient.

  • Jeremy

    Great interview. Thanks J.D. for the honesty and helping us all feel more comfortable talking about money. I lived in Taiwan for 11 years, and it was amazing how much more willing the Chinese (generally) are to talk about money, and how it helps situations.

    Best piece of advice here: do what works for you. When I talk about debt snowball vs. “Pay largest first”, I introduce both and ask the person if they could keep with it while nothing seems to be happening. That psychological help costs money, but it’s money well-spent if it makes the difference.

    And patience. We’re all living in a ‘get it now’ society, which is why credit cards are such a problem. And getting out of debt. And getting wealthy. We’re all looking for a quick fix, not willing to wait to get rich slowly.

    Is there a book still available?

  • Cat

    J.D. is always so sensible and honest. His insight inspires me that in American hyper-consumerism, knowing how to manage $ is key!!!!

  • Ana

    Two highlights of the interview for me were the reminder to be patient and the reference to George Leonard’s book Mastery. A while back, in a fit of frustration over my finances, I said, “I hate money!” Now I see money as a teacher. It’s taught me a lot about myself and about life in general. Your interview brought this back to mind. Thanks!

  • erytheis

    I have been reading get rich slowly for a while now. It’s helpful that even though our journey will be long we are finding ways to live well while we become debt free!

  • Carmen

    Sound advice. For those of you that don’t win JD’s book, you can borrow it from your local library for free!

  • Steven Donovan

    I have been subscriped to Get Rich Slowly for over a year and read the blog for even longer. It’s a great motivation to keep at it day by day. A week from now no matter what I do I won’t be debt free, but reading different ideas and stories to keep me on the right path has been great. For me I know what I’m supposed to do, I just need a constant reminder that I’m not the only one out there in debt and it takes time to get things in order. Thanks J.D and David for the interview.

  • Lynette

    I read Get Rich Slowly every day. And it has help me in many ways.

  • Jess

    I came over here from JD’s blog, which I read every day without fail. I really enjoyed this interview. I thought it showcased JD’s honesty, his accessibility, and his good sense. This is my first visit to the moneycrashers blog but I look forward to exploring it, and if the thoughtful interview questions offer any indication of the rest of the blog’s content I think I will be reading it on a regular basis as well! Thanks also for the opportunity to win a copy of JD’s book. Being frugal of course I have checked it out from the library, but would sure love to have my own copy.

  • Sel

    GRS subscriber. Loved the interview. Please pick me.

  • John Scull

    Along with Trent (Simple Dollar), JD consistently gives out the best financial AND life advice on the internet. I have been a GRS subscriber for quite some time…his writing is outstanding.

  • Erin H

    I follow the blog and I own the book. Both are fantastic! I’m pretty good with my money and have never been in debt, but I nonetheless find a lot of advice and encouragement that are very helpful to me. You can never learn too much about this stuff, and J.D.’s personal approach is really accessible no matter where you are on your money journey.

    Thanks for the insightful interview!

  • http://graduatedlearning.wordpress.com Stephanie

    Always good blogs to read! Would love to get my hands on that book :)

  • RJ

    I would love to read more about dealing with plateaus… that seems to be where I fall off the wagon in every aspect of my life.

  • http://change-is-possible.net Heather

    I love J.D.’s blog and would love a copy of the book! Invest 20% … need to start doing that …

  • Eileen

    J.D. has been my main motivator to get my family out of debt. I subscribe to his blog and really identify with his struggles and successes. So far $6,500 has been paid off and the debt snowball is working. My husband and I are expecting our second child and hope to instill good financial values in both of children’s lives in the future. Thanks for everything J.D.!

  • http://www.savannahwebhost.com Penny Johnson

    I love J.D.’s website & sure would love to read his inspired book. So many of us have the best of intentions, then fall short in the doing category.

  • Mark W.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thorough interview with J. D. Roth. I’ve been reading GRS for a few years now, and the information, advice, and resources on that blog are always top-notch.

  • Matt

    I got the link to this from the Get Rich Slowly newsletter. This was a great article with great questions and answers (just like he said in the link from the newsletter). I’m forwarding it to some friends now.

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