Our Honda Fit Is Magic

Right after our move last month, we somewhat reluctantly became a two-car family again. For the rest of the school year–over two months at that point–I will be driving Big Brother to his current preschool, fifteen miles round trip; my workplace is a different seven-plus miles from our house and Mr. FP’s is ten.* Because I need the car every single weekday for that preschool dropoff, we thought we’d all be happier with an extra set of wheels.

Next year, Big Brother will be attending his neighborhood school, and there will be more wiggle room–we CAN both take a bus or bike to work, just not necessarily every single day–so we may go back to being a one-car family again. Aside from the cost issue, there’s the trouble involved. Two sets of oil changes, two sets of snow tires to take on and off, etc. It seems strangely extravagant not to have to negotiate for the car every day, even though by modern American standards, we “need” two cars.

Any way, we bought a 2008 Honda Fit Sport using a small life insurance policy left us to Mr. FP’s grandmother, who died earlier this year. And the timing could not have been better, because, with our move, we were finally ready to upgrade our furniture. Two dressers, for instance, are not adequate to the needs of a family of four. Craigslist sellers, Big Lots, and the local Presbyterian youth group yard sale have all benefited from our spending spree

Here’s a partial list of the things we have shoved into our Fit since we bought it:

  1. A twin-sized mattress. (This was the only time we left the hatch open; all other times, it was closed.) ($175)
  2. Two three-drawer dressers. At the same time. ($40)
  3. An overstuffed armchair in nearly new condition. ($10)
  4. One six-drawer dresser. ($21)
Comfy. And it swivels. Mr. FP loves swivel.

Comfy. And it swivels. Mr. FP loves swivel.

We got two of these excellent-condition dressers for $40 at a church yard sale.

We got two of these excellent-condition dressers for $40 at a church yard sale.

And the piece de resistance:

  1. A dining room table with six chairs. ($80) Yes, all at once. And even though Mr. FP had forgotten to leave the car seats behind.
The legs can be unscrewed for better portability, a trick we learned in our last move using a 16-foot truck).

The legs can be unscrewed for better portability, a trick we learned in our last move (using a 16-foot truck).

I can only conclude that it’s like that Ford Anglia that Arthur Weasley bewitched so that it could carry all kinds of things. Except that the Fit does not, so far as we have been able to ascertain, actually fly. The only thing that wouldn’t fit in the Fit was Big Brother’s new loft bed. We had to rent one of those Home Depot vans for $20 or so.

So… it’s a tiny car that gets, in our experience, about 30 mpg (way better than my elderly Accord). We paid less than $6K for it. And it has saved us probably hundreds of dollars in delivery charges. Who needs a pickup truck?

Does your car help you perform badass acts of self-reliance?

*Our workplaces are far apart, so close to one would have screwed the other partner. Plus, we either didn’t want or couldn’t afford to live in those neighborhoods.

Friends, I Spent $180 on Lightbulbs

This is true. It is not an exaggeration.

See, we bought a house. And you know what we didn’t do when we were looking at houses? Check what kind of light bulbs they had, or count how many.

Turns out the answer is (a) mostly incandescents and (b) a lot. Downstairs alone, there are nine 65-watt flood lights and four ceiling light fixtures with two bulbs each. Upstairs, there are six more ceiling fixtures, not to mention the outside. The previous owners have had an incandescent outdoor light going all night.

Have some flood lights. No, really, we have plenty more where these came from.

Have some flood lights. No, really, we have plenty more where these came from.

This is what a $77 ($56 plus tax and shipping) box of light bulbs looks like.

This is what a $77 ($56 plus tax and shipping) box of light bulbs looks like.

Because I am a frugal person, it’s like I could feel the wastage of electricity every time I turned on a light. So what’s a girl to do? We’ve had CFLs for years, but they don’t always last as long as they should and the toxicity makes me nervous. The good news is, LEDs are equally judicious with the juice, supposedly last even longer (up to 22 years, says the package), are nontoxic, and have come down in price, especially thanks to local energy rebates available in many locations.

The bad news is that they are still at least $5 per bulb. The floods start at $10. Can you multiply? 9 flood lights times $10 is $90 just for those. Fortunately, they are reeeeeally bright, and not all of the enclosed fixtures needed all their slots filled.

I just gritted my teeth and bought the damn light bulbs. (I got the basic 60 watt bulb-shapes ones at Lowes and ordered floods from Costco, as their floods were ever so slightly less bright. I paid only $5 for the regular bulbs and got $12 off the floods thanks to local rebates.) I’m not even quite sure if I have enough; the ceiling light fixtures are hard to take apart, so we are going to open them up just once each, see which bulbs are incandescent, swap, repeat. (We also might need a new dimmer switch for those many basement flood lights.) Supposedly, LED bulbs are not really “consumables” in that they will not have to be replaced any time in the foreseeable future. We could all have jet packs and flying cars before the bulbs burn out.

But I gotta say, it felt weird to drop almost $200 on light bulbs, of all things. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever spent “a lot” of money on? Do you think it paid off?

Obviously, I will be saving the warranty information.

Obviously, I will be saving the warranty information.

We’re Homeowners Again

I have written here about how we lost all our money on an ill-advised house purchase. And yet, here we are, buying a house again! Why on earth would we do that to ourselves?

Well, for starters, we think it is worth the extra money right now to live in a detached house (as opposed to a townhouse, where we lived before). Our two boys are very active and I really want them to be able to be playing outside while dinner is in the oven, or while we relax on the patio with glasses of wine. (Boxed wine, of course.) Comparing similarly sized houses and locations, buying compares favorably to renting right now.

Little Brother can already climb this structure even though his leg is in a cast.

Little Brother can already climb this structure even though his leg is in a cast.

It seems like a safer decision this time. We have, we hope, outgrown making impetuous, poorly researched moves. There are a lot of opportunities for both of us in Denver, so our willingness to live here is not tied to one particular job (which was the case last time–and when that job went south, we were desperate to leave).

We’re optimistic it will be a good investment. Denver has a robust, diverse economy, and we bought in a neighborhood that is still up and coming. If we want to downsize when the boys are older, there’s a good chance that selling the house would free up a nice chunk of money for investment.

Then there’s the security issue. By buying, we insulate ourselves from rent increases–AND create the possibility of paying off the mortgage, eventually, and having housing drop to a minimal line item in the budget.

Despite the advantages, I’d be lying I said we didn’t have reservations. We’ve enjoyed not being responsible for maintenance, and we are not accomplished do-it-yourselfers. Will we find home ownership too stressful or expensive? The neighborhood school doesn’t sound right for our kids–will we be able to “choice them into” a better fit when the time comes?

Also, moving is hard work! This is our living room five days post-move.

Also, moving is hard work! This is our living room five days post-move.

Did we do the right thing? Did we choose the right neighborhood for our needs? Did we choose a good time to get in the market? Ask me again in five years!

Do you own or rent? What were the deciding factors for you?

Sort-of Frugal February: Report

We were a little distracted in February by our house saga, which involved getting a contract, applying for a mortgage, getting a bad appraisal, switching lenders, postponing closing, and paying for a second appraisal (which was better). Whew! I’m also describing it as only sort-of frugal because Mr. FP spent a lot on entertainment. We go to a concert together several times a year, and he goes alone a few other times. Well, it just worked out that in February, he bought three full sets of tickets (one for my birthday–Arlo Guthrie–and the other two for a couple of our favorite bands).

Even with that rather large layout, our total discretionary spending was quite a bit lower than it usually is. If you’re curious, here’s the breakdown:

Moving-related expenses

Earnest money: $3000

Inspections and appraisals: $1631.50

Goodwill bin for Legos: $3.22

Total moving-related: $4634.72

Daycare: $705

Food

Groceries: $479.41. I have not see our fridge and freezer so empty since we moved in. Which is good, ’cause we’re moving out this weekend!

Restaurants: $61.05 (Why not $0? Mr. FP took a couple of day trips and stopped for meals. And one time he had a bad cold on a Saturday when I worked; he showed movies and ordered half-price Papa John’s for himself and the boys.)

Total food: $540.46

Entertainment: $339.14 (3 sets of concert tickets plus $26 of iTunes and $5 of Netflix)

Evening babysitting: $0!

Other

Postage: $1.61

Kids’ activities: $20 (To be refunded. Poor LB can’t do obstacle course class with his “bo-ken” leg.)

YMCA: $70

Gas/electric: $95.54

Internet: $44.83

Charity: $5

Bus and train ticket books: $40 (not all used)

Gas: $75.41

Ting mobile phone service: $43.88

Bike supplies: $6.45 (inner tube to replace shredded one)

Gift (nephew’s b-day): $15

Wallet for Mr. FP: $32.16

Sports: $60

Reimbursable parking: $12

Total other: $521

Total minus daycare and house expenses: $1369.48 

Since my general non-housing, non-daycare monthly spending goal is $1750 AND we weren’t really going flat-out this month, I consider this a win. I think we developed some good habits, like doing a better job of eating up existing food before buying more, eating our cheaper meals more often, making substitutions to extend the time between grocery trips, buying milk in gallons instead of half-gallons (Mr. FP really, really likes the paper cartons, but, as we’re looking closer at our finances, has come to admit that this is not worth $6-8 a month), and just generally refining the household routine. I’m making thicker yogurt, for instance, which means a better Greek yogurt yield.

Most importantly, we have now started tracking all our purchases as they are made. Let’s face it, it’s already March 12 and I’m just now finishing our spending analysis for February. An end-of-the-month review was not really helping us calibrate during the month. Now, we enter everything immediately and see the new total. No doubt we will continue to refine the system (currently a Google Sheet, as Mr. FP wanted control over it), but at least there IS a system now. I just finished reading Your Money or Your Life (Mr. FP read the summary at the end) and, despite our general level of distraction and discombobulation, we’re slowly implementing some of its ideas. Like to keep track of every penny, both coming and going.

I’d like to try this experiment again when we’re settled in our house, perhaps in the fall, and see if we can hit a lower number. Friends, what’s your low-spending record?

In Which I Resist the Urge to Despair

I had hoped to have for you today an analysis of our highly distracted but well-intentioned uber-frugal February. But I have not had time to compile this analysis, as we spent half the day yesterday at the ER with Little Brother. He had a sledding accident, you see, and when he was still complaining of pain the next day, we thought perhaps he had a sprain of some kind.

It was an honest-to-God broken leg.

Fortunately, it’s a nondisplaced fracture (meaning the bone cracked through but the pieces stayed in place, and they did not have to set it). Still, they had to put on a temporary plaster cast from his toes all the way to his hip.
IMAG0168

Little Brother contemplating what trouble he can cause within a two-foot radius.

Friends, I admit I nearly despaired. This kid can’t walk. He may not be able to walk for four to six weeks (we’ll know more when the permanent cast goes on Friday, but they said it will probably not be a walking cast–and it’s not like a two-year-old can use crutches). He is not supposed to crawl, stand, or put any weight on his left leg. He will need sponge baths. All the toddler skills we’ve been working on–going potty, cleaning up toys, taking his own dishes to the sink, dressing himself–they’re all on hold. He has to be carried everywhere like a giant heavy baby. No playing outside. No running around the house in his superhero cape. He can’t even wear underpants because of the risk of a potty accident; I had to put him in disposable training pants. And the timing is terrible: After a two-week delay, we are hoping to close on our house purchase on Friday the 13th. We’ll be trying to pack and unpack and move while keeping a two-year-old entertained in a stationary position. I am sad for him and frustrated for myself.
But, just like when I got a flat tire, I would rather think about all the ways my life does not suck right now:
  1. We are buying a house! Our boys will have their own rooms and a backyard for the first time ever.
  2. I can afford to pay the bill, unlike the last time I went to the ER and, as I mused about during my flat-tire debacle, I had to ask for three different payment plans. I even have a medical FSA; I only put in $400, which may not be enough, but it will keep me from having to shell out a giant wad of cash all at once.
  3. My kids are healthy enough to break legs sledding. No one is guaranteed even one healthy, typically developing child, and I have two. How great is that? This is one month of my life that I’ll laugh about later, not my long-term reality.
  4. We have easy access to top-notch medical care. We drove there in our totally functional car and got him X-rayed and fixed up. In much of the world, that’s not possible.
  5. Because of that prompt access to top-notch medical care, we can expect Little Brother to make a full, uncomplicated recovery.
  6. People love us. We got lots of Facebook well-wishes, plus calls and e-mails from our loved ones and presents from Grandma FP.

What are your first-word problems this week? What are you grateful for?

Shortening the Shopping List

I used up my last bottle of moisturizing, mineral-based, paraben-free facial sunscreen. And I had a liberating realization: I do not need to buy more. (I can just use the kids’ general purpose, paraben-free mineral sunscreen. And if I need more moisturizer, there’s always coconut oil, which makes your face smell like a Samoa Girl Scout cookie.) One more item crossed off my shopping list.

Left: Babyganics sunscreen. Right: Jar of coconut oil.

All my face actually needs. Ignore small, fancy bottle of coconut oil–I usually buy in bulk.

Limiting the number of consumable items that you buy regularly has a lot of advantages. It generally saves money. It saves time. Maybe most importantly, it saves worry. If I don’t buy moisturizing facial sunscreen, then I don’t have to worry about whether I will run out. I don’t have to make a special trip to the store because I forgot to buy it and now I’m out. I don’t have to hunt for the best price or consider switching brands. It’s out of my brain for good.

I’m fortunate in having decent skin and low-maintenance hair, so those are the things that get cut. Here is a semi-random selection of items I’ve managed to pare from my shopping list, with the already-lying-around items I’ve replaced them with:

  1. Shave gel: Bar soap

    Left: Bottle of Avalon Organics brand facial lotion. Right: Wrapped bar of Kirks Original Coco Castille soap.

    Left: An expensive unitasker (boo). Right: A cheap multitasker (yay!). This is also the soap I use for laundry detergent.

  2. Face soap (first Noxema, then Dr. Bronner’s): Bar soap
  3. Facial toner/astringent: Nothing. My skin cleared up on it own.
  4. Shampoo and conditioner: Baking soda and vinegar
  5. Facial tissues: Toilet paper in a pinch, or my wonderful stack of flannel cloths made by Grandma FP
  6. Rinse aid for dishwasher: Nothing. Results of dishwashing slightly spottier, but acceptable.
  7. Greek yogurt: I now make this by straining homemade yogurt.
  8. Almond milk: Nothing (for the kids, who were already eating plenty of cheese and yogurt) and regular milk (for me).
  9. Ovaltine: Nothing. The kids weren’t finishing their cups half the time anyway.

Then there are less-consumable items that I have found I don’t need to replace. These are things I don’t have to research, try on, comparison shop for, remove from the packaging, put away, pack up when we next move, wash, or put away:

  1. My stainless-steel water bottle. I loved this, and I managed to lose it. Instead of buying a new one, which I will probably also lose (bad for the planet–all that manufacturing and raw materials–and for my wallet), I’m just going to use repurposed glass jars and call it hipster-ish.
  2. Black socks. I just have to wear my less-favored socks now.
  3. Yoga pants. First I wore my leggings until they wore out. Now I am just wearing shorts under jeans or sweatpants, which I take off when I get to the gym.
  4. The blue plastic bowls that the kids lost in the yard. (OK, I forgot they had them out there.) We have plenty of others.
  5. The toddler spoons I accidentally fed to the garbage disposal. Turns out the boys can manage regular spoons now.
  6. The third cutting board, which I accidentally melted. Been getting by just fine with two.
  7. The backup glass measuring cup, whose writing wore off. This is not totally useless, actually (great for beating eggs in!), and for actual measuring when the good Pyrex cup is dirty, I often use an old glass baby bottle.

Making the list, I was embarrassed and rather appalled to realize how many items I’ve managed to lose or accidentally destroy, which is another reason to buy less: Every item I don’t buy is one less target for my blundering! More importantly, every time I remove an unnecessary item from my life, I feel a little zing of satisfaction, and then I feel a little lighter. One less thing to worry about. One more dollar working for me as a “little green employee,” as Mr. Money Mustache puts it. And one less tiny environmental footprint.

What have you trimmed from your shopping list? How does it make you feel?

The FP Confronts Valentine’s Day

I think Valentine’s Day is a silly holiday, and I would like to go back in time and tell Geoffrey Chaucer* not to start the whole thing. It comes with too many expectations, too much romantic competitiveness, too much obligatory cheer.

But my children will have to make up their minds on the subject, and, well, Valentine’s Day at the preschool/elementary level is A Thing. I successfully dodged this Thing last year by scheduling a doctor’s appointment for the boys that morning and not taking them to school (it wasn’t their usual day of the week anyway), but this year Big Brother goes to school every day.

Obviously, I did not go out and buy printed cards for his preschool classmates. Rather, Big Brother and I spent an agreeable hour together making extremely simple construction paper doodads like this:

As the printer was broken, I hand wrote on the back of each one, "To: Friend. Happy Valentines Day! Love, [BB]

As the printer was broken, I hand wrote on the back of each one, “To: Friend. Happy Valentines Day! Love, [BB]”

The beauty of the design was that we could really work together. Big Brother worked extremely hard cutting out all 16 paper hearts while I cut the squares and wrote on the backs. Then we glued a few together; he got bored gluing and put on stickers while I glued the rest.

We already owned the paper, stickers, and glue stick, so the cost in new materials was $0. Priceless: Big Brother’s obvious pride in his hearts.

How do you work Valentine’s Day? Those with older kids, how have you negotiated the minefield of expectations?

*Geoffrey Chaucer’s piece The Parliament of Fowls, about amorous birds, is the first known reference to Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday. 

Uber-Frugal February: Spending Analysis

After a month delay, we at the FP family did finally undertake our Uber-Frugal Month challenge, as prescribed by the folks over at Frugalwoods. Sort of. The idea has hit a minor and a major stumbling block. The minor stumbling block is less than complete buy-in from Mr. FP, who has been making some special effort but has not been willing to forgo a couple of solo weekend day trips featuring gas and dinner and especially not willing to forgo buying the Dave Matthews tickets that went on sale this month.

The major stumbling block: We got a contract to buy a house. Yay! While this is great news, it involves the writing of large checks. It has also cut into our intellectual energy and free time for identifying places to cut and for blogging about the process, which is why it has taken me until halfway through the month to finish this spending analysis.

But I did it! I laboriously combed through Mint records to take a look at where our money has been going and took a look at the Frugal Woods questions. Folks, it was pretty illuminating. You can read my answers or just skip to the end for the totals.

Is there anything we could completely eliminate?

Well, yes and no. We COULD completely eliminate restaurant meals, evening babysitting, all paid entertainment (ie, concerts) and activity fees (my YMCA membership, classes for the kids, and Mr. FP’s occasional sports leagues), but we’re pretty sure we would be unhappy about it. But skipping  the first three just for Uber-Frugal February may help us get a better idea of what we really find worthwhile. These categories are definitely too high.

How’s our grocery bill looking?

Pretty good, really. We have twice as many people as Frugalwoods and spend less than twice as much, so we must be doing something right! (Not that it’s a contest, I just generally admire their spending habits.) Aside from food, we spend very little on toiletries (no shampoo or conditioner for me; bar soap for all of us; reusable substitutes for tissues, most paper towel uses, and lady things) and cleaning products (I make my laundry detergent and we clean with vinegar and water). I make my own hummus, granola bars, and yogurt, shop for best prices on staples, and use meat only as a flavoring (never a main dish). The things that I don’t make from scratch, like bread, are things that don’t seem to be worthwhile (I can get whole wheat bread at the used bread store for $1.50 a loaf, for instance).

That said, we identified a couple of areas for potential improvement: breakfast (going to see how much Mr. FP’s Grape-Nuts habit is costing us and if there’s an alternative), Greek yogurt (I made it! yay me! that stuff is expensive!), and certain luxuries. I’m going without my juice-and-seltzer treat this month–now I will appreciate it better next month–and I didn’t buy the boys any Ovaltine this month. They haven’t asked for it! Also: Get more sleep and drink less coffee.

What can I substitute for a similar, less expensive experience?

We’ve been getting a babysitter and going out to concert or just to walk around downtown most months. I’d like to try to make a point of doing at some at-home date nights, with some sort of special adult snack and some boxed wine. It will be hard, because I tend to put the kids to bed and then crash unless Mr. FP has made plans for us, but I’ll give it a try.

Where can I trade time for money?

Honestly, I dunno that there’s anything left in this category. See above all the things I make! I also mend and hem our clothes (look for a post soon about my battle to keep my menfolk in pants). While I’m not one of those people who’s like, “Oh, my house is such a mess because I’m such a good mom that I spend all my time playing with my children” (I have two; they can play with each other), I do need to get out of the kitchen eventually and, you know, read them some books or something.

Unfortunately, we will probably actually be doing LESS of this time-for-money thing this month because, well, we’re moving. I’m sure we’ll keep moving costs down (we have a good track record in this area) but there’s probably some takeout pizza and convenience food in our future.

If you want the details…

Here is my Google Sheet detailing my best analysis of where our money goes. We’ve been spending about $2175 a month outside of housing and childcare or $2054 if you subtract travel. (Mr. FP wants, in the long run, to have a separate budget for travel.) To buy our house, have money for travel, and save for the future, we’d like to cut that down to closer to about $1750. Restaurant meals, babysitting, entertainment, and shopping are all obvious targets. Mr. FP is motivated by travel and I’m motivated by a growing bank balance, so we’ve both agreed to track our spending very carefully to stay under the limit. Stay tuned for an actual budget when we have a chance to work it out together.

Any of you tried a financial fast or uber-frugal month? What were the results?

January 2015 Net Worth Check

Not a lot of action over the last few months but a lot of holding steady. Here’s what it looks like:

ASSETS

Cash: $8210

Investments: $60,769 (up 2.6%, all of it market gains)

Property: None of interest. I used to count my car here, but have decided not to do so. It’s not an asset unless we would sell it, and we wouldn’t. So it’s not an asset so much as just a big, expensive thing we happen to have.

LIABILITIES

Credit Cards: $784

TOTAL NET WORTH: $68,195

That’s an increase of $4659, or 7.3%. It’s nice that the market has gone up, but again I think we should have set aside more ourselves–it looks like we only managed $1335 even with some generous Christmas gifts. I’m a little behind on my dependent care FSA reimbursements, though, which is several hundred dollars.

Next month: Uber-Frugal February! The goal will be to figure out a little more clearly where all our money goes and hopefully have more left over!

 

 

I Want a Balloon! Reasonable Preschool Birthdays

One of my very first blog posts was about the minimalist third birthday party I threw for my older son. That was my peak of fanciness so far. This year, we haven’t lived here as long and I don’t know any of my son’s school friends or their parents, so we just skipped the party when Big Brother turned four this week.

I gave him a fourth birthday in line with his expectations. When the subject of his birthday came up, he said, “I want a balloon! And a cake! And deco-wations!” Note what he did not ask for: presents, a party, or even a whole bunch of balloons. So I made a cake and bought a banner and some balloons. (He only asked for one, but let’s live a little.)

He specifically asked for sprinkles. The #4 candle is leftover from Mr. FP's 34th, and I will try to save it for Little Brother's 4th as well.

He specifically asked for sprinkles. The #4 candle is left over from Mr. FP’s 34th, and I will try to save it for Little Brother’s 4th as well.

Since I haven’t even unpacked all their Christmas toys yet, I didn’t buy this kid any birthday toys. I did decide to get him a present: a kid-sized Klean Kanteen water bottle, so my four-year-old won’t have to carry a sippy cup around to school any more. I like the idea of a useful present that’s related to his getting more grown-up: not another toy, but more interesting than underwear. I don’t post pictures of my kids’ faces on here, but please believe he was very excited and wanted to drink out of it immediately.

12 ounce Klean Kanteen water bottle with green sport top.

Now if I can just keep him from losing and/or dropping it…

Happily, other relatives had similar ideas. Grandma FP sent a check and Granny FP (aka my mother-in-law) sent a book and a pair of binoculars, which were also a huge hit.

Besides the banner ($1.75),* the present, and the ingredients used in the cake (all staples), the only other thing I bought was wrapping paper ($4.47 for large roll). Big Brother was with me in the store and wanted to buy Spider-Man paper. I explained that there was not nearly as much paper on that role as the regular birthday paper rolls, and showed him the rolls he could choose from. A lady passing in the store noted approvingly that she wished she had done a better job teaching her kids about the value of money and that I must be on the right track.

I’m not saying don’t have a party for your kids. I’ve done them before, and I’m sure I will again, but it was as much for me as for him. But please don’t get caught in the trap of extending adult/societal expectations onto your kid. He probably just wants a balloon.

*Normally I would have made one, but this one was quite cheap, and our printer is broken (which makes it more difficult, of course) and I’m awfully backed up on chores already. Sometimes it’s okay to give yourself a pass.

How have you celebrated birthdays for your babies and preschoolers? How do you manage expectations?

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