Living Paycheck to Paycheck

March 5th, 2009 by Steve Pavlina

One of the traps people fall into, especially during an economic recession, is the trap of living paycheck to paycheck. You can’t afford to switch jobs or get laid off because you’re just barely making enough to squeak by.

Erin and I were in a situation like this about 10 years ago. We would sometimes end the month with less than $100 total. This was actually a big improvement over the situation we were in before that. At least we were no longer descending into debt.

To reduce our expenses, we moved into a cheaper apartment, not that we had a choice — we’d just gotten booted from our previous apartment after getting behind on our rent.

Unfortunately the new apartment was on a semi-busy street, and the traffic noise sometimes made it hard to sleep at night. The worst was when people would pull up to the curb outside our window at 1am with their car radios booming.

Technically since we were both self-employed, this wasn’t quite a paycheck-to-paycheck situation, but it had the same effect. We were both working hard. We just weren’t making much money… only enough to cover our basic expenses but not enough to build any safety net.

I remember feeling a bit stressed during that time. If anything bad happened, like if our car broke down and needed repairs, we were in bad shape.

We eventually got out of that situation and left it behind, not so much by taking certain actions but by shifting to a different mindset.

Here are some suggestions based on what we learned back then for others who struggle with similar financial challenges.

Take Responsibility

The first step is to assume full responsibility for your current financial situation. It doesn’t matter if someone screwed you, if an act of God put you there, or if you had a shoddy education that disadvantaged you. Sure those factors may have had a say in where you ended up, but it can’t help you to dwell on them.

I got screwed over in some bad business deals, but as long as I focused on those past problems, I couldn’t move forward. I had to let all of that go and forgive everyone and everything first.

You must assume 100% responsibility for your financial life. This doesn’t mean 85% responsibility or even 99% responsibility. If you’re going to improve your situation, you have to put the full burden of doing so squarely on your own shoulders. First and foremost, you must hold yourself responsible.

Even if you share your finances with someone else, you still have to claim 100% responsibility for your situation. There’s no splitting responsibility 50-50.

Responsibility is atomic. It’s indivisible. You can multiply it, but you can’t cut it into pieces. Either you have it, or you don’t.

Think about that for a moment. If you put a fraction of the responsibility for your situation onto someone else, you’re taking it off yourself. That’s going to work against you down the road when you use it as an excuse to slack off in a moment of weakness. If you try to lay responsibility for your situation on anyone else, you’re being irresponsible. It’s all or nothing.

I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. I know the idea of assuming responsibility may sound a bit cliche at first, but seriously this is where the vast majority of people will fail. They’ll claim 80% responsibility and figure that’s enough. It isn’t — not remotely. Get it in your mind right now that 80% is the same as 0% when it comes to responsibility. You can’t allow yourself the “out” of blaming the world, the economy, your spouse’s failings, or some other factor for their inability to get better results.

Responsibility isn’t about blaming yourself or looking to the past. It’s about taking control over your situation. It’s about realizing that you always possess response-ability — the ability to choose your response. It’s about accepting the truth that if anything is going to change, your will must be the force that changes it.

Without 100% responsibility you are utterly powerless. If you want things to change, you have to step into your power fully and completely. And you can’t do that if you remain in denial of even a smidgeon of your responsibility.

I’m not suggesting you can control every circumstance. I’m simply saying that you always have the ability to respond. Sometimes your responses may be limited or ineffective, but you still have the power to respond at all times.

I don’t care if you’re a housewife who relies on your husband for 100% of your family’s income. If you want to change your financial situation, then the responsibility for making it happen is 100% your own… not your husband’s. You aren’t some weak and powerless being. You’re a creative person. Never, ever put the blame on your spouse for not holding up his/her end of what you believe to be your financial bargain. If you don’t like the situation you’re in, then you change it. That may take the form of influencing your spouse to make some changes, or it may mean generating some income on your own. Either way, it’s your will that must fuel this change.

Put yourself in the state of accepting that if your situation is to change at all, then it’s all on you, or it will never happen.

Cut Expenses, But Don’t Overdo It

People who get themselves into a financial tight spot often focus on trying to cut their expenses. This only makes sense up to a point. I’ve seen a lot of people overdo it, which is a completely inept strategy.

If you’ve been living high on the hog, you may benefit from a round or two of cost cutting. Go ahead and eliminate the fluff. Perhaps you don’t need designer clothes or cable TV. One thing I did was to cancel all magazine subscriptions, and I also started checking out self-help products (books, audio programs, DVDs) from the local library instead of buying them. These were reasonable cuts at the time.

Unreasonable cuts are when you start reducing your quality of life, thereby trapping yourself in a scarcity mindset. If you genuinely desire to live a minimalist lifestyle, that’s fine, but don’t delude yourself into claiming that minimalism is your choice if it isn’t really what you want. If you’d prefer a more abundant lifestyle, be honest and admit that to yourself. Never pretend to want something else just because you think you can’t have what you really want.

How can you tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable cuts? Reasonable cuts make you feel better. Ahhh… nice to know I won’t have these stacks of magazines and newspapers piling up anymore. Unreasonable cuts make you feel worse. Some people say being car-free is liberating, but I really hate riding the bus just to buy groceries.

I know people that will spend two hours going out of their way just to save $5. That’s lame. You could surely earn more than $2.50 per hour panhandling on a busy street. Don’t waste your time just to save a few measley dollars. If you start doing things that would pay less than minimum wage (in terms of how much money you’ll save relative to the time you invest) or if you’re cutting your food budget to the point where you can only afford rice and beans, you’re going too far.

Cut costs to give yourself some breathing room when possible, but don’t set yourself up for long-term destitution by eliminating those things from your life that make you more effective, such as your kitchen appliances, your vehicle, and healthy food.

Take note that expenses are recurring items. When you cut expenses, you introduce long-term savings. This does not mean selling your assets to raise extra cash. Selling assets won’t cut your expenses, unless you do something like selling your video game system to end your habit of buying new video games. It’s fine if you want to cuddle eBay to raise extra cash by getting rid of stuff you really don’t need — Erin and I had a couple garage sales — but raising extra cash won’t necessarily help your ongoing cashflow situation. Unload the junk, but keep the stuff you still use.

Don’t spend an excessive amount of time fussing over your expenses. It’s not worth it. Some people really go nuts here. They buy the cheapest items they can find, and everything breaks. Going too cheap often ends up being more expensive in the long run.

You’re going to run into a hard limit on the expense side because the best you can possibly do is to get your expenses down to zero, and for most people that’s totally unrealistic and would create serious hardship. Think realistically about how much more you can actually save. There’s no point in fussing over an amount you could earn in a few hours with a lemonade stand.

It’s a lot easier in the long run to increase your income instead of cutting your expenses to the bone. You don’t have hard limits on the income side. For all practical purposes, the sky is the limit.

Make reasonable cuts in your expenses, but don’t go crazy. If you want things to improve, you’ll be devoting most of your time and energy to the income side.

Decide You Deserve Better

People essentially earn what they believe they deserve to earn. The main reason you aren’t earning more is because you know you don’t deserve it.

This is a tough thing to accept. Chances are your ego will very much dislike this idea. You may already be coming up with arguments to explain why this isn’t true. Take a deep breath, and set them aside for the moment.

Take whatever hourly figure you’re earning right now. Multiply it by 10. Then imagine yourself earning that much right now. Chances are it feels uncomfortable — maybe a bit scary, stressful, improbable, complicated, overly exciting, or just too “out there” for you to accept it as real. And that’s precisely why you aren’t earning that much. You’re making that figure into way too big a deal.

The people who are earning 10x as much as you are don’t think about that figure the same way you do. It just feels normal and natural to them. It’s not a big deal at all. One reason you aren’t there yet is that it’s still a big deal to you. If you want to get there eventually, you must reach the point in your mind where that level of income is no longer a big deal. It’s okay if it’s mildly exciting, but it shouldn’t seem so incredible that you can’t accept it as real.

When I first met Erin about 15 years ago, she was earning $9 an hour doing secretarial work — filing, typing, and stuff like that. That’s what she felt she deserved to earn. That felt normal and reasonable to her. Today her rates are about 100x higher. She now earns in one hour what it used to take her almost three weeks to earn. And yes, her clients actually pay these rates and are happy to do so.

What’s interesting is how people react to Erin’s rates. Some people look at her rates and write to her, “I was interested in booking a reading, but when I looked at your rates, I thought, ‘Whoa — no way I can afford that.’” Those people aren’t a match for Erin’s service; they can’t afford it. They can’t even imagine how Erin can charge that much.

But then there are Erin’s actual clients. Those people simply go to her order form and book a reading — no complaining or attempting to get a price reduction. To them it’s no big deal. They may have consulted with other psychics in the past and got great results from it. They may be used to these kinds of consultation rates. For the actual clients she serves, Erin’s rates are normal and reasonable.

In order for Erin to earn these higher rates, she had to go through a mental process of giving herself permission to earn that much. One thing that helped was to realize that other top psychics in her field were earning sums around this level. She watched and learned from them, and she soon realized she was at least as good as they were for doing certain types of readings. But until she went through this mental process, it freaked her out to charge anything for a reading. She had a hard time getting into the headspace of giving herself permission to receive a certain level of compensation in exchange for the value she was providing.

I wouldn’t call this a process of justifying higher incomes to yourself. It has more to do with giving yourself permission. You aren’t trying to give yourself a sales pitch here. You’re simply deciding that you want to earn more, and you’re finding a way to accept that it’s okay to do so.

When you raise your rates, you may price yourself out of one market, but you’ll price yourself into another market. For example, Erin’s clients don’t want a $15 psychic reading. They wouldn’t trust someone who only charged $15 — they’d assume she was no good. They want a reliable, accurate reading they can trust. Erin’s rates demonstrate that her work is pre-approved by the marketplace. Consequently, a reading with her is a lot less risky. Also, since Erin is attracting higher-income clients than when she first started, she now has more leverage to do good. If she can help a successful entrepreneur clarify his/her life purpose, that typically has a much greater rippling impact than helping a student decide where to go for summer vacation. The point is that you shouldn’t feel that by raising your rates, you’re providing less of a service. It’s more likely the opposite is true.

Sometimes the process you go through to give yourself permission will be fairly elaborate. It can cause a lot of rippling changes in your life. You may feel you need to take some kind of action just to reach the point where you feel you deserve to be paid more.

When I wanted to go from earning four figures a month to five figures a month, I tried to imagine myself as a five-figure-a-month guy. This was back when I was running my computer games business. The problem was that I didn’t feel I was providing a valuable enough service to deserve that level of income. I could only give myself permission by agreeing to increase my service. So I found a way to release more games in a shorter period of time, and shortly thereafter I reached my goal. It’s important to understand that this process began with giving myself permission to earn that much. I told myself it was okay, and only after that did I permit myself to make the changes necessary to manifest it.

Thinking we don’t deserve more than we’re getting is a very common stumbling block. It’s so common we don’t even notice it most of the time. We just think it’s normal to earn what we’re earning right now. But it’s only our thinking that makes it seem normal. Someone else would consider your current income a pathetic sum for the work you’re doing. Can you accept that you’re being grossly underpaid right now?

A speaker friend of mine got paid $75 for his first paid professional speech. When he was asked for his rates, that’s the price he quoted. He thought that was a lot for an hour’s work on the stage. He soon learned that pro speakers get paid a lot more than this, and he discovered that he could have asked for $1000 for that speech, and it would have been fine with the people who hired him because their budget was higher still. Last time I checked, his fees are now around $7500 per speech. But each time he raised his rates, when someone asked his what his speaking fee was, it was hard for him to get the words out without choking.

Erin has the same issue with raising her rates. She never wants to raise them — I’m always the one to push her to do so. (So yes, I’m the one to blame if you can no longer afford her.) She’s too close to the situation to realize how good she is and how much value she provides. Every time I suggest a price increase, she panics at first. She’ll say something like, “But nobody will be able to afford me. How can I possibly charge that much?” We’ve been through this a half-dozen times now, and she still has the same reaction. If she never raised her rates, she’d probably have a five-year waiting list by now. Or she’d have to stop doing private readings completely like many other top psychics have done.

The point here is that it can be helpful to get a second opinion. Hang out with people who think you deserve more, and find out why they feel that way. I’ve been fortunate to have friends in my life who pointed out to me what I should be earning and why I was being grossly underpaid. This helped me step up my income at different times.

When I first started working as a game programming contractor, I charged only $10 per hour. I was still in college at the time, so in my mind I was “just a student” and didn’t deserve anywhere close to full pay. But it turned out that I was really good at the work I was doing. Fortunately, the client company for which I was working voluntarily doubled my rate, and combined with the royalties from sales I received, I ended up earning closer to $50. You know you’re charging too little as a contractor when your client offers to double your rate on your behalf… perhaps because they just can’t stomach paying so little for quality work.

On the other hand, when I got into pro speaking, I earned several thousand dollars for my first paid speech. I didn’t have to start at the bottom rung income-wise because I’d already given myself permission to earn that much. It wasn’t a big deal to me — I allowed it to feel normal. Actually, it felt a little low compared to what I was already earning from blogging.

Top speakers get paid $20,000 per speech easy. Multiply that by 10 if you’re an ex-President, by 15 if you’re Bill Cosby. Do you think it’s a big deal for Bill Clinton to earn six figures for a single speech? Do you think he freaks out about how much money he’s making? Of course not. You and I might freak out about earning that much, but for him it’s routine.

I happen to think it’s a lot of fun to gradually raise my financial vibration. I like to go up a level, settle in for a while and fully experience it, and then work on going up the next level. I don’t regret those times when I could barely afford a meal at Taco Bell. Even back then I considered my financial life as a challenging adventure. When Erin and I first moved in together, a luxury expense was to rent a movie for 99 cents… and maybe some cheap Two-for-One pizza. We used to balk about why anyone would pay $4 to rent a movie at Blockbuster. These days a luxury expense might be a fun trip, a show on the Vegas Strip, or a relaxing day at the spa. Somewhere down the road, we might step it up again. Every level is fun to experience.

At this point your attitude may be something like, “Yeah, yeah… give myself permission. Whatever. Alright, I give myself permission to earn more. Next.” If that’s all the effort you’re going to put into this step, you can stop reading right now and give up. If you do this step correctly, it can seriously take weeks. It takes time to work through financial blocks and to give yourself full permission to step it up without clinging to excuses for holding back.

I recommend using a journal to work through this process. Start by listing why you believe you’re not earning the amount of money you’d like. Put all your excuses down in writing. Ask yourself what it would take to let go of those limiting beliefs. Are they really true? Are other people earning more even with those same stumbling blocks? Are you turning minor challenges into full-blown excuses? Ask yourself if you’re ready to experience a higher level of financial abundance. Do whatever you need to do to put yourself in a state of readiness. If you work through this mentally, it will help you get there emotionally.

Ultimately, giving yourself permission is nothing but a choice to make. You don’t actually need to satisfy tons of prerequisites to step up to a new financial level. But if you’ve already locked those prerequisites into your mind, then you will have to work through them in some fashion. Sometimes it’s easier to satisfy the beliefs you’ve already installed as opposed to uprooting and replacing them. It’s up to you to decide which beliefs are helping to sculpt you into a better person, and which ones are merely getting in your way and holding you back.

Drop the Social Dead Weight

You probably have people in your life who’ve become rather attached to your financial status quo. This doesn’t mean they’re financially dependent on you. It just means they’ve gotten comfortable with where you are now — and they’d become uncomfortable if you were to make some big changes.

If you boost your finances, other people in your life may feel they’re being left behind. Be prepared for this. It happens.

Can you identify anyone in your life right now who’d have a problem if you doubled or tripled your income? If so, you’d better deal with that up front. Either talk it through, or decide to part ways. Otherwise this person may (perhaps inadvertently) try to sabotage your financial increase, often by making negative comments that make you feel bad for earning more money.

I assure you there are plenty of people on the other side who will be happy and excited to see you improving your finances. This is especially true among entrepreneurs, but it really depends on the field you’re in. I have some friends that are very encouraging when I talk about boosting my income, but I have other friends that would feel threatened or intimidated. The difference has little to do with how much money these people are making — it has to do with their attitude toward financial increase in their own lives. Those who are encouraging invariably have a positive outlook for the future. Those who are discouraging are dissatisfied with their own financial situation.

One of the best things you can do is to make friends with people who have a positive financial outlook. It doesn’t matter how much they’re earning right now. It could be 10x more or less than you. Look for people who assume 100% responsibility for their finances — people who don’t blame others for their setbacks. Such people make good long-term friends because they won’t freak out every time you boost your income.

Again, entrepreneurs are generally a good bet here. Commissioned salespeople are another good choice. And investors (any kind) are good too. Long-term employees (salaried or hourly) usually don’t have anywhere near the same level of financial enthusiasm as these other groups. That’s why they’re willing to trade hours for dollars and donate most of the results they generate to someone else, such as an entrepreneur, salesperson, or investor. Employees are certainly generous, but usually dumb as stumps with their financial lives. :)

Increase Your Service

Money is a medium for exchanging value. If you want more money, you can create more value and/or deliver your value to more people.

One of the best ways to improve your service is by putting it into a permanent form. This way you can provide value even when you aren’t physically present.

For example, if you recite a poem to a group of 20 people, you may deliver some value to those 20 people. But that’s a one-time event. Every day you’re starting over from scratch. This is the approach that most employees use. They don’t build anything that they retain ownership of. Instead, they merely trade hours for dollars, so someone else ends up owning what they helped to build – and thereby reaps all the long-term benefits of ownership. Again, this is very generous of employees, but very unwise if you wish to get ahead financially.

Historically speaking, wealthy people have done a pretty good job convincing the masses that getting a job is the way to go. This is nothing but brainwashing though. If you get a job, you can’t complain about the wealthy growing wealthier because you’re helping them do it. You’re doing the work of building and running systems that someone else owns and controls. How does that help you in the long run? All you’re doing is tending to your master’s plantation. If you dread going to work each day and have a hard time motivating yourself, perhaps you should stop volunteering for slave labor.

Whenever I make statements like this, somebody will say, “But we have to have jobs and employees. Otherwise who would pick up the garbage?” That’s the same thing as saying, “But we need to have slaves. Otherwise who will harvest the tobacco?” Is that reason enough to serve as a slave? Perhaps we can come up with better solutions if people stop submitting to slavery. Maybe we don’t need to generate so much garbage (and tobacco) in the first place. Personally I would rather trade value with free people than with employees/slaves.

Going back to the poetry example, now consider the poet who puts his/her poem down in writing and then publishes it, perhaps on a website somewhere. Now the poem can provide value even in the absence of the poet. The poem may be enjoyed by thousands instead of just the original 20. This is how an intelligent entrepreneur thinks. Instead of trading hours for dollars, the idea is to invest your time building something that will provide enduring value, even when you aren’t physically present.

If you can provide passive value, you can generate passive income. For example, the poet could sell a collection of poetry, license his/her poems to a greeting card company in exchange for royalties, or set up a “poem of the day” subscription service and sell advertising.

If you’re currently an employee, the word “entrepreneur” may sound complicated and scary. But it’s really not a big deal to generate income from self-employment if you give yourself permission. Even high school students are generating income this way.

I recommend that you don’t start out by thinking about passive income. That’s putting the cart before the horse. Focus on creating and delivering passive value first. Create something, put it into a permanent form, and get it into people’s hands. Start small. Write an article. Write a recipe. Compose a song. Then share it as widely as you can. Then repeat over and over.

I began to understand the benefit of providing passive value when I was in high school. During my junior and senior years, I started writing some computer programs in BASIC and Turbo Pascal to explore what I was learning in my math classes — probabilities, synthetic division, polar graphs, etc. I also wrote programs for the Casio FX-7000G and FX-8000G programmable calculators, which many students in my school owned at the time. Most of these were very short programs, usually less than 20 lines of code. (Incidentally, I still have my FX-8000G today, and I occasionally write quick programs for it. Even 20 years later, it still runs great. One of Casio’s best products ever.)

To help other students with their math homework, I began making copies of these programs and passing them out at the math club. Then I noticed people outside the math club had gotten copies. I wrote a few simple games and shared those as well. Eventually one of my programs was published in the school newspaper.

How did this help me? Well, it gave me a very positive reputation in my school, among both teachers and students. I went to a Jesuit high school where academic aptitude was well-respected. When it came time for me to seek letters of recommendation for my college applications, I had a very easy time of it. I stood out from the crowd because I did something way beyond what most students did. Consequently, I got acceptance letters from some competitive schools like UCLA, UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Cal Tech. But the truth is that I wrote those programs just because I enjoyed creating and sharing them, not because I was trying to get something out of it. Focus on the giving side, and the getting takes care of itself.

If you’re currently struggling with your finances, I know you’ll be tempted to focus on the money side first, but I implore you not to do that. Put your attention on the side of creating and sharing. You must give before you get.

Share something you enjoy creating. Put it onto some kind of tangible media, and pass it around.

I know of many successful software businesses that started because some guy wrote a cool program and shared it with his friends. Then his friends shared it with others. Pretty soon, he started getting support requests from total strangers and had to start charging for the program. This is basically how shareware was born. Put something out there for free, and see how far it goes. If people like it, they’ll share it.

People have opened restaurants the same way. They started sharing their recipes with friends, and eventually they’re encouraged to open a restaurant and share their food with a lot more people.

It really is this simple. Don’t overcomplicate it.

I like writing articles, so that’s something I choose to share. When I started this website about 4-1/2 years ago, I only earned $167 total during the first six months. Why? I was focused on sharing value, not on making money. Eventually people started giving me all sorts of ideas to monetize my work. I also reached the point where I had to turn it into a viable business because it was taking up more time and energy and becoming more popular. 18 months later, the site was earning more than $40,000 in a month. So again, don’t worry about the income side. If you get the value side right, the income side will typically take care of itself. It’s really not that difficult to generate a decent income if you can provide a lot of value at low cost. So focus, focus, focus on the value side. The simple truth is that most people who are struggling financially just aren’t creating and delivering much value. Maybe you can convince people to pay you for nothing, but that isn’t an approach I feel good about.

Putting your work into a permanent form is very important. If you don’t do this, you’ll have to keep recreating your value over and over. That takes you back to the employee mindset. Even if you’re technically self-employed, you’ll merely be creating a job for yourself.

If you browse the archives on this website, you’ll find many articles about specific ways to increase your service, especially from Nov and Dec 2007.

Build Your Own Distribution Network

Some of my friends who are pro speakers earn a lot for every speech they give, but they have to constantly market themselves, travel, and customize presentations for different audiences. Many of them love speaking, but being on the road 150-200 days per year takes its toll after a while.

I work in the same general field as many of these speakers do, but instead of giving a speech to a limited number of people, I put my work online, so it’s always accessible. Even my friends who have products to sell will see their income drop when they aren’t speaking frequently, but I can maintain my income pretty well on just a few hours per week — no travel required.

Note that these friends do have products to sell. They record their speeches and workshops and create CDs and DVDs. The problem is that they never took the time to build a network to sell a decent volume of products when they aren’t speaking. Most of them have websites with low traffic and newsletters with few subscribers. So they have to keep pounding the pavement to stay afloat — if they stop speaking, they start hurting financially.

If you want to escape the rat race, it’s a good idea to build your own distribution network. My favorite way to do this is to give away value for free. People love free — if it’s good quality free.

Building a good distribution network isn’t that hard these days. I think the best way to do it is by building a website because online solutions are very cheap compared to the alternatives. My speaker friends have to fly all around the world to distribute their value. I just click “Publish.”

The current solution I recommend for most people looking to build a website is Site Build-It. Follow that link if you wish to read my review of the service and why I recommend it. If you’re very technically savvy, you won’t need this service, but it’s great for those who don’t understand the ins and outs of Internet marketing and want someone to guide them through it step by step.

Shift Your Mindset

In order to move beyond living paycheck to paycheck, you have to shift your mindset first. If you get your mind right, the right actions will follow. If you remain stuck in the wrong mindset, it doesn’t matter how hard you try to escape – you’ll just stay locked in the same cage. You might even make things worse.

What helped me most was realizing that I’m not doing anyone much good by holding myself back financially. How does limiting my income actually help anyone? All it does is make it harder for me to create and share value. It kills my ability to serve others. I’m certainly able to help a lot more people today than I did when I was just scraping by. I can share from a place of abundance instead of scarcity.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “If you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine.”

If you resent the work you’re doing or the situation you’re in, you’re poisoning the outcome. You may actually be doing more harm than good. If you’re just scraping by and feeling poorly about it, you’re probably not doing the noblest of work anyway. It’s not like the world needs you to be broke.

The only person who can step it up is you. Do you want to keep living at your current level, or are you ready to level up?


Steve Recommends
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