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The Case Against Minimalism

   Posted On: November 4, 2013  |    Posted In: Millennials  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

Or in other words, Why I Am Not a Minimalist

If you were to walk through my front door at this moment you would immediately assume one of two things. One, I had recently been robbed or two, I take the minimalism mantra to heart. Well, you know what they say about assuming. While my sparsely furnished apartment, with no TV stand and stools for side tables, appears minimalist, I may be one of the few personal finance bloggers who will actively speak out against the wave of minimalism that has taken root.

You may be thinking, if I don’t have much “stuff” how can I claim to buck the minimalist trend? I say so because my lifestyle goals are not aligned with the minimalism agenda.

The reason I don’t have much “stuff” is because my mother gave me the sage advice to be able to pack all my belongings into the back of a car until I’m ready to settle down. While I still embrace my nomadic spirit, I keep moving costs down my combating the natural inclination to “nest” in my apartment. My mother also told me not to waste my money on junk furniture and instead slowly build up possessions with quality purchases that will last decades, if not a lifetime. Instead of sinking my greenbacks into the money-pit that is Ikea furniture, I’m subscribing to her wisdom.

Many of those who joined the minimalism march will lecture about cutting out anything that isn’t an absolute necessity, rejecting products purely because of their convenience, constantly combating your desire the indulge and to view splurge as a four-letter word.

To me, this advice is only practical to a select few who feel innately called to transcend earthly possessions, instead of providing realistic advice for those of us who practice the unholy acts of indulging in life’s consumer-oriented pleasures.

Perhaps some will seek to revoke my personal finance blogger status, but I enjoy getting an occasional manicure and find value in paying for my eyebrows to be professionally waxed. Do I search for deals and use customer loyalty cards and coupons to get the best deals? Absolutely. Do I find it worth the $230 a year it costs for me to have these indulgences. Yes.

There are people who will genuinely be content living in a small cottage, on a self-sustained farm in the middle-of-nowhere. This woman isn’t one of them. Just as it’s irrational for me to pitch my lifestyle ideals to a sparse-living hippie in Washington, he (or she) can’t expect me to give up the the lifestyle goals I strive to achieve.

Living a small-town life is not appealing to me as a lifestyle, and as I prefer to live in major cities I will incur a far greater cost of living than those who appreciate the charm of knowing most of your neighbors.

Some of the minimalists out there use the tactic to achieve their version of financial independence or early retirement. There is of course nothing wrong with either goal and there are two ways to achieve both — spend less or earn more. Clearly, a lot of people agree with the spend less mentality.

However, early retirement shackles you to a certain way of living.

For those who have embraced minimalism and plan to never live in an area with a high cost of living, it’s possible to raise a family on $40,000 to $80,000. For those of us who dream of owning property in a major city, sending children to private schools and of going on excursions around the world that don’t involve hostels, $80,000 a year is an unrealistic amount of money to raise a family on.

Granted, there are those who mean more of a “career shift” when they say retire early. Instead of a complete absence of income, they would rather not have to rely on the steady paycheck from a 9-to-5. They’ll still generate revenue through passion projects or a small business.

If my version of the American dream is to own a plantation home on acres of land, stay in five star hotels when I travel and use wealth to make a change in my community, then I’ll be motivated to make the financial moves to enable my dream comes true. Even if my dream means having a career and not retiring in a decade at the ripe-young-age of 34. Luckily for me, I’m also early in my career with no children or husband to factor into my decisions. I can make career changes, find a place I’m happy working, or start a business without a drastic impact on another person’s life.

Minimalist may say I’m a slave to consumerism because I dream about certain expensive items, but as long as I’m generating the income to buy what I want without incurring any debt or hindering my (hypothetical) family’s future, no one is in a position to judge how I choose to spend my money.

For newer readers, it is important to note that I have no debt. I made my college decision based on graduating debt free and thus don’t carry any student loans. I live in New York City as a renter, so there isn’t a mortgage payment I need to factor into my budget. I recognize this does give me a distinct advantage when it comes to not living a minimalist lifestyle.

To that end, minimalists and I do agree on one point: one should not go into debt, nor dig deeper into the red to “Keep up with the Jonses.”

To those who practice and preach minimalism, I do respect your dedication to a difficult lifestyle choice. To those who crave the “finer things” in life, there is at least one personal-finance-oriented blogger who understands and supports your choice. But do understand wanting expensive, luxury items does come at the cost of hard work, a dedication to saving, investing, making tough decisions, staying out of debt and prioritizing what is truly worth your money.

And let the spirited debate begin in the comment section!


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67 responses to “The Case Against Minimalism

  1. I don’t think you have to choose between being a minimalist or a vapid consumer. Many people find their style to be somewhere in between.

    I pay to get my hair done, my eyebrows threaded, etc. I also like nice clothes and like to have nice things in my home. At the same time, I love living in a smallish town because I’m cheap. I would never want to pay to live in a big city. If I was in the mood for a big city experience, I would just visit one =)

    1. I agree that you don’t have to be one of the extremes. I’m also an example of indulging, but staying frugal when I need to be. I really aimed to stand against the extremism and let people know it’s okay to live a little and still consider yourself fiscally responsible.

  2. I think Holly hit the nail on the head, we can all go home now 😉 Seriously, I do agree that living somewhere in between the two extremes of “have nothing, be free” and “buy ALL the stuff!” is probably where most of us are happiest planting our flag. Although I will say, on the scale of minimalist to mass consumer, I think it’s better to be closer to the minimalist side of things. Stuff can only do so much for us.

    1. It’s not wrong to want “stuff” or to buy “stuff” either. I certainly live in the happy medium place because (as my apartment clearly exemplifies) I don’t hoard or buy, buy, buy.

      Certainly don’t want to have a house that could be on a scary episode of Hoarders!

  3. I think there are good and bad things about the “minimalism” movement. Sometimes having a lot of stuff or a house that has an extra guest room or heck, even an art studio (a dream of mine) can become a hassle to maintain and can hurt you financially if you don’t have the proper funds to pay for it. On the other hand, sometimes there are things that can make life easier. If you had a separate room for guests you could invite people into your home more often. If you had an art studio you could have a space to relax and relieve stress. Good for you for taking a hard stance on this.

    1. Throw a futon in the art studio and it could be a guest room and relaxation space!

      Thanks for the support, DC.

  4. Hmm, I think the bigger issue is that minimalism in itself is sort of a luxury. While someone with money and resources could choose to donate/toss all unnecessary belongings or forgo something convenient–because they have the free time to do it themselves–it would definitely be a difficult lifestyle for anyone who is lower-income. A single parent working two jobs may not have time the spare time to even consider luxuries like “self-sustained farming,” and a lower-income person/family may not be able to risk throwing something out, especially if it’s something they could potentially reuse, or can’t afford to buy again if they end up needing it down the road. It’s lower stakes for a wealthy person to get rid of all their “extras” because if they realize they need something, they can simply replace that item. Plus, a wealthier person is able to easily invest in more durable, quality goods, while even if a lower-income person realizes that that makes the most sense long-term, they might not be able to front the money for that higher-end item. Minimalism is just not practical for a lot of people.

    1. All really excellent points. I was going to get into how I don’t find it worth my time and energy to grow my own crops, make my own jam, etc etc. But I was getting too wordy as it was! Thanks for bringing these great factors into the discussion.

  5. I wished you lived closer because I’d be happy to give you some old furniture to tide you over until you can afford the quality stuff you want. I will say that taste changes and sometimes it is a burden to be stuck with an elaborate oak bedroom set that you feel guilty getting rid of. Thankfully I am not one of those people but I know quite a few… So choose your furniture investments wisely. I will also say that wants and needs change as your lifestyle changes. All my friends who lived in NYC did eventually move to a house in the suburbs, as much as they swore they never would. There comes a time if you have kids when you want more space. I never thought we’d end up in a house like the one we just bought but dang, it sure is awesome with kids. And being in the other Manhattan makes it affordable. Other than our house, we have no debt and let’s remember… this debt is tax deductible which we find very useful. We lived the simple life through med school and residency years, did not accumulate credit card debt and drove practical cars (and still do!). So now we are reaping the rewards of that. Your lifestyle will pay off someday and these habits you are ingraining will serve you well. Great work!!!

    1. I wish I lived closer too! I’d cherry pick a bunch of your furniture.

      I know I won’t be in NYC forever, but I do enjoy city living for now and the foreseeable future. I also like slightly more affordable cities like Atlanta or Nashville… 🙂

  6. I think minimalism is in the eyes of the beholder. I live in a big city with a high cost of living, but I don’t buy expensive furniture and other home decor, and live a very clutter-free life, however I love my pedicures, meeting friends for happy hour, etc. too. I think it’s about really “valuing” your purchases instead of just buying crap for the sake of buying it. That is my definition of minimalism.

    1. I wish your definition was more widely accepted. That to me is what it means to be fiscally responsible. Evaluating your purchases and prioritizing what you’ll sacrifice if you want to live in a major city.

  7. Great article and definitely good to hear the other side of minimalism, you make some great points! I have spent way to much time buying junk furniture and I see that now. Good luck me fitting my apartment into the back of the car haha

    1. Thanks! I also moved around a decent amount as a kid so I had practical experience with the pain of having clutter and too much “stuff.”

  8. I prefer investing in quality furniture rather than the “disposable” crap that comes from IKEA (which has THE WORST customer service by the way). It’s kind of how I feel about clothes. I can keep buying crappy stuff that’ll wear and tear or invest in something that maintains it’s quality.
    I don’t do manicures or threading but I understand the decision. It’s all personal. As long as there is some picking and choosing and not splurging to buy everything, I think we’re all alright.

    1. I do the same with clothes too. I appreciate buying quality and have many staple pieces that have lasted me years as a result. I also try to be gentle on my clothes too.

      Good to know about Ikea’s customer service. I’ve never shopped there, but heard too many horror stories.

  9. Very early retirees (like me!) can be seen as the ultimate anti-minimalists. After all, why would you accumulate a seven figure investment portfolio in your 30’s? To be able to enjoy a life of consumption and voluntary idleness (work when and where you want to, if at all).

    I think you are actually a minimalist in the sense that I’m an environmentalist. I’m no tree hugger at all. However when I look at how I live and what I buy, I realize being thrifty makes me appear to be an environmentally conscious consumer. Owning a modest house, driving fuel efficient cars, keeping “junk” purchases to a minimum, walking to many destinations. I don’t do “buy local” for food. At least not intentionally. But the least expensive produce on sale is often locally grown (low transport costs = low price on shelf for the consumer).

    I look at your first pic in this post and say “yep, you appear to be a minimalist” even though your motivations are merely practical. Keeping stuff to a minimum makes sense. It keeps you agile and lets you move when necessary to keep chasing your dreams. No one adheres to every tenet of minimalist perfectly, but it appears you have adopted some aspects of minimalism, at least in practice!

    Great post though, as it makes you think about labels (minimalism? early retiree?) and what your beliefs and values are.

    1. The early retirees tend to be the ones the really push minimalism (or what they define as minimalism). I read so many posts about not indulging, splurging or buying “luxury” so you can retire early.

      Having seven figures, but retiring at 34 (and having no income other than your investments/savings) inherently means living off a low salary and bucking consumerism, as outlined above.

      I agree with your assessment that I may be some people’s definition of a minimalist, but I prefer to call it fiscally responsible. I’m not in the extremist camp (like you say you aren’t a tree hugger).

  10. Amen, Erin! In some ways, I consider myself a minimalist in that I always try to make mindful purchases, so the things I buy I truly need or want, rather than buying it just because I can. 🙂 Like you said, it boils down to knowing what you want and being okay with that. Some people are willing to live extremely frugal lives in order to retire young. Good for them! Whereas others are not. Good for them too! Neither is better. You have to do what is right for you and respect that others may choose a different way. This is what people sometimes forget. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Shannon! Respecting the other side’s decision is probably the ultimate point of this post. I just started getting irked by how much the minimalism mantra was pushed in our community and wanted to stand up for those you feel differently.

  11. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with either way. I think personal finance is, at it’s heart, about prioritizing things you value. So if you value having a big sprawling plantation over more time in retirement or semi-retirement, then so be it.

    As for minimalism, I do find it aesthetically pleasing to not have stuff sitting around, up on the walls, and so forth — always have, actually. Even if I had significantly more money, I doubt there would be many things sitting around.

    For example, the bedroom in this picture, with its open space, unfinished wood, sparse — possibly functional — art on the walls, is near ideal for me:

    I don’t think preferring minimalism has any more to do with my values than any other aesthetic preference — having blue as a favorite color, for example.

    1. It’s not my bedroom, it’s my living room 🙂

      I don’t like much clutter either, and I like your assessment at the end of you preferring minimalism like you prefer the color blue instead of in an attempt to save a ton of money.

  12. I like the advice from your mom. I am not buying any furniture until we settle down for a while, either. There’s no telling what kind of space we will eventually settle into, and I don’t want to buy crappy filler furniture. I really like the idea of being able to pack up and go with all your belongings. I definitely can’t fit all the things I own into my car, but ideally I’ll get there soon.

    I wouldn’t say I’m a minimalist in the complete sense; I just want to be clutter-free. There are a lot of things in my apartment that don’t get used on a daily basis and are wasting away. I get no joy out of them being there. I will pay for things that matter to me (mostly experiences), but I am often content with the little things in life. I am trying to be happy with less for now, especially with a lower salary and trying to pay off my student loans.

    1. Similar to what Debt Blag mentioned above, some people just prefer the decorating aesthetic to not have clutter. Not because it’s a “minimalism” agenda, but because that’s what they prefer. Nothing wrong with that!

  13. Interesting post, Erin. I was actually somewhat unaware of the “minimalism” movement until now. Speaking personally, I’ve definitely become pretty adverse to having a lot of clutter in my life and I routinely find myself paring down my possessions to the ones that matter and will last. Like you, I’d rather take my time and accumulate nice, well-made clothing or furniture. (I haven’t been to an H&M in years) even if it means I accumulate at a slower rate than other people or have fewer outfits to choose from.

    The one area where I differ (and I suppose everyone’s take on this will vary to considerable degrees) is owning property. This is the sole aspect of minimalism that’s affected me quite profoundly. I enjoy having the resources to live in nice places in interesting neighborhoods, but living through the housing bubble and recession has pretty much deglamorized home ownership for me. Of course, I’m single and childless, which makes this easier to say. But still, I like the freedom and relative financial safety that leasing allows you, and I probably will for many years to come.

    1. The minimalist movement is incredibly popular in the personal finance community.

      I agree that I’ll stay a renter for now, but I see value in home ownership (depending on location) as a financial assets in the future. That also factors in a family and what not. Not sure I’d be interested in owning a rental property, but it’s a thought for the future.

      The rise of renters has really been a Millennial trend.

    1. Ehhh, I don’t like displaying private documents and some things are seasonal (ie: Christmas tree)!

      But yes, I get the quote.

  14. Interesting topic! I’m an interior designer, so the concept of Minimal living isn’t new to me: Less is More, and all that. And the Scandinavians seem to have that concept down, in general. Hence, IKEA – which I used to hate (conformity! mass production! yuk!). But I also used to be settled down in a 3000sq.ft house with a mortgage , furnished with an impressive list of Design brands… and then my boyfriend and I broke up, and it all wasn’t worth a thing. Back then, I also wore designer labels, money wasn’t at all an issue.
    Now, I live in a tiny, cozy New York apartment that I rent and furnished (very basic) with IKEA furniture. I don’t have a TV, but I splurged an a decent juicer. I’ll buy a decent pair of jeans, but I’ll shop for trends at H&M and Zara. I can spend money on a timeless dress, but not on the next it-bag. I think it’s all about finding a balance, and be comfortable with it. And understand that life changes constantly, you only have the present moment that’s certain.

    1. My IKEA issue is more that “breakability” factor. If you need a table and can’t afford a bit one, spend $200 to hold you over. I get that. But I don’t want all my furnishings to be cheap furniture that won’t last long. I’d rather build slowly over time. But, it’s just a personal preference.

  15. Echoing a comment from above – minimalism can definitely be a privilege. Also, what do we assume to be “minimalist”? A man who owns 200 books in paperbacks is not less “minimalist” than someone with the same # of books on a Kindle. There has to be a happy medium.

    1. As evidenced in all these comments, minimalism certainly means different things to different folks. My point was more on the deny, deny, deny mentality coming from the PF community. It’s okay to splurge every-so-often (especially if you can afford it).

  16. Sadly, I can point to quite a few Target / Ikea furniture items in the apartment. B didn’t share my view on not needing shelves and stuff. I’d much rather prefer to get quality furniture if we need something but want to hold off until we have a more permanent residence. I like solid wood things, they hold together better and can be fixed easier should something break.

    1. I live in Astoria and pay $1,000 per month. It was $950 when I moved in and stayed that way for two years. This is my third year in the same apartment and it bumped to $1,000. My roommate also pays $1,000.

  17. I’m not a huge minimalism enthusiast either, but I do like the thought of simplicity. I think it’s overlooked a lot. Minimalism doesn’t always equal simplicity, and simplicity doesn’t always equal minimalism though.

    1. I 100% agree with you. I don’t like a lot of clutter, but I don’t feel that makes me a minimalist either.

  18. I practiced your Mom’s philosophy until I got married and settled in for what I knew would be a while. There is something to be said about owning only enough to fit into your car, but I’ve never been a minimalist. I think it’s impossible with a 6 year old. The amount of art and craft stuff she makes would negate any minimalist movement in itself. I have also seen what life is like when you buy stuff for the sake of buying it, so I never want to go back to that, but I like the stuff we have and I have no plans to downsize. At least until we get our Airstream and start traveling around the country in about 10 years!

    1. My stuffed animal collection alone would’ve sent any minimalist running for the hills. I loved those things! (Well, I still have some).

  19. What you are describing is extreme minimalism to me.

    I’m a minimalist but I am not into keeping things at a minimum at the cost of my own convenience. I own lots of clothes (more than the average woman probably), and spend a lot of money on clothing every year… but I don’t have any furniture simply because I don’t see a value in it.

    You can read more about how I see minimalism here.

  20. I like what you said about buying quality things. It’s very tempting to run out and fill your house with things so it looks like a house every time you move. I am a big fan of random finds in the alleyway and the free section on craigslist. My two counter stools next to me are freebies of craigslist and you’d never know the difference. Well written article 🙂

    1. I know I should creep on the free section of Craigslist more. I’d be more of a dumpster diver if I didn’t have such a big worry of bringing bed bugs into my home!

  21. To me, it’s important for people to understand what it is that truly makes their life enjoyable. For some people, that will be living with as little as possible. For others, it will mean having the money to spend on luxuries. For many others it will be somewhere in between. There is not inherent good or bad approach. The bad approach is doing it one way simply because you’re trying to copy someone else’s happy life (or what at least is presented as a happy life). You have to make your own.

    One problem I have with the constant focus on frugality/minimalism is that it can be a limiting mindset. If you’re constantly focusing on how to cut back, it becomes very difficult to flip that around and ALSO think about how you can move forward. There’s obviously value in cutting back on certain things, like paying $100 per month for cable when you can replace 90% of it for $8 per month. But if that’s your constant focus, you miss out on the opportunities to expand your life by bringing more good things into it. Life can’t be all about cutting out the bad things.

    1. Very well said, Matt.

      There are some great ways to cut costs (cable being one of my favorites too), but sometimes when you have money it can be good to spend it too. It is indeed all about prioritizing.

  22. When I was in the financial services industry, I was surprised at how diverse people’s goals were. I learned that it really doesn’t matter how you reach your goals as long as you do. Minimalism is a great way for people to reach their goals, but that doesn’t have to be the only way.

  23. Enjoy the path to maximalism! It’s an inevitability the longer you stay at one place.

    It sure does feel great to get bags of stuff and donate things away.

    1. Even though I don’t have a ton of stuff, I still go through purging bouts. Still have to be able to pack it all into the back of a car!

  24. For me, two main reasons why I’m sort of a minimalist is due to growing up in a house full of stuff/antiques and a basement filled with more stuff,(My parents have a hard time getting rid of things. Almost everything is of sentimental value), and just being plain lazy.:P If I buy decor to hang on walls and to put on tables, it’s just more stuff that collects dust and has to be cleaned. We have the basics in our house, which we may upgrade to better quality in the near future, but are fine with for now. I feel like our house has more space because there isn’t a lot stuff in it.

    1. Amazing how much of an impact than can make on us. My Mom hates clutter, so I tend to feel the need to purge my things a few times a year so there isn’t much clutter around.

  25. I totally agree with investing in high-quality furniture. sometimes that investment doesn’t even have to be that much. For example, My parents gave me their old dining room set that they bought when they were first married (30+years ago). The set is rock solid and has a really cool mid-century style. Yes if has some scratches and ware but I just think that gives the set character. We will have it for many years to come. Price? Free!

    1. Shopping at estate sales seems like another great way to get quality at a better value. Lucky you with that dining room set!

  26. My mantra, whatever makes one happy and helps them achieve their life and financial goals. At the end of the day, what use would it be to be a minimalist and miserable at the “lack” of some items.
    It also changes with time…am a “minimalist” now because I crave the mobility it affords me and the freedom to live a fairly nomadic life…when I settle, am sure it’ll be different and I’ll probably end up buying stuff necessary for that phase of life.

    1. As long as they’re achieving their financial goals legally.

      I agree with being a minimalist in terms of furniture while moving around. Makes life easier. But I still spend money when I travel and I splurge on things every-so-often that the extreme minimalists wouldn’t be digging.

  27. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a “minimalist movement”?

    A few thoughts; as you get older, “things” will be much less important to you. I value experiences, family, and friends far more than stuff (and I’m not really a minimalist).

    You appear to be a minimalist by default!

    You should seriously consider moving to a lower cost city. An $80,000/year salary is a very high income for about 90% of the USA. NYC is a nice place to visit for vacations, etc., but for overall “quality of life,” there are so many better places to live.

    1. It’s pretty common movement to read about in the personal finance community and to a degree, Millennial focused blogs.

      I do feel you’ve misunderstood some of what I’ve said. I do value experiences and hence have a willingness to pay for travel, good meals, going to shows with friends etc. But those who are dedicated to extreme saving would cut a lot of those things out. The need to explain it being “okay to have things” was a reaction to many extreme posts stating otherwise.

      $80,000 is a decent amount of money in lower-cost cities, but if you have a larger family it still isn’t a high income (in my opinion).

      Quality of life also depends on what you value. I enjoy the culture of city life and wouldn’t be as happy in a smaller community, thus would have a lower quality of life.

      1. I understand you are seeking a balance.

        NYC is not the only place with “city culture.” Anyway, you did mention that you may like Atlanta:

        An Atlanta move would greatly increase your overall quality of life in my opinion (and no, I’m not trying to specifically sell Atlanta). Much lower cost of living. It would give you so many more options.

        I enjoyed your post.

          1. Thanks for looking out, Paul! I’ve been to Chicago a few times and enjoy the city for visits. Weather-wise, I’m not sure I’d want to set up shop there. Atlanta is certainly more of an option for post-NYC life.

            Chicago is a great location for those interested in acting and want a cheaper CoL to NYC or LA.

            And with no offense to Ms. Kelle Hampton, but I’m pretty sure both LA and San Francisco would take offense to Chicago trying to take the #2 spot! 🙂

          2. FYI: Chicago has historically known as the “Second City.”

            You never heard of Second City Comedy Club? Many famous comedians have passed through there!


            Actually, culture wise, architecture, & energy level; Chicago is considered to be more New York City, East Coast like. L.A. & San Francisco are far different in both appearance and culture (and very expensive!).

  28. I really enjoyed your post and I agree that minimalism is not for everyone. For one, “necessities of life” is too objective. For example, I find Starbucks coffee a completely waste of money, but others view it as their simple indulgence and find value in it. Neither are right or wrong. Similarly, I live in a condo in the city and pay a premium for it; many of my friends love their giant houses and suburban yards don’t think it’s worth living in the city.

    I am not a minimalist- I like things too much- but I am trying to live more simply, being mindful of my spending by evaluating what are necessities to me. Ultimately I am trying to spend money on what I find value as opposed to not spending at all or spending too much.

    1. Thanks, Emily. It is subjective, no argument there.

      I do see a difference in living simply and living as a minimalist. There are times they overlap, but minimalist to me is more of a deliberate act of denial while simplicity is about evaluating the ROI of a purchase, as you mention.

  29. I think minimalism means different things to different people. To me, it’s about not buying things I don’t need. I’ll pay a little more for things I need, if it’s better quality. And, I still want to stay in better quality hotels when I travel.

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