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Money Management

There are so many different ways to organize, prioritize, and classify your tasks and responsibilities. You’d probably need a couple years just to sort through all of them on your own. You can have an organizer on your computer, your phone, in your pocket, or a notebook. If you’re short of paper, you can just scribble on your hand.

Even with all of the new ways to get organized, the most effective tool for me is still the simple, classic “To Do” list. My to-do list is nothing fancy, just a list of things that I need to accomplish. For some reason, though, this list motivates me to be smart with my time and get things done.

One of the reasons these lists are so effective is because they help you define what needs to be done. One of my favorite things to put at the top of a to-do list is “start a to-do list” — that way I can cross something out right away! Nothing like building momentum right off the bat.

In fact, checklists are so powerful that they inspired an excellent book, The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

This principle can be applied in any aspect of life. You can use a to-do list at work, at home, or even in relation to different goals you have. My wife and I even have a sort of ‘Financial To-Do List,’ covering our money goals. It has helped us get started and avoid wasting time.

A to-do list is particularly power when it comes to finances.

The Benefits of a Financial Checklist

Stay Organized

The list helps us know what bills need to be paid and when they’re due, what major tasks or purchases we might have coming up, and — perhaps most importantly — when we’re going to be paid. A well-defined to-do list answers all of the questions about what needs to be done and when. This helps you use your time more effectively.

Get More Done

Because we’re using our time more effectively, we can use time in more productive ways. For example, we might have spent hours poring over our budget or trying to find the electric bill. Instead, our newfound organization allows us to avoid these little time wasters and streamlines the process. We can get back to making money, fine-tuning our savings strategies, and looking for new ways to cut back. Or, we can quit thinking about money altogether and just go enjoy ourselves for a bit.

Meet Your Goals

We have all sorts of tasks on our list, both big and small. An easy way to design a strategy like this (if you’re using a word processing program or a notebook) is to use a list:

  • Big Goal 1
  • Little Goal A
  • Little Goal B
  • Big Goal 2

For example, if your big goal is to save $1,000 for your emergency fund, your To-Do list could look like this:

  • Save $1,000 Emergency Fund
  • Save $75 from each bi-weekly paycheck for 4 months ($600)
  • Take lunch to work 2/wk for 4 months and add savings ($25/wk) to emergency fund

See how easy that is? Now you’ve got a goal, and you know exactly what you need to do for it! Of course, you can substitute in anything you like.

The beauty of these lists is that they are completely scalable — that is, they grow with you. If you finish your emergency savings goal, you can just start your next goal: “Pay off car debt” or whatever it is on the next line. Figure out how you’re going to do it, and break the big “to-do” down into smaller tasks. Then, you’re well on your way to leveraging your simple list as an effective financial tool.

The Financial Checklist

Your specific to-do list will depend on your circumstances. That said, here are some Financial Checklist ideas to get you started:

Money Management Checklist

  • Create a budget
  • Compare your budget to actual spending
  • Balance your checkbook
  • Balance your credit card account
  • Conduct a spending audit

Credit & Debt Checklist

  • Check your credit score (here’s how)
  • Check your credit report for errors
  • Refinance credit card debt to 0% (here are current 0% offers)
  • Consider refinancing school loans
  • Consider refinancing a mortgage
  • Use the debt avalanche to pay down your debt

Banking & Credit Cards

  • Eliminate checking account fees
  • Confirm that your savings account offers a high yield (here are some options)
  • Set up direct deposit
  • Make sure your credit cards pay excellent rewards (here are our favorite cash back cards)


  • Check the fees of your investments
  • Confirm your asset allocation aligns with your investment goals
  • Rebalance your portfolio
  • Max out your 401k
  • Max out your IRA
  • Consider an HSA if you have a high deductible insurance plan


You don’t need anything special to start a to-do list. You can put it on a piece of paper in your wallet, a whiteboard in your kitchen, or keep it on your phone or computer. The “Financial To-Do” list is a completely customizable, easy-to-use money (and life) tool for anyone.

That being said, there is one free tool worth considering: Asana. Asana is a free online tool that tracks tasks. It allows you to create a team and assign tasks to team members. For couples, it can be a great way to share, save, delegate, and organize information on anything.

There are several reasons why Asana is perfect for a financial checklist:

  • It’s free
  • It’s easy to use
  • Tasks can be scheduled to recur on a regular basis (e.g., rebalance your investments once a year)
  • You can attach spreadsheets and other files to a task
  • You can leave comments for each task, perfect for communicating with your significant other

However you approach a Financial Checklist, and whatever tools you use, it can be a great way to improve your finances over the next year.


The low interest rates offered by even the highest-yield savings and money market accounts are disappointing for savers. Even as the Fed starts to raise rates, savings account yields haven’t budged. So, do we just give up the idea of earning anything on our savings?


Well, not necessarily. One alternative is to create what’s called a CD Ladder.

If you don’t want to tie your short-term cash in a riskier investment, you can consider certificates of deposit (CDs). Typically, CDs carry penalties if you withdraw your cash before they mature. In other words, you will want to invest in a CD designated with a length of time that represents when you would like to get your money back (plus interest). If you need to liquidate the CD early, a bank may take away some or all of the interest that has accrued since the time of the deposit.

In addition, the longer the CD is held, the higher the interest rate you’ll earn. A 5-year CD, for example, will pay a much higher yield than a 12-month CD. The downside, of course, is that you are much more likely to liquidate a 5-year CD in an emergency, losing money to the penalty most banks charge for early withdrawals.

By using a CD ladder, however, you can get the higher rates that accompany longer terms, while also reducing the risk that you’ll need to liquidate a CD before it matures.

So, how does it work?

The strategy is simple. You will initially buy a number of CDs, all with staggered maturity dates. Every few months, one of the CDs will mature and you can then roll that cash into a new CD (or use the cash for your short-term expense needs). Eventually, you will only need to buy CDs with the longest maturities, but the constant maturation of certificates will continue. This provides you with a rolling source of interest and/or principal, which you can use or reinvest depending on your finances at the time.

The process consists of two phases. For this example, we’ll use the latest rates from online banks, which often do not have a minimum balance requirement.

Setting up the CD Ladder

These are the CD products and interest rates we will be dealing with. These are example rates, so check with your bank to determine the interest you’ll earn.

Duration APY
3 Month 0.30%
6 Month 0.60%
9 Month 0.64%
12 Month 1.05%
2 Year 1.30%
3 Year 1.50%
4 Year 1.40%
5 Year 1.65%

We can use this combination of maturities to create a ladder that provides us with a roll-over, or a chance to withdraw part of the cash, every three months. During Phase 1, this will require a combination. By Phase 2, though, all CDs will be of the 5-year maturity, which usually offers the highest interest rates. Remember that five years is as long as you want to go with the CD ladder. If you have funds that you can afford to part with for more than five years, you should look at investing them in a slightly riskier (and more lucrative) investment.

Alright, let’s get started. Assume that we have $10,000 that we’d like to begin rolling into certificates of deposit. Since the longest we want to go is five years, we can split this evenly over time at $2,000 per year. Our shortest maturity is three months, so we can tackle this in terms of $500 a quarter.

In the first phase, start on day zero by buying CDs with the following maturities:

  • $500 in the 3 month CD
  • $500 in the 6 month CD
  • $500 in the 9 month CD
  • $2,000 in the 12 month CD
  • $2,000 in the 2 year CD
  • $2,000 in the 3 year CD
  • $2,000 in the 4 year CD
  • $500 in the 5 year CD

At the end of the each of the first three quarters, withdraw each quarter’s $500 plus interest and use the funds to buy new 5 year CDs. For the sake of the example, we’ll withdraw the interest and place it in another bank account to use as income. To make more of your money, you should “reinvest” your interest each quarter.

Watch out for automatic renewal. At Ally Bank, for example, CDs are automatically renewed for the same duration when they mature. During this stage, you will need to be proactive to withdraw the funds at maturity and use them to buy the next appropriate CD.

After one year of doing the above, this is what we have:

  • $2,000 maturing today (original 12 month CD)
  • $2,000 maturing in one year (original 2 year CD)
  • $2,000 maturing in two years
  • $2,000 maturing in three years
  • $500 maturing in four years
  • $500 maturing in four years, three months
  • $500 maturing in four years, six months
  • $500 maturing in four years, nine months

With the $2,000 maturing today, buy:

  • $500 in the 3 month CD
  • $500 in the 6 month CD
  • $500 in the 9 month CD
  • $500 in the 5 year CD

Do the same with the $2,000 that matures each year until you have a total of 20 CDs, each maturing every quarter for the next five years. Once this process is complete, you can allow the automatic renewals to take effect, except for when you need to withdraw your money.

Drawbacks of the CD ladder

As long as rates for long-term CDs remain higher than short-term CDs — as they do most of the time — you may notice something. This method, in fact, results in earning less than simply investing your entire $10,000 in a 5 year CD. So, why would you go this route?

It’s because the CD ladder provides you some protection against losing interest if you need to withdraw your funds early. At Ally Bank, the penalty is not significant. This bank will charge you the amount of three months’ interest if you withdraw a CD with a maturity of 12 months or less. They’ll also charge 6 months’ interest if you withdraw a CD with a maturity of longer than 12 months.

Another possibility to consider is that you might earn more interest in a high-yield savings account than you would in a short-term CD. When this is the case, use a specially designated savings account rather than the short-term CDs.

We could have made this process easier by setting up a ladder that results in a turnover of $2,000 once a year rather than $500 every quarter. However, this method allows you to better decrease the possibility of losing interest. This is because you will always be able to access a portion of your investment within three months.

In combination with a savings account, which is liquid at all times, you can earn consistently higher interest rates with less risk than using five-year CDs that mature only once a year.


Does your New Year usually start with a resolution to pay off all that debt you racked up during the holiday shopping season? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Holiday retail sales increased 3% in 2015, and many consumers carried that extra spending into the new year in the form of new debt.

The key to avoiding debt during the holiday season is pre-planning. Even now, with the holiday gifting rush approaching like a freight train, you’ve got time to prepare for the pinch. Here’s how:

1. Look at last year’s spending

To keep spending under control, you’ll need to make a budget. It can be hard to make a realistic holiday budget, though, unless you know what you’ve spent in the past. Without at least some idea of what you’ve spent in previous years, you’re stuck flying blind. So, now is a great time to pull out last year’s bank account statements and see what you spent on various holiday expenditures.

Write down a few of the major categories, such as decorations, food, party supplies, and gifts. Then, total up your approximate spending last year in each of these areas. These numbers will give you a realistic starting point for this year’s budget.

2. Make a Budget

Once you know what you spent last year, work on creating a budget for this year. Your budget can be as detailed or as vague as you prefer. That’s really a style issue.

For instance, you can budget a total amount for all gifts, or assign different budgets to your children, spouse, extended family members, friends, etc.

The key here is to leave some room for flexibility, and to be realistic. If you love giving gifts, don’t restrict yourself so much that you wind up just blowing your budget in the end. Instead, find other areas where you can cut back. Host one less party, or have a pitch-in so you spend less on food. That way, you can spend more on gifts.

Of course, part of keeping the budget realistic is to not budget more than you can actually afford. So you may need to look forward at your probable income and other expenses in the coming months. Figure out what you can free up, and create a budget that reflects what you can actually afford to spend.

For more guidance, check out our guide to creating a budget that works.

3. Set aside money each month

It’s never too early to start setting aside money for holiday spending. In fact, the earlier you start squirreling away, the easier it’ll be to save.

One option is to open a free checking or savings account. Then, have money automatically transferred into it each month from your paycheck. This makes savings painless and easier to handle.

Another route is to just create a budget category for holiday spending each month. You can let the money build up in your regular checking account (if you’re disciplined enough). Or you can start shopping early using this budget line item.

4. Start putting together wish lists

If you just started making gift lists (now that we’re in November), you’ve missed out on some serious potential savings. Next year, I would definitely recommend starting in October, or even September. Heck, you could even have your kids put together their wish lists as a summertime activity.

This is helpful for a couple of reasons. For one, starting early helps those you’re gifting — especially your kids — think more in-depth about what they’d actually like to receive for the holidays. It eliminates a lot of the whim ideas and temporary wants. Plus, it gives you more time to think about great (and affordable) gifts to give.

But if you are just getting started, no fear. Have your kids make a list today, and then make them revisit their ideas in a week or two. See if anything has changed. Ask family members to set up Amazon wish lists, so they can pick out various things as they think of them. And you can buy online, instead of trotting from store to store in the middle of the holiday rush.

Plus, with Amazon, you can wait until closer to Christmas to buy and then utilize free Prime two-day shipping. My favorite part? I buy and Prime ship everything to my parents’ house, so I don’t have to fly with all of the presents in my luggage. It saves me a LOT of money on baggage fees.

5. Shop early, shop often

Making gift lists early gives you more time to shop, as well, which means more time to take advantage of sales and specials. Start shopping as early as you can, and you’ll be able to take advantage of online and in-person sales for items on your wish lists.

One easy way to do this is to create your own lists for each person you’re gifting on Amazon. You can create private lists, too, but check them often to see if there are price changes on the items. When you see a decent price drop, snag that one right away.

If you shop using credit cards, you could also take advantage of the price change guarantees that many have. With some credit card companies, such as Discover and Chase, you get a price protection guarantee. This basically means that if you find the same item for a lower price after you purchase it on your credit card (within a certain timeframe), the company will reimburse you for the difference.

6. Order ahead for free shipping

Loads of online retailers offer free shipping these days, which can save you a lot of money. However, not all retailers’ “basic” free shipping includes a two-day transit time, like Amazon. With many retailers, you’ll need to allow for longer-term shipping of a few days or even a few weeks.

Shopping earlier gives you time to save on shipping because you can opt for slower, cheaper options. Waiting until the last minute could cost you big bucks in expedited shipping costs!

7. Choose the best rewards credit card

The goal, of course, is to keep from going into credit card debt that you can’t pay off during the holiday season. However, credit cards with great rewards can give you cash back, points, or retailer bonuses when you use them. Before you start serious holiday shopping, check out which credit cards have the rewards that will best suit your shopping habits.

For instance, the Discover it card offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases from Amazon each October through December. This can amount to some serious cash-back savings, if you do lots of your holiday shopping on Amazon.

Check out a variety of cash back cards to see which one will net you the biggest rewards on your holiday spending. Then, be sure to pay off the balance each month with that money you’ve been saving. Then, you don’t have to worry about carrying your debt into the new year.

8. Do some DIYing

Giving yourself time to gather up gifts can help you save in other ways. For instance, you can use that extra time to whip up some DIY gifts. Even if you’re not incredibly crafty, you can make presents for at least some of the people on your list. DIY projects are great options for saving money on gifts for extended family members, friends, and your kids’ teachers.

If you’re a more experienced DIYer, Pinterest is full of excellent ideas for in-depth projects. You can get ideas for all sorts of gifts, from clothes to quilts to woodworking projects. You’re sure to find something for everyone on your list. Many of these gifts are super thoughtful and time-consuming, but could also save you from holiday overspending.

9. Book travel at the right time

November and December can be the most expensive times to travel, since so many others have the same idea of being home for the holidays. When you book your travel can make a difference, though.

According to one news article, the best time to book Thanksgiving travel is a surprisingly-late October 31st. The best time to book Christmas travel? Near the end of November. You can also save up your travel rewards card points throughout the year to offset some of your travel expenses at the holiday season.

10. Buy decor, gift wrap, etc. ahead of time

Don’t wait until you’re wandering the aisles of Target midway through December to buy wrapping paper and tree trimmings. You can often get these items much cheaper before the holidays, at discount shops and local dollar stores. Another option is to check out craft stores. Large chains like Michael’s and Joann will start running sales on holiday decor and wrapping paper months before you’re ready to decorate.

While you’re at it, put a note in your calendar to shop for next year’s decor and gift wrap at end-of-season sales this year. It’s amazing how much you can save on Christmas tree decorations when you buy them just after the first of the year.

11. Cut back on your budget

If you utilize all of these tips, but are still having trouble meeting the holiday pinch, you may need to find ways to temporarily cut back on your budget. Consider instituting a meatless Monday, and kick your grocery savings into your holiday budget. Or give up your morning latte in favor of coffee brewed at home.

Cutting back on these small expenses for a few months can give you more wiggle room. You can then use that money to give back to those you love during the holiday season.

No matter how much, or how little, you plan to spend this holiday season, the keyword indeed seems to be that: plan. Putting a budget in place, making lists early, and shopping as far in advance as you can, will be a big difference in how much you spend. And, they can give you a leg up in your efforts to start 2017 in the black.

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Looking for a way to simplify how you manage your finances, from your spending to your credit cards to your investments? Personal Capital’s financial dashboard may be just the tool for you.

This all-around financial management tool is easy to use, tracks all of your financial information, and offers investment advising, to boot. The free version of Personal Capital doesn’t come with personal advising, but the financial dashboard does offer a robust array of tools you can use to figure out your retirement plan on your own.

Here’s what you can expect when you use the free version of Personal Capital:

Link Up and Analyze All Your Financial Accounts

One of Personal Capital’s strengths is that you can use it to manage more than just your investments. It securely hooks up to your bank accounts, percapcredit card accounts, mortgage account, and other loan accounts. This allows you to track your total net worth, taking all of your accounts into consideration. Oh, and they also have an app, available on both Apple and Android devices.

The process of linking up accounts is really simple. Just type in the web address you use to access those accounts. When prompted, enter your usual login information and you’re good to go. Some accounts will ask additional security questions, which match those that you use when logging directly into that account.

I found it easy to link up my bank account, credit card accounts, and 401(k). However, I had trouble linking up my mortgage account, because my mortgage is with a smaller lender. As with many other financial tracking tools, Personal Capital doesn’t connect with every financial service or provider online.

So you may have to put in a support ticket to ask the company to connect with your smaller bank, credit union, or lender. The other option is to input the account information manually. I was able to add my home as an asset, and then add my mortgage as a manual account.

The home estimate comes automatically from Zillow, though you can override it manually if you’d like. The manual mortgage account only allows you to track the current mortgage balance, so it doesn’t track payments or amortization.

The bottom line here is that accounts with bigger-name institutions are easy to link to your financial dashboard. And Personal Capital pulls tons of helpful data from those accounts. The manual accounts feature leaves something to be desired, though.

Track Your Cash Flow

The main dashboard shows your overall cash flow for the last 30 days, broken down into categories. The categories are automatically assigned, and may not be completely accurate. But they give you a good at-a-glance estimation of your income and spending for the past month.

You can click into the cash flow tab to see a more detailed breakdown of your spending. This tab also allows you to toggle your tracker to 30 days, 90 days, six months, this year, or last year. This can be a helpful view if you’ve been trying to change spending habits and want to see general trends.

You can also toggle the view to show all of your accounts or just certain accounts, which can be helpful if you’re tracking just credit card spending, for instance.

Personal Capital will give you a list of the transactions it’s pulling in from all of your accounts. You can then re-categorize those transactions as needed. Taking time to do this can give you a better overall idea of your spending and income.

If you’re the type of person who prefers a more streamlined budget process and doesn’t need to track every dime, the financial dashboard may be perfect for your needs. However, keep in mind that this dashboard is only tracking actual spending. It doesn’t let you pre-set budget categories and then see how your actual spending matches up with your budget. For that type of detail, you need a tool like YNAB or

Learn More: You Need a Budget and a Pocketsmith

Track Your Net Worth

Along with basic budget tracking, Personal Capital allows you to track your net worth. In fact, net worth is one of the first things you see when you pull up the financial dashboard. The net worth chart looks pretty blank when you first start your account. But as you stick with Personal Capital, it’ll continue to graph out over time.

Again, you can click into the net worth tab to find out more about your overall net worth, cash on hand, investments, loans, and other aspects of your net worth. If you have specific goals for raising your savings or decreasing your debt, this is a helpful, visual way to keep track of those goals.

Retirement Planning and Investment Allocation

Of course, one of the main reasons to choose Personal Capital over other financial tracking tools is that it pulls in your retirement savings. The dashboard is compatible with a variety of retirement savings vehicles, including 401(k)s, IRAs, and more. And it will automatically pull in data from your retirement account, as long as that account is with a compatible provider.

I hooked up Personal Capital to my work-related retirement account with Charles Schwab. Again, the process of connecting the accounts was quite simple, and the dashboard pulled in a wealth of information. On the main financial dashboard page, you’ll see your portfolio balances for the last 30 days. You’ll also see your portfolio allocation.

You’ll also see a list of your current holdings, which highlights the holdings that have recently increased in value.

As with the rest of the financial dashboard, you can click any of these options to see more detail. The holdings detail will show you gains and losses in your investments over time, and will compare those gains and losses with the S&P 500.

The Allocation tab will visually break down your account allocations into cash, international bonds, U.S. bonds, international stocks, U.S. stocks, and alternatives. The breakdown tells you exactly what percentage of your total savings is in each of these vehicles. It also tells you the dollar amount you have invested in each option.

I really like the at-a-glance overview of portfolio allocation, as it makes things easy to understand. If you have multiple retirement accounts connected to Personal Capital, you can toggle between accounts to see the allocation breakdown for each individual account.

Overall, the retirement and investing aspects of Personal Capital’s financial dashboard are its strong suit, which isn’t surprising. This, after all, is what the platform is all about. But being able to see what’s going on with your retirement accounts isn’t even the best part about the free version of Personal Capital. You can, in fact, get some pretty solid retirement and investing advice without paying a dime.

Advisor Tools for Free

The three most helpful free tools Personal Capital offers are the Investment Checkup, Retirement Planner, and 401(k) Fee Analyzer tools.

Investment Checkup

For the Investment Checkup, the tools is mostly looking at your investment profile to see if your allocation is appropriate for your age, projected retirement age, and risk tolerance. The breakdown looks like this:


Once you run the Investment Checkup, you can look at the historical performance of your target allocation versus your current allocation. It will show future projections for your target and current allocations. You can also gauge your level of risk and return at this target allocation.

You can also compare your current allocation to Personal Capital’s target allocation, like this:


It’s always wise to take any investment advice with a grain of salt. You should also do your own research before moving your investments around. But if you’re new to balancing your investment portfolio, Personal Capital’s Investment Checkup could be a great place to get started.

Retirement Planner

With the Retirement Planner tool, you’ll be able to see how your current savings and savings rate stacks up against your overall retirement goals. You can include how much you plan to spend in retirement, and even how many kids you plan to put through college.

Again, the visual aspect of this tool is really helpful. It includes a graph of the most likely scenarios for your retirement savings, age, and spending goals. You can include both yourself and your spouse, as well.

One helpful aspect of the Retirement Planner tool is that it’ll automatically pull information from your dashboard, if you’d prefer. For instance, it can base your retirement spending goals on your current spending information, and your retirement savings goals on how much you’re currently saving for retirement each year.

You can then play with each piece of information, from annual retirement savings to annual Social Security income, and see how that changes the outcome. The eventual outcome will look like this:


The retirement planner adjusts for inflation. It will also show you the assumptions for annual rate of return and volatility. These are based on your current portfolio asset allocation.

This tool is far from perfect. It doesn’t, for instance, account for rebalancing your asset allocation as you near retirement age. However, it can give you a good idea of whether you’re on track to retire when you want with plenty in savings. It can also allow you to see different ways to meet your retirement goals, from saving more each year to decreasing your retirement spending needs.

401(k) Fee Analyzer

Sneaky hidden fees are one way to wreck your retirement savings. It’s astounding how much these hidden fees can eat away at your hard-earned savings. That’s where Personal Capital’s 401(k) Fee Analyzer tool comes in.

This tool will dig into your 401(k) to find both up-front and hidden fees, such as custodial fees, inactivity fees, and 12b-1 fees. It will then tell you about how much you’re paying each year in fund fees, and how much those fees will cost you over time.

The fee analyzer will also dig into any mutual fund holdings you have and will show the expense ratios for these mutual funds. This can help you decide where to invest your mutual fund holdings for the lowest cost.

The Bottom Line: Is it Right for You?

So, what if you’re not ready to pay for Personal Capital’s financial advising services? The free financial dashboard could still be a great tool to help you manage your money. Again, if you’re looking for a detailed budgeting tool, this isn’t it. But it could be used in conjunction with a budgeting tool like YNAB or Mint to get a better overall picture of your finances.

Since it’s primarily an investing platform, Personal Capital’s strengths are certainly in the investing arena. Whether you’re just starting out investing for retirement or you’re ready to take more control of your investments, the Retirement Planner and Investment Checkup tools are great. They’ll give you insight in your allocation and savings plan. It can be a really good place to begin in your DIY investing journey.


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