18 Things You (Supposedly) Should Never Pay For. Ever.

Who doesn’t love a free lunch?   I know I’ve never turned one down.

If you believe everything you read on the Internet (as well you should), then there are a lot of products and services out there you should never pay for.

I know because I read about it here.   And here.   Oh, and here too.

The problem is “never” is such a strong word, isn’t it?

Compounding the matter, “free” is also a bit of a dicey term.   And while I’ve never turned down a free lunch I also realize that, in reality, there’s no such thing as a free, er, lunch.

So with that in mind, here is my take on some of the recommended products and services that we’ve been told we should never ever pay a single penny for:

1. Pets

The Conventional Wisdom: Why pay a pet store or a breeder big bucks when you can go to a shelter and adopt one?   For free!
Free Lunch Meter: That dog don’t hunt.
(Reality) Check, Please: Most shelters require you to pay pet adoption fees to cover their cost of doing business.
The Bottom Line: Pet adoption can still be up to two orders of magnitude cheaper than buying a pet from a reputable breeder.

2. Cell Phones

The Conventional Wisdom: Everybody knows you can get a free cell phone by signing a contract with your carrier.
Free Lunch Meter: Zero (bars).
(Reality) Check, Please: Many companies that offer plans that include “free” cell phones charge a monthly premium over contracts that don’t.
The Bottom Line: Assuming you get a plan with a $10 monthly premium over the life of a two-year contract, you’ll end up paying $240 for that “free” phone.

3. Exercise

The Conventional Wisdom: You can get all the exercise you need without ponying up for expensive gym memberships.
Free Lunch Meter: Atlas shrugged.
(Reality) Check, Please: That depends on a lot of factors including if you have the room at home for equipment, and/or whether or not you can take advantage of the outdoors all year long.
The Bottom Line: Good arguments on both sides.   It really depends on the type of training you prefer to keep yourself in shape.

4. Water

The Conventional Wisdom: On a cost per gallon basis, tap water is essentially free.   You can also collect and store rain water.
Free Lunch Meter: Well, it makes sense to me.
(Reality) Check, Please: It really depends on where you live.   In my town I pay less than one cent for every 20 gallons of tap water I use.   In other words – it’s free.     Then again, if you live in the middle of the Sahara desert, you’re going to pay.
The Bottom Line: If you don’t like the taste of your local tap water, buy a filter and put it on your tap.   It’s still much cheaper than buying the bottled stuff.

5. Newspapers

The Conventional Wisdom: Newspapers publish the same content in their paper as they do on the Internet.
Free Lunch Meter: So this is news?
(Reality) Check, Please: While some newspapers charge for some or all of their online content, many do not.
The Bottom Line: And if you’re concerned about missing out on the coupons, you can save money by only subscribing to the Sunday edition.

6. Credit Reports

The Conventional Wisdom: Don’t pay for an annual credit report when there are websites that offer them for free.   (You big dummy.)
Free Lunch Meter: 800   (On a scale from 300-850.)
(Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
The Bottom Line: You can get a free update every four months by rotating your report requests between the different reporting agencies.

7. Real Estate Commissions

The Conventional Wisdom: When it comes to real estate agents, you rarely get what you pay for.
Free Lunch Meter: The premise is built on a strong foundation.
(Reality) Check, Please: There are many people unwilling and/or unable to put in the work and research required to sell their own home.
The Bottom Line: Millions of people save thousands in real estate commissions every year by going for sale by owner (FSBO).

8. Doula Services

The Conventional Wisdom: You can save money by using an unlicensed doula in-training.   For free!   (Or at least for a small donation.)
Free Lunch Meter: WTF is a doula?
(Reality) Check, Please: From what I can tell, a doula is basically a midwife.
The Bottom Line: You’re on your own on this one, folks.   But when it comes to matters of life or death, I’d refuse to use an unlicensed anything.

9. Baby Formula

The Conventional Wisdom: Why use baby formula when you can get breast milk for free?
Free Lunch Meter: It’s an uplifting thought, to be sure.
(Reality) Check, Please: Some women are unable or unwilling to breast feed.
The Bottom Line: In case you forgot, Captain Obvious reminds everyone that until Congress figures out a way to tax it, breast milk is still free.

10. Diapers

The Conventional Wisdom: By teaching your baby something called Elimination Communication, you can avoid paying for diapers.
Free Lunch Meter: Um, okay.
(Reality) Check, Please: Are there any doulas out there that could give us the real poop on this?   (Just make sure you have a license, okay?)
The Bottom Line: Sounds great in theory, but woe to the parent who has a baby that happens to be a slow learner.   And white carpet.

11. Books

The Conventional Wisdom: If you live relatively close to a library you can always check out your favorite books there.
Free Lunch Meter: Word up.
(Reality) Check, Please: Unless your hometown library is the Library of Congress, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for.
The Bottom Line: Assuming you can find what you’re looking for – and don’t like to own your own books – borrowing them for free is infinitely cheaper than buying them (that is, assuming you can avoid paying late fees.)

12. Credit Counseling Services

The Conventional Wisdom: The first stop for anybody looking for credit counseling services should be the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).
Free Lunch Meter: That’s definitely good advice.
(Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
The Bottom Line: The NFCC provides free financial advice at over 850 offices located across the United States.

13. Tax Preparation Fees

The Conventional Wisdom: Most taxpayers qualify for free e-filling and/or have taxes simple enough to do themselves.
Free Lunch Meter: It depends.   You’ll need to audit your particular situation.
(Reality) Check, Please: In 2010, 70 percent of all taxpayers were eligible to use the IRS Free File option.
The Bottom Line: For people with complicated tax returns, the cost of using a tax professional can often be offset by the additional savings they uncover.

14. Banking Services

The Conventional Wisdom: Why would anybody ever pay for a checking account when there are plenty of places offering free ones?
Free Lunch Meter: Take it to the bank.
(Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
The Bottom Line: Just be sure that you maintain any minimum balance requirements to avoid penalties.

15. Credit Cards

The Conventional Wisdom: Unless you’re completely clueless, there is no reason to ever get a credit card that charges an annual fee.
Free Lunch Meter: Sorry, but that charge has been declined.
(Reality) Check, Please: Some rewards cards charge an annual fee in exchange for extended rewards and special benefits.
The Bottom Line: Believe it or not, some people who pay for cards with annual fees actually end up better off than if they had a fee-free card.

16. Microsoft Office

The Conventional Wisdom: Why pay for Microsoft Office when there is the open source alternative, OpenOffice?
Free Lunch Meter: An Unexpected Error Has Occurred.   (OK.)
(Reality) Check, Please: Yeah, it sounds great in theory but, as this head-to-head comparison shows, it really depends on a lot variables.
The Bottom Line: While OpenOffice is free, it does lack some features that certain users may find essential.

17. Moving Boxes

The Conventional Wisdom: You can almost always pick up free cardboard boxes on Craigslist, and at many other places.
Free Lunch Meter: Sometimes you really can get a free lunch.
(Reality) Check, Please: See the conventional wisdom.
The Bottom Line: For those who want to put in a little effort, there will always be a ready supply of cardboard boxes to tap.

18. Shipping

The Conventional Wisdom: Why pay for shipping when there are websites like Freeshipping.org out there?
Free Lunch Meter: Doesn’t deserve a complete stamp of approval.
(Reality) Check, Please: There are just too many places to count that refuse to give discounts on shipping.
The Bottom Line: Now if they can only figure out a way to get rid of those mysterious handling charges.   Freehandling.org, anyone?   ;-)


  1. 1


    Water is free when you’re on a well. And it doesn’t taste like chlorine.

    Exercising at home still costs something, but my bench and free-weights cost less than six months of gym membership.

    Who needs newspapers when there are blogs like this around?

  2. 2


    I think exercise is the only true “free” thing out there. If someone lives in a state with four seasons and just can’t go outside in the dead of winter, then I guess exercise has taken a sabbatical!

    @David Leonhard – I didn’t realize well water was free! However, doesn’t it cost to dig a well? If you factored in the cost of digging the well, at what point would the water actually be free? I’m just curious to know how that works.

    • 3

      sporaticdamage says

      Where I live, it can cost between $4000 to $8000 depending how far they need to drill, what they had to drill through to get to a source of water and of course, the company you had to hire to dig the well. (That is another topic that maybe Len can tap into someday)…… have lived on well water for 40 of my 48 years here on Earth and you need to add in some factors.
      How many people are in your household? It takes an added amount the more a family expands. It takes water to do laundry. It takes water to shower or bathe. It takes water to feed the pretty Red Maple tree you planted. In other words, you need water for everything. Seeing that we are talking about drinking water, this doesn’t have a huge (even if it has a minor) impact on monthly cost.
      At the moment, I am living in my grandparents house and the well was dug 50 years ago. No one else should have a problem with the cost you speak of unless you build a new house and have to dig a well. Even at that, after all the other uses of water needed, the cost would be a bare medium. To answer your question how water can be free and when…. immediately.

      • 4

        sporaticdamage says

        To revise my last sentence from,”To answer your question how water can be free and when…. immediately.”
        It should have read,”To answer your question how DRINKING water can be free and when…. immediately.”….sorry

  3. 5


    We have always had a free pet rule in our house. We usually get roped into pets by friends who have had a litter. But, I did break down and pay $50 for our lab puppy and that was a great deal. We never get our pets from breeders or pet stores.

    We also never adopt from our local shelter, because those people are bizarre. They charge a fortune for a pet adoption and they make you sign all kinds of papers and agreements. You can’t make the dog or cat sleep outside and you must agree up to $5,000 in veteranary costs. I think they even check up on you, after the adoption.

    I would love to do the right thing and adopt my pets from the shelter, but I don’t need PETA coming down on me. Having a pet is supposed to be fun.

  4. 6

    Jenna says

    I think there is something to be said about owning books. I’m all for libraries, but having a few favorites, one’s that you LOVE, can write in, pass around to friends, seems worth it.

  5. 7


    Bowflex’s cheapest home gym costs $649, with $299 for professional installation. (Never mind that everyone I know who’s ever owned one has used it as a coat rack.) For me, that’s 9.5 years’ worth of Gold’s Gym membership. Plus a home gym doesn’t have the external visual stimulation of a real gym, if you know what I mean.
    Besides, home is a place to sit on the couch and watch football.

  6. 8


    Yep, our HSPCA Dachshund mutt was $75 5 years ago and our Pug was $250 from Pughearts Rescue.

    We use Annual Credit Reports for our reports and you can check your score for free at CreditKarma dot com. It’s only your Transunion score, but that’s good enough for me. :-)

    I’m also a big supporter of disposable diapers or at least cloth diapers. Yes, a kid can learn quickly, but I rather sacrifice an extra 6 months in diapers to save on all the cleanups…

    Love the list!

    • 9


      I was going to suggest the credit karma site too – they not only give you your credit score, they plot it monthly and suggest ways to improve it. Of course, if you do things like get out of debt or pay off your house….there is no saving your otherwise high credit score.

  7. 10

    financialwizardess says

    Just an FYI, a doula is not actually a midwife. She is a person trained (or not) to provide the laboring mother support during labor. She will not deliver your baby. However, studies show that mothers who want to avoid c-sections are much likelier to do so when working with a doula. One could make the case for saving money by not having a csection, but that would be way off topic…

    I’ve used both licensed and unlicensed doulas and would highly recommend them to every pregnant woman or expectant father. They are worth their weight in gold.

    • 11

      bluesgirrl says

      Absolutely correct. I’ve also used a licensed doula’s services for the births of both of my children.
      My doula provided incalculable support for both me and my husband. In addition, the doula was my advocate, providing the interface between us and the hospital staff to ensure that my birth plan was followed.
      It was money well spent.

  8. 12

    MissReading says

    More than likely, through your public library, you actually have access to just about any book in any university or public library IN THE COUNTRY at no or very little cost to you. It’s called an InterLibrary Loan. Your library can borrow the books on your behalf then you just go pick them up at your local library. It may take a couple of weeks to get what you want, but if it’s a hard to find book, video or even cd — or your book habit would run you more than your paycheck as mine would, this is a GREAT way to go!

  9. 13


    @David: “Who needs newspapers when there are blogs like this around?” Thanks… I think. LOL
    @Little House: You may be on to something. Over the next ten hours or so, I’ll ponder that thought while sitting here at my keyboard with a large Coke and a big bag of Cheetos (the puffed kind).
    @HopeToProsper: “We also never adopt from our local shelter, because those people are bizarre. I don’t need PETA coming down on me.” That wish probably came one sentence too late, Bret. LOL ;-)
    @Jenna: I’m with you. I prefer to have my own library at home.
    @Greg: “Plus a home gym doesn’t have the external visual stimulation of a real gym, if you know what I mean.” For all you wives at home, I can assure you that all us happily married men have absolutely NO idea what Greg is talking about.
    @Budgeting: Thanks for the tip on CreditKarma! (I’ve changed the conventional wisdom to correct my mistake). BTW, I’m pro-diaper too. And carpet stains should be included in any evaluations regarding the cost savings of not using diapers. ;-)
    @Wizardress: Thanks for the info! :-) For you folks interested in calling one up: get on the phone now and start dialing for doulas.
    @MissReading: Hey, that is really good news for folks who can’t afford to buy a lot of books! Thanks for sharing. :-)

  10. 14


    My general rule of thumb is that if something is advertised as “free”, it isn’t (think of the cell phone, credit cards, travel offers, etc.) Why would a company pay to advertise something if it is free? That’s not getting anything for their advertising dollars…unless it really is NOT free!

    • 15


      You should read the book “Free” by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired. It explains how giving things away is indeed a legitimate business model in the 21st century. Of course the “seller” in these instances is still making money: the idea is to give away either a basic version of a product or service to a lot of people, while charging a few for the fully-functional version. It really does work, and it’s a great opportunity for the savvy consumer to be a free rider and let other people do the paying.

  11. 16

    Slackerjo says

    My family has owned/bred standard poodles since 1971. Why I can’t tell people how to get their pets I can assure you one thing, breeding dogs responsibly is more of a hobby than a for profit enterprise. For the most part, most breeders don’t turn any profit. Those who do are running puppy mills and will produce sickly, unsound dogs. Don’t dismiss a purebred dog because it is expensive. A responsible breeder will match a dog’s personality with the personality and needs of the potential owner. The dogs are healthy, disease free and you can trace their lineage several generations with a pedigree. Just because something is expensive, doesn’t mean it does not have value.

    • 17


      You are absolutely right. My last three dogs – two Great Danes and, my current dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback – have all been bought from highly reputable breeders. My Ridgey cost me $1500 seven years ago and he is worth every penny to our family – as were the Danes. :-)

      The only way to know if a breeder is reputable is to do your research before committing. That means visiting the breeder and getting recommendations. The best breeders interview all potential owners and won’t hesitate to turn down a sale if they aren’t convinced their pups aren’t going to a good home.

  12. 18

    Holly says

    RE: #4, WATER:

    If water is ‘free’, then why is my water bill so dang expensive (billed $140 quarterly)? And there is also the annual sewer charges of about $425. Or are we just talking about drinking water?…sorry, but I have not actually read the original article. I will do that now.

    • 19


      It depends on how much you use, Holly. Our family uses about 6000 gallons per month for drinking, cooking, laundry, showers, etc. Even at our rate – which is less than a penny per 20 gallons – we’re still paying around $30 per month.

  13. 20


    LOL this is a great list!

    Though I did pay for my doggy (but he’s so cute!).

    I don’t think I would not pay for a licensed midwife to delivery my baby, if I had one. A lot of things can go wrong (knock on wood) during childbirth, unfortunately.. and you’d want someone who knows what they’re doing.

  14. 21

    Julie Cutts says

    I think the gym membership is worth the money. I don’t want to exercise for free at home, I want to socialize and exercise and it is a great bang for your buck. You get to socialize without going to the bar, which would save me even more money, if I went to bars. Also, just like the previous “scenery” comment made by the previous gentleman, it’s not too bad for us gals either.

  15. 23


    lol. great list. It so true. There are “free things” but often there are hidden costs.

    I especially loved 8,9,10. Probably coz I have kids, had problems during birth so defnitely needed the hospital, couldn’t breastfeed (medical reasons) and am all for diapers! lol.

    Great post.

  16. 26

    Katt says

    As far as diapers go, I have used cloth diapers for my children…no way am I paying either the financial or environmental cost of disposables. The following information influenced this choice:

    Disposables will cost you on average $2000-$3000 dollars over the two and a half years your child is in diapers. Add to this the cost of gas and irritation of having to run out and get diapers at two in the morning, and let’s not forget the impact on our landfills/environment either.

    (In comparison, I made a one-time purchase of 4 dozen Bum Genius all in one diapers. They grow with your child from newborn to potty-training by a clever series of very durable adjustable plastic snaps, from an online company for approximately $600. They do not leak and you can wash and dry them at home easy. If you add in laundry supplies such as soap and a diaper pail, water and cloth wipes (also to be washed), cloth diapers come in right around $1000 for the same amount of time your child is in disposable diapers. Add to this, my second child is now using these same diapers. They are in great shape and I didin’t need to replace them. I am halfway through diapering this second one and will probably be able to use them again or pass them along to someone else.)
    Cloth diapers are not the soaking wet diaper pin mess covered in plastic pants that they once were. They are made to fit just as well as disposables, (some made from organic material too)leakproof, come in a variety of prints and colors, use velcro and snaps for closures. For not a whole lot of effort anyone can use cloth diapers, even dads.
    Don’t forget those diaper rash creams you have to buy either when you use disposables. When most babies wore cloth, there was less then 10% of kiddos with diaper rash (according to pediatricians), once the switch to disposables were made, it jumped to 70-some percent of kiddos experiencing diaper rash.

    OK, here’s another tip for the ladies. Guys shut your eyes, plug your ears, or scroll forward rapidly…this part is nothing you would probably care to discuss.

    Another great money and resource waster is our, er, ‘monthly needs’ ladies. Being kind of an admitted eco-nut, I spent a good deal of time (and trial and error) trying to find a good substitute to disposable pads, which not only cost a small fortune over our lifetimes, but also have a huge impact on the environment, not just in the landfills, but in the pads creation which includes LOTS of clorine runoff into our waterways. Yuck!
    (It takes 500 years for ONE disposable menstrual pad to biodegrade. 11.3 billion menstrual products go to the landfills in American each year. The chemicals used in disposable pads either in their construction or for odor/liquid control are horrible and end up in our waterways and in the fish we eat. website is newmoonpads.com)
    After trying many different cloth alternatives, the one I have found that works the best are called New Moon Pads. They are made and sold by a work at home mom. (She also does diapers, but I did like the Bum Genius better.)
    These pads are brilliant, come in a variety of sizes, do not leak, and are soooo comfortable. She has a website (complete with verifiable eco notes and stats),you can buy a sampler of different sizes at a low cost and she sells all of the pads both individually and in sets. I chose to purchase: 6-3pks of her Full Moon pads, and 2-3pk of her Moon Light pads (for lighter days). I also purchased 2-4pks of her super soft cotton-flannel wipes, 2 ‘wet’ bags and 2 carry bags…this all totaled about $260. They come in lots of prints or in plain organic. They are durable, I have been using this set for over four years now and still going. The wipes are great as well and can be washed right along with the pads. (no snaps, velcro or bands either although there is a winged variety available if you prefer)
    Disposables, depending on brands/sales/etc, I have found cost on average about $6 a bag or more. In approximately 43 purchased bags of disposable pads (about 3 yrs worth more or less depending on the woman) at $258, the cloth pads have paid for themselves.
    To launder them, just toss ‘em in the wash like your regular laundry. No speical soap or treatments needed. If you prefer to wash them as a small seperate load, use cold water. Pads do not have to be soaked prior. (a small lidded container under the bathroom sink will serve to hold used pads until you are ready to wash a load.)
    I figure the origional set I got will last about another 4 years, so over an 8 year block of time, I will have saved $1290 and have not killed the environment in the meantime.
    I think women buy into the propaganda that has been put about since forever by male owned and operated companies that have done an excellent job continuing the myth that a woman’s natural cycle is somehow an unclean and shameful thing. We need to get over this ladies…just take a look at the HUGE profits these companies are making, both diaper and feminine care companies. Profits made at the expense of our environment and health.

  17. 27

    JVC says

    A doula is a labor or postpartum helper, not a midwife. She does not do anything medical. A labor doula assists with relaxation, positioning, encouragement, massage, negotiates with medical staff so mom can remain in “labor land.” Women who are able to achieve natural birth often discribe going deep inside themselves and being unaware of the passage of time – congnitive thought / speech brings them up out of this state of meditation & increases pain.

    In contrast, a midwife is medically trained to handle normal birth, including managment of emergencies. While trained under the belief that pregnancy, labor, and birth are normal, not pathology, midwives are as capable of attending birth as an obstetrician – and if you do the research, have better outcomes for both mother & baby as obstetricians! Go check birth statistics for our country (worst of any industrialized country) and compare to countries where midwifes are common!

    JVC – former doula & childbirth educator, RN, and midwife student

    • 28

      Len Penzo says

      Thanks for the clarification. My sister delivered all of her kids at home with the help of a midwife.

  18. 29

    Mary says

    I have 8 cats and 1 dog (Maltese) and every one of them was a stray or adopted from a shelter. I believe pets adopted from a shelter or taken in as a stray make the best pets of all. You are also most likely saving a shelter animal from being killed since there are relatively few no-kill shelters. If you can find a reputable breeder and are unable to find the breed you want from a shelter then there is nothing wrong in paying a breeder. However, most people don’t do that research and too often purchase from puppy mills which are atrocious places. I encourage everyone to try to find an animal from a shelter; the cost is modest. The reason shelters require so much information from people and ‘check-up’ on them after the adoption is they are trying to ensure the animal goes to a good home and won’t end up neglected or back in a shelter in a few months. Anyone who objects to that probably isn’t a good candidate for pet ownership.

  19. 30

    vickidiane says

    Regarding Elimination Communication with babies. It’s not the babies who do the learning, so much, as the parents who learn to recognize when the babies are about to “eliminate.”

    There are many educational examples on you tube. Check it out.

  20. 34


    I would like to make a comment on breast milk. It is not only free, it is also the healthiest thing you can give to your baby. Plus the bonding between the you and your baby – Priceless!

  21. 36

    Heather says

    Some shelter animals are there for a good reason because no one wants them because of bad behavior or biting or excessive barking, etc. I’ve adopted many shelter animals and unless they are babies, there is no guarantee they didn’t come from a horrible home and learned or were allowed to be bad or were so mistreated that they hide in fear all the time. I would not let my cat jump on the counter, but maybe the previous owner fed their cat on the counter and it will never stop doing that now. Also the SPCA in my town now charges per pound adoption fees, so if you have an adult dog who weighs 50lbs, that dog is going to cost way more to adopt than a puppy or a adult chihuahua which means they are more likely to be killed due to the cost to adopt them. This per pound adoption is totally crazy…is this a meat packing plant…should we put stickers on them that say $20.99/lb. I can’t remember what the price was, but it was something close to a few hundred dollars for a small mutt. I’d rather pay a quality breeder to get a purebred puppy than pay $300 or more for a mutt or an alley cat. I’d rather find a homeless cat and take it in than pay this new per pound fee. Even the shelter for cats has started to take dogs now and charges a much higher rate to adopt an animal than they used to. When it used to be the Feline Foundation, I adopted a female cat for $75, but she was microchipped and spayed already, so it was worth the cost. I even told them I’d take 2 cats and they still told me I only had to pay $75 total. So I actually got 1 cat for free. There’s no way the SPCA would give me an extra cat for free even though I was basically helping them by taking 2 animals instead of 1.

    By the way, sex is not free either. If you are married or in a relationship, it still costs you money every month to keep the relationship working so that sex is still a possibility. Food, shelter, clothing, daily expenses, health care, reproductive check ups like pap smears, prostate exams, testicular cancer screenings, douche, condoms, birth control pills, etc are all the price we all pay for sex on a regular basis. If the sex results in children, then you are really paying a high price for sex. Think about that people.

    I would never pay for a doula. It just sounds like a bunch of crap to me. Besides I had a C section, so there was no labor going on. Only the father can be in the room while you have a C section anyway.

    Our newspaper charges you $10 to get the online newspaper. Plus the newspaper doesn’t only serve the purpose of reading the news. Can you lay the internet down on the floor for puppies to pee on if they had an accident while you were gone? No. I’d rather have an actual newspaper to look at because you can take it with you and no computer required. It also gives my daughter something to tear up when she’s feeling destructive and it’s not the roll of toilet paper. It’s just paper that would go in the recycle bin after we’re done with it anyway.

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