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What a Debt-Free Lifestyle Really Looks Like

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When it comes to debt, most of us have outstanding balances of one kind or another, whether for our car, our home or our education. And while debt can be a necessary tool to achieving certain goals, most Americans (nearly 60%) report feeling weighed down by what they owe, a February 2020 survey by LendingTree found.

But you don’t have to be tied to that borrow-and-repay cycle forever, especially if you have a stable income with cash flow to get ahead of your debt. The benefits of living a debt-free lifestyle can be life-changing — reduced financial stress, more money for saving and no interest payments, among them. Here is our guide on what you need to know about living a debt-free lifestyle.

What it takes to live a debt-free lifestyle

A strict monthly budget

Funneling extra cash into your debt is the quickest way to become free of it. The amount of interest you’ll owe overall will shrink, and so can your repayment timeline. But finding spare dollars to increase your payments can be tricky when you don’t know what money is coming in and going out. Making and following a budget could solve this issue.

Budgeting requires that you list out your income and subtract all expenses (such as rent, utilities and groceries) for the month. What’s left represents how much you have to allocate toward your debt. If you come up with a negative number, it means you’re running in the red and need to make some lifestyle tweaks to avoid going even further into debt.

Maybe you notice, for instance, that you’re buying lunch three times a week, paying for four different streaming services or splurging on new tech every other month. These are budget items you could easily reduce or eliminate to free up even more cash for paying off your debt.

It may seem a tedious process to track every dollar, but there are a variety of strategies and digital tools you can use to make it easier. For example, apps like Mint and YNAB (You Need a Budget) link up to your bank and credit card accounts to help you track spending.

  • Zero-based budgeting: If you struggle with making unnecessary purchases, this could be your best option. Every dollar in this budgeting scheme is given a job, even the money leftover after paying for necessary expenses. By predetermining what money goes toward debt repayment or retirement savings and what goes toward other needs or wants, you minimize the risk of having nothing leftover at the end of the month to meet financial goals.
  • 50/30/20 budgeting: Under this budgeting plan, you allocate 50% of your monthly income to major living expenses (housing, utilities, food and transportation) and 30% to discretionary spending (travel, entertainment, shopping), while the remaining 20% goes toward your financial goals, like paying down debt or saving. Of course, if you want to pay your debt down faster, you could inverse the 30% and 20% targets.
  • The 60% solution: All expenses under this budget should only eat up 60% of your income. The remaining 40% should be split among your retirement savings, long-term savings, emergency fund — and your own enjoyment. You could easily replace one of those 10% savings goals with your debt repayment or reduce the fun spending.
  • Classic line-item budget: There are no prescribed spending or savings targets under this traditional budget — instead, it’s up to you to categorize your expenses as you see fit, and then subtract them from your income to determine how much of the remainder can go to additional debt payments.

Saying ‘no’ to your wants

When you’re in a stable financial situation and looking to become debt-free, overspending on wants can be a common hurdle when maximizing debt repayment. This can be as small as charging more purchases to your credit card than you can afford to repay, or as big as taking out a large auto loan to pay for a car beyond what you can afford.

It takes discipline to break your spending habits and refuse yourself the things you want so that you can achieve your bigger goal of becoming debt-free. Buying only what is absolutely essential prevents you from adding to your debt and frees up more of your income to channel into paying off debt.

But this will be challenging to stick to, especially if it takes you a couple years to rid yourself of debt, so it is important to occasionally reward yourself for good behavior so you remain motivated. You might decide that after every few weeks you’ve gone without unnecessary purchases, you can splurge on a treat under a certain monetary threshold, say $100, that you know you can afford.

If you’re tempted to buy nonessential items, leave your credit card at home and carry cash: This way you can’t spend more than the dollars in your pocket. If online shopping gets you, remove all saved credit card and payment information from the websites you visit, unsubscribe from promotional emails, and mandate a 24- to 48-hour waiting period before you buy, giving you time to weigh how important that purchase really is.

Making sacrifices to live within your means

As we mentioned above, limiting unnecessary purchases, like meals out, can help you put more money toward debt repayment or avoid new debt. But if such tweaks aren’t freeing up enough cash to meet your debt repayment goals, your necessary expenses may have to change if you expect to have a debt-free lifestyle in the long term.

For instance, housing will always be a cost you have to pay, but the amount you spend can change big time depending on square footage, location or number of roommates. It may be worth sacrificing some space, privacy or convenience to find cheaper lodgings that will leave you with a decent amount in your bank account after bills so you can pay off debt.

Review your gym membership, subscription services, cable package, utility providers, cell phone service and any other fixed expenses you deem essential. Try renegotiating or changing providers to get a lower rate, find a less-premium option or cancel the service altogether. Limiting spending is the only surefire way to achieve a debt free lifestyle.

Having an emergency fund

When living debt-free, having an emergency fund is imperative to avoid falling into debt over unexpected costs, like a home repair bill. Set your sights on socking away three to six months’ of take-home pay in an emergency fund. Self-employed or freelance workers with variable income may want to tuck away a bit more — about nine months’ worth of expenses — to cover any earning lulls, as well as any surprise bills.

Keep your fund in a high-yield savings account. You could earn better interest than with a typical checking account, while still being able to easily tap the money whenever you want without incurring fees or time delays.

Debt vs. savings: Which comes first?

Both do. Just because you have competing money goals doesn’t mean you have an either/or situation. You can achieve both at the same time.

An emergency fund is key to avoiding acquiring more debt when an unexpected event occurs. Press pause on your hefty debt-payoff efforts for a brief spell to focus on building a $1,000 foundation for your emergency fund. Once you hit that milestone, you can resume tackling your debt until it’s knocked out, at which point you can switch back to building your savings up to the three- to six-month mark.

Retirement savings shouldn’t be put on hold, either. You don’t want to be so laser-focused on paying off debt that you rob your future self of a comfortable retirement. If your company offers matching contributions to retirement saving accounts, like a 401(k), you should prioritize stocking enough away in those accounts to get the full match. Otherwise, you’re turning down money from your employer.

The main benefit and risk of living debt-free

You’ll save more money on interest in the long term

Whenever you borrow money to finance a purchase, you must pay back the lender that original sum plus interest and other fees. The interest rate will change depending on the lender and the kind of debt, but it is always a percentage of the loan amount. (Many lenders charge compounding interest, meaning you pay interest on the interest you owe each month.)

Avoid debt and you skip having to pay interest altogether, meaning the cost of any item you’ve bought is the actual total cost you’ll pay for it. Those carrying debt balances with high interest rates will really feel the impact of becoming debt-free on their purse strings.

For example, let’s say you have a $3,000 balance on a credit card with an 18% interest rate and a $125 minimum monthly payment. Here’s how long it’ll take you to get out of debt and how much interest you’ll pay if you put up that minimum each month, versus a higher sum.

Your monthly paymentNo. of months needed to repay the debtTotal interest paidTotal repaid% of payments that went to interest
$125 payment30$747$3,74719.9%
$225 payment15$372$3,37211%
$325 payment11$253$3,2537.8%

To put into perspective how valuable these kinds of savings are, consider this: If you took $400 that you were spending each month on debt and redirected it toward a Roth IRA, it would grow to more than $487,000 over the next 30 years, assuming 7% annual returns, if compounded monthly.

You might struggle to build or maintain your credit

While avoiding debt and living a debt-free lifestyle may be a healthy way to manage our finances, it doesn’t mean you should swear off credit altogether. You will likely need to borrow again at some point to afford a large purchase like a new car or home, and having a good credit score is the key to landing those loans with an affordable interest rate.

A number of factors go into determining your credit score. For example, 15% of your FICO Score is determined by the length of your credit history. New credit makes up 10% and having a mix of credit counts for another 10%. In other words, actively using credit responsibly accounts for 35% of your credit score. Going completely credit-free translates to a thin credit file that can impact important financing options down the road.

The good news is you have two major options if you don’t have to sacrifice a debt free lifestyle to maintain a good credit score:

  • Use credit cards responsibly: This means paying off your balances on time and in full every month and never carrying a balance. Your credit utilization ratio (i.e. how much of your available credit you’re actually using) makes up one-third of your FICO score — creditors like to see that you’re using less than 30% of it. Those with reward credit cards may even make a little back on everyday spending.
  • Consider a secured credit card: If you don’t trust yourself with a credit card, a secured credit card could be a solution. These cards require you to put down a cash deposit, which determines the credit line (typically between 50% and 100% of the deposited amount). After that, you can use it like a regular credit card without the fear of overspending. Not carrying a balance and making on-time payments is key to boosting your credit as your activity is reported to the credit bureaus. But if you miss payments, the bank will hold your deposit as collateral and apply it to your outstanding balance and charge high fees.

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Can I Get a Loan Without a Job? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

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Low-income borrowers have loan options, but they may struggle to qualify for the most competitive interest rates and terms. That may be particularly true with unsecured personal loans, where lenders rely on your credit and financial information to determine your ability to repay funds.

Keep reading to learn about low-income loan options, and how you can improve your odds of qualifying.

Why you may qualify for a loan even with low income

Lenders want to know that you can repay your debt. But while they typically ask about your annual income and may ask for proof, it’s not the only piece of your financial picture they’re interested in when deciding whether to extend a loan.

Common factors they’ll consider when reviewing your loan application include:

  • Your credit health: How you’ve handled loans and credit in the past tells lenders how risky a borrower you are. If you have a high credit score, lenders know you’re a diligent borrower likely to pay on time and keep the account in good standing. Those with low credit scores, delinquent accounts, past bankruptcies or lots of outstanding debt will have a much harder time getting approved.
  • Money in the bank: A healthy savings account balance shows lenders you have the funds to meet the repayment terms, thereby making you appear a less risky borrower than someone with both low income and little to no savings.
  • Collateral (if applicable): Potentially your best bet for qualifying for a low-income loan with competitive terms is seeking one that requires collateral. When you provide collateral, you lower the lender’s risk when they provide you with a loan. Your collateral may be funds in a savings account or the value of your home minus your mortgage balance. Default on your loan, though, and the lender can seize your collateral.
  • Cosigner (if applicable): If your credit score or income is too low to meet lender requirements, you can ask a family member or friend with a good credit score and higher income to cosign the loan. This means if you fail to repay, the cosigner then becomes responsible for the debt. In a way, you’re borrowing someone else’s best financial attributes to shore up your own and secure the loan.

3 types of loans for low-income borrowers

1. Personal loans

Personal loans can be used to finance nearly any expense, from a major purchase to medical bills. But the most common use for a personal loan is debt consolidation or refinancing. Traditional personal loans are unsecured, meaning you don’t need to put any assets, like your car or home equity, on the line. You’ll make monthly payments over 12 to 144 months with a fixed interest rate.

As a low-income earner, you may struggle to qualify for a personal loan, unless you have a stellar credit score and strong repayment history. Even if you qualify, you’re liable to face low loan amounts and steeper interest rates than a high earner would. Those with credit scores of 760+ can expect an average 9.96% APR,  scores 720 to 759 can expect an average 12.45% APR, according to our January personal loan offers report.

See personalized offers

Some personal loans may come with an origination fee, or a one-time cost equal to 1%-8% of the loan balance depending on your credit score, the loan amount and repayment term. Most lenders will deduct this fee from the loan proceeds. This fee can shrink the amount you ultimately borrow.

More forgiving lenders, who may be more likely to approve low-income earners, include:

2. Secured personal loans

If you’re unable to qualify for a traditional personal loan based on your income, credit history or other factors, a secured personal loan could be a good backup option for you. This type of personal loan requires that you offer up something of value to act as collateral if you default, such as a savings account balance, vehicle or home.

Because the lender can take possession of the asset used as collateral if you fail to repay, lenders view these loans as less risky than unsecured traditional personal loans and therefore, are more likely to offer you favorable terms and lower interest rates than you might qualify for otherwise. 

But you need to think carefully before agreeing as these loans can be riskier to you. If you have trouble paying your bills, it’s not just your credit rating and debt balance that will suffer. You could lose ownership of your car or home, perhaps putting you in a worse financial situation than what originally led you to borrow the money.

3. Payday alternative loan

Members of federal credit unions may have access to these kinds of loans, which typically offer smaller borrowing amounts, longer repayment cycles and lower cost terms than a traditional payday loan.

Regulated by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), payday alternative loans, or PALs, can range from $200 to $1,000, must be repaid within one to six months, have a maximum annual interest rate of 28% and do not require borrowers to undergo a credit check.

Only three PALs can be granted to the same borrower in a six-month timespan, though no loan repayment periods can overlap. And credit unions are limited to charging $20 at most in application fees.

A PAL II offers a larger borrowing limit

At the end of 2019, the NCUA authorized a second kind of payday alternative loan, known as a PAL II. It follows the same rules as PALs, except loans can be taken out for up to $2,000, the repayment period can stretch to 12 months and you do not have to belong to a credit union for a month or more to qualify. Instead, new members are immediately eligible for PAL IIs.

Can you get a loan without a job?

If you have a strong credit history and other forms of income, say from government benefits, alimony, child support, Social Security or retirement savings account withdrawals, you may still be able to qualify for the loans mentioned above.

If you are unemployed and have no current source of income, it will be difficult to find options that you’ll qualify for, unless you’re willing to accept less-than-ideal borrowing terms, such as extremely high interest rates and short repayment terms.

Those stuck with both poor credit and low income or no income face the most limited borrowing choices, as lenders will see you as extremely high risk, meaning you’ll pay the highest premium in terms of interest rates for access to credit.

Consider these 5 loan options if you’re unemployed

  1. Borrowing from a friend or family member: If a loved one can afford to help cover your shortfall in return for later repayment at a lower interest rate than a lender would offer, that’s the smartest and least expensive option available.
  2. Leaning on a credit card: Depending on the card’s interest rate and credit limit, you may be able to either finance the emergency expense directly on it or move all spending onto your card to free up cash for whatever crisis has you looking to take out a loan. If you have good credit and a relatively low APR, say below 20%, this could be a more cost-effective borrowing strategy than other loan options.
  3. Payday alternative loan: This one’s worth mentioning again. If you need to borrow up to $2,000, check out PALs offered by local credit unions. Interest rates are capped at 28% and repayment periods can stretch up to 12 months, making them a far less expensive option than payday loans.
  4. Payday loan: These are a popular (and very expensive) form of debt among people with poor credit and who need emergency funds. Lenders don’t check credit scores and loans have fast funding. Payday loans typically must be repaid in a single lump sum within a very short timespan, from 14 days to six months. Lenders typically charge a flat financing fee of about $10 to $30 per $100 borrowed, equalling an APR of almost 400% for a two-week loan.
  5. Car title loan: This kind of loan uses the title of your vehicle as collateral and, like a payday loan, is a very expensive form of credit. Typically loans amounts equal between 25% and 50% of the value of the car, so roughly between $100 and $5,500, and must be repaid within 15 or 30 days, leasing to APRs in the triple digits. And if you fail to repay what you owe, the lender can repossess your car, meaning you lose your transportation.

Borrowing when you have a low income is always a risky move as you likely find making ends meet on a limited wage challenging without an additional monthly bill, so be careful when agreeing to any lender’s terms. You don’t want to end up paying a 400% APR, losing your possessions or tanking your credit score.

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3 Best Personal Loans for Fair Credit Borrowers

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When determining whether to extend you a personal loan, creditors will look to your FICO Score to determine how likely you may be to repay your debt. This score is calculated on a 300 to 850-point scale using your credit history, which reveals everything from your outstanding balances to your mix of credit.

If your credit score sits between 580 and 669, you have fair credit, indicating that while you’re not the riskiest kind of borrower, you may have past blemishes or a limited history of credit usage.

Fair credit could prevent you from securing the lowest offered interest rates. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider your options. Here’s our choice for the best personal loans for fair credit among our partners, as well as what to consider before you apply.

3 best personal loans for fair credit

Payoff

APR

5.99%
To
24.99%

Credit Req.

640

Minimum Credit Score

Terms

24 and 60

months

Origination Fee

up to 5.00%

APPLY NOW Secured

on LendingTree’s secure website

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Payoff is a financial services firm that offers personal loans mainly to help consolidate credit card debt.... Read More


All loans are subject to credit review and approval. Your actual rate depends upon credit score, loan amount, loan term, credit usage and history. Currently loans are not offered in: MA, MS, NE, NV, OH, and WV.

If you’ve got outstanding balances on one or more credit cards, Payoff may be worth looking into. The lender offers a credit card consolidation loan, which allows you to combine multiple credit card debts into a single loan with just one bill to manage. But Payoff doesn’t offer general use personal loans, meaning you’ll need to look elsewhere if you want financing for a home repair, emergency medical procedure or other purpose.

Using Payoff, you can take out personal loans between $5,000 and $35,000, which must be paid off between 24 and 60 months. The maximum offered APR is the lowest among the three options here. Though fair credit borrowers can expect a higher APR, if your Payoff personal loan offers a lower APR than your credit cards, then consolidating can make sense.

While Payoff charges an origination fee, it doesn’t charge application fees, early or extra payment fees or late fees. To qualify, you should have a minimum credit score of 600, a debt-to-income ratio of less than 50% and at least three years’ worth of good credit history and no delinquencies.

Best Egg

APR

5.99%
To
29.99%

Credit Req.

640

Minimum Credit Score

Terms

36 or 60

months

Origination Fee

0.99% - 6.99%

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on LendingTree’s secure website

Advertiser Disclosure

People looking for a process that is fast and straightforward can’t go wrong when applying through Best Egg for a personal loan. ... Read More


The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is the cost of credit as a yearly rate and ranges from 5.99% to 29.99%, which may include an origination fee from 0.99% - 6.99% that is deducted from loan proceeds. Any origination fee on a loan term 4-years or longer will be at least 4.99%. The loan term and the APR offered will depend on your credit score, income, debt payment obligations, loan amount, credit usage history and other factors. Additionally, the APR offered is impacted by your loan term and may be higher than our lowest advertised rate. Requests for the highest loan amount may result in an APR higher than our lowest advertised rate. You need a minimum 700 FICO® score and a minimum individual annual income of $100,000 to qualify for our lowest rate.

Best Egg loans are unsecured personal loans made by Cross River Bank, a New Jersey State Chartered Commercial Bank, Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender. "Best Egg" is a trademark of Marlette Funding, LLC. All uses of "Best Egg" on this site mean and shall refer to "the Best Egg personal loan" and/or "Best Egg on behalf of Cross River Bank, as originator of the Best Egg personal loan," as applicable. Loan amounts generally range from $2,000-$35,000. Offers up to $50,000 may be available. Residents of Massachusetts have a minimum loan amount of $6,500; New Mexico and Ohio, $5,000; and Georgia, $3,000. For a second Best Egg loan, your total existing Best Egg loan balances cannot exceed $50,000. Borrowers should refer to their loan agreement for specific terms and conditions. Your verifiable income must support your ability to repay your loan. Upon loan funding, the timing of available funds may vary depending upon your bank's policies.

To help the government fight the funding of terrorism and money laundering activities, federal law requires all financial institutions to obtain, verify, and record information that identifies each person who opens an account. When you open an account, we will ask for your name, address, date of birth, and other information that will allow us to identify you.

Best Egg offers a personal loan that can be used for a variety of purposes, from debt consolidation to major purchases. In short, it’s a more flexible loan option compared to Payoff. Personal loans can be obtained for a minimum of $2,000 and maximum of $35,000.

The maximum APR of 29.99% is higher than Payoff’s, however. And to secure the lowest APRs, you’ll need a loan term under 48 months, a minimum credit score of 700 and a minimum annual income of $100,000.

To qualify for any of Best Egg’s loan, you’ll need a credit score of 640 or better, a low debt-to-income ratio and a steady source of income to prove you earn enough to repay your debts.

Peerform

Borrowers who use Peerform may obtain personal loans that can be used for just about anything. But unlike the other options listed here, Peerform relies on other people opting to invest in your project in return for interest-accruing repayments. That’s because Peerform is a peer-to-peer lending platform.

After you apply, your loan inquiry is listed on Peerform’s online marketplace where investors can evaluate it and decide if they want to put up all or a share of the needed money in return for a steady, monthly return. It’s worth noting though that individual investors are not directly making these loans to you. Rather, loans are made by Cross River Bank and people can then choose to invest with Peerform in its collection of loans.

A notable downside of using a peer-to-peer lending marketplace is a potentially slower loan application process compared to your typical lender. However, eligibility requirements can be more flexible. To qualify, you’ll need a minimum credit score of 600, a debt-to-income ratio below 40%, an open bank account and a clean credit history that includes no current delinquencies or recent bankruptcies, tax liens or collections.

Your fair credit isn’t the only factor lenders consider

Having a fair credit score means lenders will be liable to deny you the best personal loan terms, notably their lowest offered interest rates. You might not be approved for the full amount or repayment term you want, either.

But credit scores aren’t the only measure of risk lenders look to when determining whether to extend a loan. They will typically consider other factors, such as:

  • Income
  • Checking account balance
  • Current savings
  • Debt-to-income ratio

That said, high earners, those with lots of money in the bank, or those with little-to-no existing debt may qualify for better loan terms than their fair credit score initially indicates.

Before you apply, ask yourself these 3 questions

Before borrowing, do the math on your personal loan. This is especially helpful once you’ve seen the terms you prequalify for among fair credit lenders.

Play around with our personal loan payment calculator by plugging in your loan amount, the APRs you’re seeing, and repayment terms. (Your APR is a great measure of what you’ll pay to borrow, as it takes your interest rates and other fees into account.) Your budget should comfortably accommodate your new loan’s monthly payment.

If you’re seeking a personal loan for an expense that can wait, that may be your best option. Personal loan interest rates can be high for fair credit borrowers, so taking the time to raise your credit score can save you a significant amount of money.

To help boost your credit, you might try such things as paying off your bills in full and on time each month and lowering your debt-to-income ratio.

If you have a family member or friend with a high credit score, it may be worth asking them to cosign on the loan in order to get more favorable repayment terms. But you should have a plan of action for repaying the debt. That’s because your cosigner is equally on the hook for the debt. If you fall behind on payments, for example, their credit will take a hit along with yours.

Alternative loan options for fair credit

Secured personal loan

If your financial situation is holding you back, a secured personal loan may be a good alternative. For lenders, you’ll be less of a risk if your loan is backed by collateral, such as a car, savings account balance or the equity in your home. That means you could get better repayment terms than with an unsecured personal loan, as well as qualify with more lenders.

But if you default, the lender can take possession of whatever asset you put on the line. Before you get a secured loan, then, make sure you can repay the debt in full. You don’t want to be caught with a defaulted debt on top of losing your car or other asset.

Payday alternative loan (PAL)

If you belong to a federal credit union, you may be able to borrow between $200 and $1,000 from the financial institution and repay it within one to six months at a maximum annual interest rate of 28%. Credit unions have also recently begun offering another of these kinds of loans, known as a PAL II, which extends the borrowing limit to $2,000 and the repayment period to 12 months.

Leaning on a credit card

If the interest rate on your credit card is close to the interest rate you’d pay on a personal loan and your credit limit is high enough, you might consider charging the expense. After all, you’ve already been approved for this line of credit and as long as you make the minimum payment, you can repay the balance over however long you need.

A credit card’s lack of structured monthly repayment terms though could lead you to pay the debt off more slowly than you would with a personal loan, though, which can skyrocket your costs.

Methodology

To select the “best” personal loans for fair credit, we used MagnifyMoney’s personal loan marketplace on Jan. 23, 2020. We assumed the following:

  • Borrowers have a FICO Score of 580-669.
  • Loan amount of $5,000
  • ZIP code 11220

Lenders were chosen by A) lowest minimum APR and B) lowest minimum origination fee. Lenders who do not specify a minimum credit score requirement were not considered.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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