The Moral Instinct and Your Money

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I recently came across a fascinating article from the New York Times by Steven Pinker called The Moral Instinct. The basic idea behind the paper is that people tend to operate with a “moral instinct” – an inherent sense that some things are “right” and some things are “wrong” – and use that instinct to make quick judgment calls on whether something they observe is a good thing or a bad thing.

It’s pretty easy to think about this in your own life, particularly when you use obvious and glaring examples of it. If you see one person kill another person, virtually everyone will think of this as wrong almost immediately. If you see one person give some of the food they have to another person who is nearly starving, virtually everyone will think of this as right almost immediately.

the new moral agenda
Interesting poster courtesy of Frank Hebbert

What gets trickier is when you start moving into more grey areas. What you often find is that one person might find some specific thing morally right, while another person finds that exact same thing morally wrong. You often see this playing out in the politics, where many of the social (and even many of the fiscal and security-oriented) issues are being debated between one group that instinctively feels some action is acceptable, while another group feels that action is not acceptable.

Where does this moral instinct come from? You’ll find a lot of different answers to that question, but the rough consensus seems to be that, much like other elements that make up who we are, it’s a mix of nature and nurture. Some of our moral instinct comes from our nature and we were born with it, while the rest of it is learned through the experiences of our lives.

Throughout my life, I’ve learned that many moral instincts are pretty much set in stone. Killing someone else is wrong – I’m likely never going to shake that.

On the other hand, there are a lot of moral instincts that, if I work at them and study them and evaluate them, I’ll sometimes change how I feel about them. My gut reaction to someone smoking has changed over time from “completely normal and fine” (as I grew up in an environment with several smokers nearby) to a position that now involves a lot of environmental context. There are a lot of activities that people do alone or with another trusted person that I might have once instinctively felt as being “wrong” but now feel largely indifferent about.

The point of all of this is that we often handle situations based on an instinctual sense of right and wrong and while some aspects of that sense of right and wrong are set in stone, others are not. However, it can take a lot of study, reflection, and work to change those aspects.

(What is morality, by the way? I like Wikipedia’s definition: “Morality (from the Latin moralitas ‘manner, character, proper behavior’) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong).” Morality enters into almost every action we take.)

This leads me right into personal finance, of course. Personal finance comes down to a long line of personal decisions, and many of those personal decisions are made purely on instinct. Our immediate reaction to a situation is that one of the choices is the “right” choice and we follow up on that choice.

Most of the time, these choices are well into the grey area of morality. There are some issues that are black and white: for example, most of us would agree that stealing from others is wrong, although it would be a financial gain for us. Stealing isn’t really in the grey area.

However, put yourself in the grocery store and stick a package of premium bacon in your hand. Do you put it in the cart or back on the shelf?

Most of the time, we’ll make decisions like that without even consciously thinking. We’re guided by what we individually think is right and wrong, and often it’s based on very incomplete information. As we walk down a grocery aisle, for example, we breeze past hundreds of items that we instinctually know we don’t want to buy because they don’t suit our needs. It is the wrong choice to put a brand of bread in the cart if our family doesn’t like that brand at all, for example.

The problem is that if our judgments of what’s right and wrong are wired in such a way that we continually spend more than we earn, it’s going to be rather difficult to get ahead.

I speak completely from experience here. Several years ago, when I would shop for groceries, my only real concern about buying an item is whether it would be delicious or not. Price was almost never considered, nor was the relative healthiness of the item.

Not only was this the norm for me, it was also the norm for most of the people in my life. The norm was spending your money for instant gratification and letting the future take care of itself. That meant you didn’t worry about price and you didn’t particularly worry about healthiness, because future you would earn more money and hit the gym.

While the “nature” of the choice might have pointed me somewhat in one direction, the “nurture” element pushed me to make some terrible choices with my money. My instincts guided me perfectly down a path of quick gratification, but guided me down a horrible long-term path.

How did I change that instinct? It’s still an ongoing process, to be frank.

I started the process by being incredibly deliberate about most of my spending choices. Rather than operate on the instincts that I had come to see as morally broken, I stepped back and tried to evaluate every situation where I spent money at a level beyond instinct. I still do this, particularly in places where temptation is strong. I used the ten second rule and the thirty day rule. I stopped for a bit with every single purchase I put into my cart. I focused intensely on the long term for each purchase I made.

At a glance, thinking about the long-term consequence of which dish soap or beans to buy seems a bit ridiculous, but there’s a twofold purpose to it. First, it forced me to think about the purchases in a way I hadn’t considered before. Thinking about the five year consequences of my everyday purchases was not something I was used to doing and it forced me to reconsider my life in a new way.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it subtly rewired my sense of right and wrong when it came to purchases. With that focus came a different internal understanding of what I should value with each item I bought. Price became a much larger factor. Healthiness grew in importance, too. Tastiness, while still relevant, dropped in importance. The brand name of items became less important, while the raw functionality of the items grew.

Today, I largely operate (in terms of my day-to-day money) on a set of instincts substantially different than what I used several years ago.

This makes for some interesting conflicts with some of my friends and family, particularly ones I was in line with on these issues years ago. When I describe a choice I made today, I’m sometimes greeted with a look of confusion because I’m making my choices based on different instincts. Which is right and which is wrong? That’s up to each person to decide, but I’m operating on ones that feel right for me.

This change in social reactions was actually one of the hardest things about shifting my spending patterns. When a friend is making choices that your gut is telling you is wrong – or at least significantly different than your own – it can be stressful. It can put a damper on that relationship, because often we build friendships based on commonalities, not differences. It can push against the changes you’re making to yourself and it can sometimes result in friendships weakening over time. We tend to congregate with people who share our values, experiences, morals, and senses of right and wrong, and when those start to change, it can be hard.

This issue of resetting your moral instinct with regards to your money goes beyond just spending choices at the store. It goes into things like saving for retirement, saving for your children’s education, saving for a car or a house, what vacation you choose, whether or not you have life insurance or what type of health insurance you have, and on and on.

It goes far beyond money, too. You can reset your sense of right and wrong with how you use your time, how you manage your health, what your political beliefs are, and so on. It relates to every aspect of your life.

Changing these things is hard. Not only is it hard to change how you make decisions internally, there’s often a network of people and environments around you that are encouraging you to keep making decisions the way you always have.

It takes time and patience and learning (lots of learning) to overcome yourself and the people around you and make the changes you need to make. Take failures in stride and focus on your successes. Take each step slowly and focus on just executing that step correctly. Don’t worry if you find someone in your life questioning what you’re doing as long as you understand the changes you’re making.

Give it time. Eventually, the right choice will move from being the hard choice to being the easy choice to eventually being the instinctive choice.

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78 thoughts on “The Moral Instinct and Your Money

  1. “If you see one person kill another person, virtually everyone will think of this as wrong almost immediately”

    Not necessarily. I don’t think “virtually everyone” opposes self defense, all war, and the death penalty, for example.

    (I know this isn’t the main point of the article, but to be honest, I don’t have much of a clue what the rest of it’s supposed to be about.)

  2. ha, Johanna, I had a moderated comment this morning that simply thanked trent for posting his clarification in the reader mailbag

  3. The moderation filter is RIDICULOUS.

    My god, if nobody can comment this blog is going to suck. Because I don’t really want to listen to Trent make moral judgments about the way other people spend their money. Or buy bread.

    And what does morality have to do with buying bread anyway?

    I’m with Johanna. This article doesn’t really make sense and seems to be based on a giant pile of really terrible logic.

  4. I believe Trent has also confused “instinct” (behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level) with “reflex” (a way of thinking and behaving).

  5. Good to see that somebody is checking the moderation queue. But now we’ve got perfectly innocent comments getting deleted, while some of the trolly ones from a few days ago are still there.

    Whose moral instinct is responsible for this?

  6. I think that a part of the problem is that our entire financial outlook is based on a lot of lessons that we learned pretty young. One of the common tenets in generational poverty is the idea that “stuff happens to you”. Whereas people raised in a more proactive culture (even if they had the exact same income)tend to see it as “life is a series of things to deal with”.

    The idea of being taught to think your way through, fight your way out, or in the case of finances save-your way out of some of life’s tougher challenges isn’t even part of the thought process for many who were never shown that it’s an option.

    Unfortunately, if just accepting that “stuff happens to everyone, and it’s not anyone’s fault” is the attitude you’re raised with..it can be terribly difficult to take the steps that come after taking personal responsibility… budgeting, saving, investing, etc.

  7. Yeah, the only clear thing I got from this article is that Trent doesn’t really understand the definition of morality.

  8. Well, I made my comment and it’s in moderation so yeah – terrible article AND terrible moderation.

  9. There is a huge difference between ‘gut instinct’ and ‘moral instincts.’ This is a truly convoluted article.

    Comment filter is probably set on at least 11 thanks to ‘jim’ & ‘mike.’

    And, I agree with Johanna that one needs to consider the context of someone killing another. There are a lot of people who feel it’s justified in one or more situations. Many of whom, it seems, identify the loudest with the ten commandments.

  10. But don’t forget! Lurkers email Trent and tell him they LOVE to have their comments sent to moderation!

  11. What a clever article! How else can someone emphasize with so much power the necessity of editing? ;)

  12. So…trolls who spam the site with graphic stuff get let through, and people with actual concrit get sent to the Neverneverland of moderation? Just goes to show–gotta do it yourself if you want it done right….

    I think this whole thing is confused: you have morality, which divides good from bad, and then you have ethics, which tells us how to differentiate good from bad. None of which has anything to do with behavior (reflexive or otherwise) beyond the fact that morals/ethics inform us of the permissibility of our behaviors.

    There is, IMO, a right and a wrong way to spend money. But choosing not to buy a $25 hardcover and saving for a house instead is not a moral choice. It is a financial one, and it may even be a good financial one, if debt collectors are hanging over your head. But unless there are debt collectors breathing down your neck, there is no inherent evil in spending money, just as there is no inherent good in saving it. The acts of spending and saving are not imbued with some magical moral property. It is what we buy and how we spend/save that are fraught with morals (Goldman Sachs, anyone?).

  13. Are those the same lurkers who send in so many letters he just can’t choose?

    it’s like you are forcing your readership away.

  14. I generally liked the article. The problem, though, is that many purchasing decisions are far attenuated from core moral truths. I believe that morality is, fundamentally, objective and based on nature in the sense that nature itself reveals the most basic moral truths (as opposed to one’s “natural” instincts, which can be opposed to this objective truth). But while moral principles are objective, the implications of those principles are not so black and white. Thus, morality does not clearly dictate the correct choice on what you should buy at the grocery store as it would with more basic questions (like: is it ok to rape or murder for fun?).

    I admit, I’m no ethicist or philosopher. But I like the article. While the implications of moral truths can be hard to tease out, I do like the idea that you should try to do so, even in some of the most mundane decisions of your day to day life.

  15. Wow and my comment that was in moderation was DELETED rather than approved.

    (and yes, it was critical, no it was not profane, obviously)

  16. “There is, IMO, a right and a wrong way to spend money. But choosing not to buy a $25 hardcover and saving for a house instead is not a moral choice. It is a financial one”

    This seems to me to be a contradiction. I would love it if you would explain it in more detail! This is very interesting.

  17. It’s completely NOT a contradiction. Which pretty much highlights my [deleted] comment about how you don’t really seem to understand what morality is.

  18. (My apologies, it looks like the previous comment wasn’t deleted, just for some reason was not showing up as either there OR in moderation, possibly while it was being approved)

  19. And Trent still doesn’t know how to deal with criticism like a grown-up. This is very interesting.

  20. Tracy, I’ve had the same problem twice today already – one on yesterday’s free community stuff post with an innocent comment entirely UNcritical of Trent, and one on this post commenting on the fact that the afore-mentioned innocent comment in moderation had been deleted.

  21. Deciding where to spend your money CAN be a moral decision – primarily if you believe that where it goes after it leaves you would do good or harm. But buying a house and buying a book are both morally neutral in and of themselves, so choosing to spend between two neutrals (from a moral standpoint) – the book or the house – is not a moral decision. It’s a financial one.

  22. Tracy, I’d love to hear your definition of morality. I think you have a lot of value to add here.

    In the article, I defined morality as “the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong).” This seems to me to cover every decision we make.

    You seem to disagree with this. I’d love to understand why. Is it because you find that definition to be faulty (in which case, you have a great case to make at Wikipedia as well)? Do you believe the application to be too broad?

  23. It seems like you are defining ‘good’ as ‘personally the right choice for me’ in your examples and yes, I think that’s an incorrect definition of ‘good’

  24. Because, in the example Jules gave, spending $25 on a hardcover book instead of putting the money aside for a house is not a black-and-white “wrong” choice?

    One might be more financially prudent while the other is a short-term indulgence, but that doesn’t make either one the “right” or “wrong” answer to the artificial dilemma.

  25. Or rather, the incorrect definition of the word ‘good’ (it’s a broad based word with multiple applications) as it applies to morals.

  26. Also, I don’t see how the definition of morality you’re using “seems to cover every decision we make.” EVERY decision? Is this a joke? There’s a MORALLY right and wrong answer to where I choose to live, what I pack for lunch, which of our two near-identical vehicles I drive to work, whether I go for a run tonight, which 401(k) investment options I choose, and whether I spend $20 on a hobby or passion or put that $20 in the bank toward an as-yet-undefined purpose?

  27. Good points, Tracy and Misha. At some point, though, don’t we have to make the call as to whether or not to buy the book? On what basis do we make that call?

    To borrow Misha’s words, aren’t we balancing the “more financially prudent” choice against the “short-term indulgence”? On some level, we have to have a mechanism for making that choice, and it’s not one based strictly on dollars and cents.

  28. I think maybe some research into value theory and the difference between ‘natural goods’ and ‘moral goods’ would clarify things.

    Although I think there’s a bit of … shallowness, in taking a one sentence definition from wikipedia and not really digging into it when you constructed the rest of the post … morality is far more complex than that, as it intersects with cultural, societal, personal values.

    A choice can be ‘right’ for you, that doesn’t make it moral choice – OR an immoral choice. Many, many choices are value-neutral in terms of morality and immorality.

    Your pack of bacon is probably the best illustration, because if you chose not to buy it because you believe that killing animals is wrong or because you’re against the current farming conditions – you’re making a moral choice. If you’re not buying it because there’s a cheaper one on the other shelf … that’s a personal value, but it’s not a moral choice.

  29. I don’t mind the definition, but I don’t understand how it applies to premium bacon.

    Exluding the obvious – vegetarians who think eating bacon is wrong – in which case they wouldn’t likely have picked it up in the first place, or some specific knowledge that the premium bacon company supports extracurriculars that I find distasteful, I don’t understand how my choice of bacon is a moral one at all. It’s a question of weighing personal taste against cost, no?

    I also don’t understand how putting the loaf of bread that your family doesn’t enjoy in the cart is _morally_ wrong. Wrong in the sense that you’ve made an error? Sure. But I don’t see morals attached to that one way or the other, no more than making a typo is morally wrong. I suppose that you could argue that you are wasting that food which could be morally wrong, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

  30. As Tracy has suggested, the Wikipedia definition (or at least, the part of it that you quote) is inadequate because right, wrong, good, and bad have multiple meanings. “Right” can mean “virtuous,” or it can mean “correct.”

    If you’re adding 2+2, 4 is the right answer and 5 is the wrong answer. But it’s not *immoral* to add 2+2 and get 5. It’s just incorrect. (Unless you’re trying to deliberately deceive someone. But that’s another matter.)

  31. I should have said: the Wikipedia definition you quote is inadequate for people who either honestly have no idea what morality is or are deliberately trying to redefine it. For the rest of us, the definition is just fine.

  32. If I was a fake poster posting as Trent, I’d certainly try to write more in Trent’s writing style.

  33. If one buys cheap bacon instead of expensive bacon because one has come (however late) to some realisation that one cannot afford expensive bacon, that is not a moral choice. If one buys cheap bacon instead of expensive bacon because the difference in taste (if any) does not seem worth the additional expense, that is not a moral choice. But if one buys cheap bacon instead of expensive bacon because one wishes to give the difference in price to the poor, so that they can have some cheap bacon also, that is a moral choice.

  34. “One might be more financially prudent while the other is a short-term indulgence, but that doesn’t make either one the “right” or “wrong” answer to the artificial dilemma.”

    Hm, which one is the house, and which one is the book?

  35. I have to say that I do not think that morality plays any part in pure financial decisions for an individual and their family. Every financial transaction is a buy/sell contract in its most general form.
    I think that it is a complete mistake to inject morality into it. As a bankruptcy lawyer, I see a lot of this with my clients. In fact, I just wrote a recent blog post on the morality of bankruptcy.
    Anyway, that is my stance. Business is business.

  36. It sounds like Trent to me. I bet somebody going to the trouble to write “fake Trent” posts would make them a lot more ridiculous than that.

  37. I’m confused about the comments to do with moderation, especially as the trolls seem to always be able to post, but I never seem to see my comments going up.

    Irony – I’m almost always positive about Trent’s articles. This one is particularly good, makes you look at finance another way. Most personal finance bloggers don’t write about the changes in one’s thinking and how hard that can be re: other people.

  38. I applaud Trent for at least trying to have a go at exploring this issue, which doesn’t get much airtime at all in PF Blogs. The morality part lies in the fact that you ‘value’ something, which you want to act on or to keep. It has to be a conscious, rational decision as to whether or not it’s good or bad, right or wrong. As soon as you start relying on instincts you’ve had it when it comes money, and most other things for that matter!

  39. If it is a ‘fake Trent’ it’s an official one, though, not someone trying to mock/fake it.

    In which case, it’d be somebody from the company trying to salvage things via comments. It’s a bit weird getting actual responses, but I’m not prepared to decide one way or another.

  40. “#27 Trent @ 10:27 am March 20th, 2012
    In the article, I defined morality as “the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good (or right) and those that are bad (or wrong).” This seems to me to cover every decision we make.”

    This is VASTLY too broad, and I don’t think many people make that mistake. Not all choices are moral choices. Some things fall within the sphere or morality (Should I spend my money on food for my child, or on a new dress?) Most daily choices do not (Should I spend my money on a new dress or save it for my next vacation?)

    People have explained above about ‘incorrect’ not being synonymous with ‘immoral’, but I’m not really sure how one can explain what should be obvious.
    Perhaps, one looks at a choice someone else has made, and it’s a bad one. Does that choice make them a bad person? (They stole food)
    or a good person? (They gave food to someone hungry)
    or just a different person? (They bought food you don’t enjoy)
    or a foolish person? (They bought expensive food that could be found for half price at another store)
    or an ignorant person? (They bought food with few nutrients)
    etc.

    If you think someone else’s answer to a choice would make them a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ *person*, that’s probably a moral choice. If not, it probably isn’t.
    My mother used to make the mistake of buying some brand of granola bars or something that was on sale that she brought home to realize no-one in the house actually liked to eat. That was a poor choice, but not a morally wrong one.

  41. I think the theory here is nice – that we develop a moral instinct and that many of our choices are made on instinct, which carries over to our financial life.
    But the poor understanding of morality and its relevance to different situations, and the failure to explain that it is a concept *similar* to how we buy on automatic but can change those instincts, rather than it being the same moral guidance really interfered with the message and sunk what was a great and different idea for an article.

  42. As others have said, Trent is taking the wikipedia definition of morality too far and generalizing it to issues that have no moral implication. There are many decisions and right vs wrong choices or good or bad options which have no moral implication. There are many decisions which don’t even have a right or wrong choice.

    I’ll also say that I do believe that is the real Trent commenting. Like Johanna pointed out if it was a faker then I think the comments would be much more ridiculous.

  43. It’s great that you’re moderating more heavily since there have been inappropriate postings, but making everyone wait, then passing the trolls through anyways is pretty abysmal moderating.

  44. Actions are either moral or immoral. Things, being inanimate objects, are distinctly amoral and it is how we interact with things can determine if an action is moral or immoral.

    Buying a bestseller with discretionary income is not immoral but.
    Buying a bestseller over food for your children is immoral.

    Trent is more talking about ingrained habits, as opposed to some inherent morality.

  45. The real Trent would be able to ensure that his comments were on a different background by means of the style sheets attached to this blog. A fake Trent would not. Inspection of the relevant elements indicates that they use the style sheets attached to this blog. Q, as they used to say, ED.

  46. Kai, the spam filter and moderation tools for blogs are usually not super flexible or comprehensive. My own blogs comment system gives me little control over moderation. Trent probably has better tools than I do but I doubt he’s got as much control as he’d like in how it works. I’m sure they are not just making everyone wait and letting the troll through. You generally either moderate everything one by one or you let the spam filter work. Spam filters are unreliable. I wouldn’t blame Trent, but instead suspect the spam filter simply isn’t perfect. Besides… didn’t Cut Media take over the logistical side? I assume this is really Cut Medias job to deal with now.

  47. I’m considering giving water to the plant I have on my desk. On the other hand, I might wait until tomorrow.

    Which decision is morally correct?

  48. @Lysander #55, is buying a bestseller with discretionary income while children are starving in Africa immoral?

    @David #56, I think everyone agrees it is the main admin account posting, just if it is really Trent or someone pretending to be Trent that manages the blog. I agree it is the real Trent.

  49. #43 Frank – In purely financial decisions, you’re right, but not all financial decisions are *purely* so. For instance, I am an ethical vegan. This, of course, is a purely moral, non-financial choice. However, not only won’t I buy, use, or eat animal products, I would also not invest money in companies that participated in those activities (eg. companies that own slaughterhouses or do animal testing). The decision to invest is a financial decision, but the choice of what to invest in is and should be informed by a person’s moral compass. There are plenty of morally neutral financial choices, such as the aforementioned book versus home savings example, but “voting with your money” is a valid moral, ethical, and political way of living.

  50. I understood what Trent meant to say with this article. Perhaps morality wasn’t the right word but we ALL make choices in life: Some good, some bad. Choices are individual and based on experiences and upbringing. Sometimes our upbringing & our past experiences didn’t provide the right messages so we need to rethink them and rewire our thought process so we can make better choices. That’s what I got from this and I found it useful for my own life.

  51. I am glad to see that Trent has taken the time to write a quality article and that he’s doing a bit of moderation and responding to the comments. Nice work!

  52. @ Trent: I mean that shifting resources isn’t inherently good or bad. Saving the money to purchase a hit is exactly the same act as saving the money to purchase a house, but one could (quite convincingly) argue that one is worse than the other. Spending and saving are not moral actions. They are actions used to achieve a potentially moral end.

    What you are doing when you are saving a house is assigning a higher importance to the house than you are to any immediate wants. You use your moral compass to make that assignation. But the act of saving those $25 for your mortgage down payment does not carry with it any moral significance, other than speeding up the process.

  53. People complain when Trent doesn’t respond, then when he does, they complain they he can’t take criticism or he is fake. He just asked for further comment to his comments.
    I “got” his blog today.

  54. There’s a difference between *complaining* that he’s fake and wondering if he IS a fake. I lean against it being fake but I understand why the sudden wonderment.

    Personally, I like the change and it’s potential for growth … but as of yet, it’s still just potential.

  55. If “Trent” says that he is the man himself, then I have no evidence to the contrary and I will assume that to be true.

    But I do understand the doubt since those responses definitely don’t match his usual tone.

  56. Read some of Trent’s comments from a few years ago in which he responds to criticism – very similar in tone to these.

  57. “#57 jim @ 3:26 pm March 20th, 2012
    Kai, the spam filter and moderation tools for blogs are usually not super flexible or comprehensive….”

    The ‘you’ was intended at the blog, so right now, at Cut Media. But I didn’t make that clear, so my mistake.
    I assumed that since comments were being delayed before posting, that it meant someone was reading over them. If no-one is actually reading them to not approve the trolling comments, then why delay their showing up on the website?

  58. Kai, not all comments are going into moderation before being approved. Some are caught by the spam filter and some slip by it. The spam filter is not extremely effective and may be easily tricked. I’ve yet to see a perfect spam filter.

  59. @Kai

    It seems random, actually – some of my comments are posted immediately and others are getting approved. But there’s no rhyme or reason that I can see about which ones make it through instantly and which ones end up in mod.

  60. Joanna…how many responses did you make about this blog posting and the comments? Good grief! Get a life and do something besides monitoring a blog you profess to hate.

  61. johanna,
    Seriously, you are so obsessed with being correct that you went back several years and found the few comments that Trent responded to and analyzed his tone. This is why you read a financial blog?

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