Updated on 04.01.09

Can You Live Without That Service?

Trent Hamm

When I reached my financial bottom, one of my first responses was to look for fat to cut out of my life. I eliminated Netflix. I eliminated magazine and newspaper subscriptions. I whacked away at some of the pricier options on several other bills.

I needed to do this because, quite simply, the monthly bills had grown so large that they had overwhelmed my income. It was becoming difficult just to pay the bills, let alone do anything else or spend anything extra.

I expected that eliminating these services would really hurt. My wife and I used to watch movies by the dozen – how could we possibly live without Netflix? What would I do without Harpers in the mail and the New York Times on my doorstep? What would I do without unlimited text messages?

What I found was that life went on without these services – and it went on quite easily. My wife and I filled our evenings with other things – reading, going outside more, and so on. I found new things to read to replace the cancelled subscriptions. I also found I wasn’t sending nearly as many text messages as I thought – and I didn’t really need them that much, anyway.

To put it frankly, I was much happier seeing my debt go down by $20 a month than to see Netflix discs in the mail. I didn’t expect that at all, to tell the truth – I figured I would loathe leaving Netflix. I couldn’t possibly believe that a monthly $20 reduction in debt was really worth losing something I enjoyed so much.

Without that steady influx of movies, though, I quickly moved onto other things. I began to read more. I went outside more. And before long, I didn’t really miss the discs in the mail at all.

At the same time, I was able to put $20 more per month towards my debt. That’s $20 off the principal, which meant that I was paying progressively less interest, too. It became part of my debt snowball, helping me to wipe out my credit card debt and my remaining auto loans quicker than before.

And that felt good.

It’s easy to trick ourselves. There are so many things in our lives that we gently delude ourselves into thinking of as a requirement. In truth, though, many of those things are far from requirements – they’re just expensive pleasures that leave us writing a check each month. In the end, is it really bringing a net benefit of pleasure, particularly when there are other worthwhile ways to spend our time?

I’m not encouraging anyone to give up things that would actually hurt. If giving up something would actually negatively impact your life, be very careful about actually eliminating it.

Instead, I propose giving it a thirty day trial. See if you can spend thirty days completely without a particular service. If you can, then you don’t need that service – it’s an unnecessary leak on your finances. If you find you cannot, then that service is still there waiting for you, after all.

You might just find – as I did – that you don’t really need all of those services and things that your monthly bills pay for. Then, when you trim those services, you can apply that money to paying off your debt or investing in a Roth IRA – yes, $20 a month can be the beginning of a healthy Roth IRA if you start young.

Good luck.

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  1. teaspoon says:

    1. We were on the lowest Netflix plan, and eliminated it when we were having a hard time watching even the requisite 2 movies a month! We get everything we need on Hulu and from the library.

    2. When you talked about putting an extra $20/month towards paying down debt, you said: “That’s $20 off the principal, which meant that I was paying progressively less interest, too.” Could you (or somebody else) explain how this works? I’ve been making extra payments on my student loans and a big chunk of those payments is still going towards interest. Do I need to specify somehow that I want all extra payments to go directly towards the principal? I didn’t realize that it made a difference…

  2. Just a guy... says:

    Many times, the regular purchases that we subscribe to hurt us the most for two reasons. One, over time we begin to think them as normal and two, we feel that they are must-haves. By using a trial unsubscription period for the services we already have, we can learn a lot. I recently did this with cable. After several months, I realized there were certain channels that persoanlly improved my enjoyment of life (some sports channels and OnDemand movies). So, after 6 months, I called and got a far lower priced package than what I had and feel much better when I see the monthly bill (both because it’s lower but more importantly, because I know it’s appropriate and adds the right amount of value in my life).

  3. Nice way to put it.

    I had this problem with getting rid of the Sunday morning paper. Taking an hour or two to read through the paper and the ads is something I did for a while. I have never even thought about missing it until I read this article.

  4. leslie says:

    Is giving up a subscription completely necessary? Did you consider just reducing your plan down to 1-at-a-time for $9? This might be easier for some people to relate to than giving up their enjoyments completely.

  5. Pawel says:

    We used to pay horrendous money for various subscriptions. At the end we eliminated most of them but in a case of few instead of looking for a something else to fill the void we actually found a substitute.
    Our gym bill for instance, we would be paying it every month and still there would be weeks and months that neither myself or my wife would go there. Waste of money.
    So we bought a second hand gym equipment (not everything we would love to have but more than enough to enjoy it and get fit) and converted one of the rooms into our private gym. Now I start my day with some exercise and, the cost for the whole thing was less than 3 months gym subscription!
    Same goes with cable (replaced by freeview – not sure if you guys in States have it but probably yes – apologies for my ignorance here) and many other things.
    Now the bills are low and we still enjoy things we love.

  6. Avani-Mehta says:

    I actually don’t use any kind of service – no newspapers, magazine, netflix/blockbuster, gym etc. Library (free membership) is one thing I use a lot for books and occasional movies.

    We are currently experimenting on trying to go without a car for a month (we use car rentals since we don’t own a car.) It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes.

  7. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    “To put it frankly, I was much happier seeing my debt go down by $20 a month than to see Netflix discs in the mail.”

    This comment really hit home. I’m completely surprised at how often I feel this when I cut down my expenses. I almost always enjoy the feeling of money saved much more than the actual product/subscription!

    The content on this site has been extremely good over the past two weeks! Keep it up!

  8. Johanna says:

    I’m not sure that the thirty-day trial idea works in every situation. For one, I sometimes go for thirty days or more without using my home phone for anything other than receiving telemarketing calls, but when I need it, I really need it. For another, I subscribe to a couple of publications that come out less often than once a month, so there are often periods of thirty days between when I’m done with one issue and when the next one arrives.

    In general, though, not a bad idea.

  9. chef says:

    Just now (and i mean just now) trimmed my Netflix back to 1 at a time. We’ll see about cutting it altogether, but I really think it adds $10 of value/month to my life.

  10. I feel like that about getting rid of cable. Our lives have been nothing but better. We’re only saving $15 a month, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back.

  11. blogkitten says:

    We completely got rid of cable. Instead, we have a 2/month unlimited Netflix subscription in combination with a MacBook Pro with Boxee. We watch streaming shows from that service and the “watch it now” Netflix service.

    My wallet thanks me for the extra $60/month that I’m not spending on cable.

  12. Carrick says:

    Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone having such services in the current economic climate. I currently have NO inessential monthly bills (unless you’re so hard core that you consider electricity inessential) and wish I had more to slash so I could put that money into my savings.

  13. 4streegrrl says:

    We gave up satellite TV for Lent, just to break my husband of his evening channel-surfing habit. In addition to saving $20 a month (yes, we had the bare bones for satellite), we spend more time doing productive or creative things in the evening, and we don’t miss TV at all. I’ve opted out of TV until September since we’ll be spending more time outside and in the garden over the summer. Who knows, like Kristen, we may never go back!

  14. viola says:

    It’s amazing how necessity is the mother of invention.

    And as for Netflix, I love Redbox. Only $1 per day. The choices aren’t as great, but for people with kids or who don’t watch a movie but once a week, it’s great.

  15. Ryan K from Event Horizon Fotografie says:

    I had gone through the same process. I cut XM, cable, netflix, and I even sold my car! I get around by bike.

    I love a smaller life. I’m getting more into my photography. It’s great.

  16. PF says:

    So timely. I was thinking about restarting netflix. I think I just need to go to the library and use the store movie kiosk for DVDs.

  17. Kathryn says:

    We used to have the Blockbuster version of Netflix. I don’t miss that at all. Our local grocery has something like Redbox, & we like that.

    Most of the other extraneous stuff i’ve cut out. I didn’t get subscriptions (except as gifts) but i used to be a magazine junky. Got at least one every time i did grocery shopping. Have cut that out except 3-4 times a year. I don’t really miss them.

    I also used to buy a lot of books. I’m learning to utilize the library for books & magazines much more than i did before.

    But it is hard when you are already living fairly frugally to try to cut more.

  18. Michael says:

    Good point. But, some services can’t be stopped and started so easily. For example, I pay $12/month for 37signals’ Highrise. If I don’t pay for a month, I’m going to lose my account.

  19. liv says:

    Uh…Netflix allows you to put your account on hold, so if you really want to try it, i’d suggest that first and if you want to cancel it afterward, then go for it, and if not, then you can just continue your subscription without the hassle of redoing your entire queue.

    I love movies too much, but i lowered my discs to 1 at a time because I was getting too busy with books and tv shows.

    If there is one thing that might be worth reducing it’s the newly raised blu-ray prices.

  20. chef says:

    Seriously? You think everyone should cancel their Netflix subscription, gym memberships, etc?

  21. Faculties says:

    Our local library has a huge selection of movies on DVD. Even cheaper than Redbox.

  22. Cathy says:

    I feel this way about cable TV. I dropped it about 2-3 years ago. Don’t miss it at all. I’ve seen every episode of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Battlestar Galactica via Netflix. I don’t even have basic – I watch Lost and Heroes on Hulu!

  23. El Cheapo says:

    Very interesting. I did a similar analysis to see what we could do without. I tried dropping all our plans to the bare minimums, but it still adds up to a significant amount. The things I have left are things that I’m pretty used to and don’t really want to give up. I did a post detailing everything and the prices on my site, would be interested what people thought and where I could trim some fat.

  24. Small Steps to Health says:

    We are canceling our netflix this week and using that money to upgrade our internet from dial up to dsl. We realized that most of the time the movies just sit around until we have time to watch it. Whereas, with a faster internet connection, we would get more use out of it.


  25. Kristin R says:

    I think you really make a great point about something what to give up when you say “will this hurt you”. My partner who I live with was recently laid off and so we continually seek to cut our expenses and recently have decided to go on a campaign against eating out/grocery expenses. But when it comes down to it, Jason was miserable not going to the gym (depressed) and without xbox live his relationships suffered (he keeps in contact with a lot of college friends by playing games with them). So in the end we decided those were two things he should not go without. He did cancel magazine subscriptions, we are ditching cable for a much cheaper netflix option (just one movie at a time still gives us all the streaming we want through xbox live), got rid of one of our cars, and many many other cuts. Each situation is unique. I completely agree.

    And it is surprising what one can do without. For instance I’m completely car free now – just sold my car and bought a bike trailer and bus pass with the money (divided the remaining surplus between an emergency fund and credit card debt). And through most of college I wasn’t just cable free I was tv free. I just didn’t have one.

  26. sunny says:

    We canceled our daily newspaper after 31 years. I thought I might miss it, especially on Sunday, but instead I have found it a relief. More time to read my books or putter in the garden. One less daily obligation. Next is Netflix, cutting back to one at a time.

  27. Jerry says:

    I’m currently keeping a TV viewing log to see how much I really use my cable. Right now it looks like at least the Digital Tier will be going bye bye before the end of the month.

  28. kev says:

    I’ve never been much of a TV watcher; when I was in school looking for ways to save money to eat, I didn’t think twice about it – cable TV was not necessary. but when I moved in with my wife, she had cable, and couldn’t imagine living without it. But I noticed that she rarely watched it (possibly my influence)

    One time I had to pull out the TV for some reason and I unplugged the cable. When I went to plug it back in, I stopped and thought, no, I’m going to see how long it takes for her to say something.

    Three months later, she said “I think there’s something wrong with the cable!” and I said, “I think we need to talk about how much we’re paying for a service we hardly use!”

    We haven’t had cable TV since. There’s an adequate selection available over the rabbit ears, even some HD stations, though we don’t have an HDTV.

  29. Nutty says:

    I couldn’t agree more. We have not had tv programming in over 5 years and have not missed it a bit. Nor do we do Netflicks. For those that want movies, you can do redbox, and you can find a code on Mondays to get it free (if you have time to watch it Monday night). Libraries are also a great source of dvd’s.
    As for all other memberships, If you use them, then by all means keep them, but if you don’t use them so it is cost effective (like a yearly membership to the zoo, but you only go twice) then yo ushould drop it. Each person is going to have a different set of priorities.
    As for a 30 day no-use-trial, I think he means to keep the service, but just don’t use it. If you find that you are fine without it, cancel it then. If you still want/need/enjoy it at that price, then keep it and continue to use it.
    Keep up the good writing. I enjoy it very much.

  30. Faith says:

    I had been contemplating just today about cancelling my cable. I have it playing all the time in the background, but I never really WATCH it. I feel like having movies playing would have the same effect. Perhaps I will take your 30-day challenge. I’d like to save the $33/month that I’m spending on cable.

  31. Mario says:

    Unfortunately, I NEED Netflix. I live in Hollywood, making movies. I NEED to see movies for my job, which is awesome, but I can’t cancel Netflix or else I’m done for.

    But I do agree with you about cutting UNNECESSARY services. I don’t even have cable: Hulu and Netflix are all I need for that.

  32. Borealis says:

    Good post with good ideas.

    But I would say that Netflix is one of the better value subscriptions out there. $20 for 12 movies per month that you pick is better than HBO, rentals, and especially going to a theatre.

    You can cut a lot else out that has less value.

  33. Meg says:

    We recently turned our cable way down to just basics (to keep our internet), the move saved us $50 but at first I was so scared about it. I thought I’d be lost without some of my favorite shows.

    In reality almost two months later I don’t miss cable at all. In fact I LOVE not having it. We’ve learned how great PBS is they offer a wide variety of shows and with the digital switch we still receive The History channel and TrueTV our most watched channels for free!
    Anything else we want to see we download from hulu, but even that has slowed way down.

    And best of all that $50 will be $600 in savings within a year!


  34. Katie says:

    I love my Netflix. Cheapest antidepressant on the market. But my dorm room lacks cable and I’m not paying “real” utility bills.

  35. Chris Thompson says:

    This Blog has been one of the influences in my changing financial life. This post in particular came as a surprise to me because I had actually just started nixing all my auto recurring expenses for things I really didn’t need this week. Netflix was at the top of the list and I would get rid of my cable, but it’s part of a package deal right now with my internet and the internet by itself would actually cost more if you can believe that!

  36. Glenn says:

    I believe like others, NetFlix (if I subscribed to that service) would probably remain a keeper, but where I’ve cut back is my usage of my automobiles… I am now an urban bicyclist. I try to bike almost every where I go. It’s good for my health (priceless) and because I bike approximately 15-18 miles/day I’m saving 60 cents/mile and thats easily $9/day. I bike 20+ days a month for a saving of at lease $180 bucks.

  37. Good post. It is truly amazing how many monthly “bills” we let creep into our lives . . .

  38. Marie says:

    Great post. My husbands hours have been cut by 20% – and we are looking for ways to “make up” that missed money.

    The one thing we keep telling ourselves is that this isn’t “forever”. Once things turn around, we can pick those cut out items back up IF we really want to.

    I have a feeling that we probably won’t.

    Thanks again for helpful insight.

  39. Mary Jane says:

    Interestingly, I tried this with my cable account and found that I did miss certain programs and that my DSL wasn’t stable enough to let me watch online. So I restored that and found another piece of monthly fat to cut out instead.

  40. Nancy says:

    My cable service changed Cartoon Network to “upgraded” services. I miss a lot of the programs they have (Adult Swim, King of the Hill, Family Guy) but after several months discovered I couldn’t care less about it!

  41. Keith says:

    Great article! There are so many ways to enjoy your time that doesn’t involve spending extra money. Often, we will sit with the kids and play a game ,or weather permitting, go outside and ride bikes, walk, work in the yard etc. Nothing wrong with a splurge occasionally and we do, but it is the exception. Thanks for the tips and advice you offered.

  42. ad says:

    I love Netflix. We don’t have cable or a fancy TV or a Blu-Ray player, but our Netflix stays.

    Whenever I’m tempted to cut things down to the bare bones, I remember that we dug our way out of debt, we have a healthy savings account, and it’s okay to spend some money on the things we use and enjoy.

  43. partgypsy says:

    Not gonna give up Netflix, totally worth the money, we look forward to getting the films in the mail plus can watch selected videos off our computer. But we pay $17 a month for basic cable. We are going to try to do the converter box + rabbit ears to see if we can ditch cable completely (gotta be able to watch Lost : ))

  44. Dale Hanks says:

    I recently cut the newspaper. I read the whole paper, everyday, and I was pretty sure that I was going to miss it. I don’t. I found the comics online. And considering that I am an avid recycler I feel better because we “reduce” rather than recycle.

  45. Lizzy says:

    If you would like to get rid of cable (or do not have it to begin with), go on the internet. Most t.v. networks broadcast their shows on the internet. Hulu.com also has a good selection of movies and t.v. shows.

  46. ida says:

    To Sophia’s outrage over the couple making $400,000 ($180,000 in Kansas): keep in mind that these people don’t get any tax breaks. They pay a higher percentage of their income to income tax (state and local) and they are phased out of almost every deduction the government offers. They then get to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Their kids get to pay the full cost of their college education and they are not considered for financial aid of any kind. This is true even if they have more than one child (or even themselves) enrolled in college. Try to imagine how much money they have to save for taxes, college, and retirement every month. If they are self employed, they get to write a large check to Uncle Sam four times a year. There is talk that they will recieve less (or even no) Social Security even though they have paid the most into the system. To top it off, the government has stated that they are going to tax these people even more in the future. This is the price for being productive and successful? Isn’t this the kind of behavior we want to encourage? If you want to make $400,000 (or $180,000 in Kansas), choose a profession that will offer that kind of pay. But don’t be envious of someone who has done that. They are paying too much to society for you to be jealous of their income.

  47. chere says:

    after my husband moved out recently and took the tv (agreed upon and fine w/ me) I found that i didn’t miss it. I’ve cancelled cable @ 60/month. I watch some programs on the computer, and listen to much more music on internet radio. My time is much quieter and I’m focussing on myself, reading, and it’s pretty cool.

  48. Cathy says:

    Umm the point about the $400,000 being worth $180,000 in Kansas is lost on me. $180,000 in Kansas would make you quite wealthy. $180,000 is about 8.5 times more than the poverty line.

  49. BillyRayBob says:

    My wife and I have decided that we’re going to cancel our DirecTV account as soon as our “favorite” shows have ended their seasons in the next few weeks. I mostly watch the news all day and we watch our shows together after dinner. No kids to babysit in front of the bube-tube anymore. We live in a VERY rural area (80 miles to McDonalds or WalMart) so cable or even an outdoor antenna is not an option. This one decision will save us $80 a month! Instead, we are going to start raising chickens again, start a garden and read more. Face it people, TV and movies are crap anymore and the News will drive you to drink. Hey!… I’ll probably save on booze too!

  50. Jim says:

    We have gradually downgraded our Netflix from 30-a-month, to 2- and now one-a-month unlimited. Because it is an ‘unlimited’ plan, we also have access to instant movies online. This has been a real value to us. It is less than $10 dollars a month. Now if I could only convince my wife to drop our satellite TV and our land line!

    Trent – after seeing all the conservative books that changed your life, I was shocked to see you read Harpers!

  51. 60 in 3 - Health and Fitness says:

    I canceled my cable TV, my 4 everquest accounts, my magazine subscriptions and cut down on my heating bills. It’s amazing how easy it is to live without those things. I did however keep my Blockbuster online (same as Netflix) account since I did the math and the $20 a month was worth it.

    By the way Trent, the same approach works for physical fitness. You’d be amazed at how easy it was to live without some of the unhealthy things you now consider a necessity. Fancy cheese, wine with dinner, the occasional candy bar are all easily forgotten once you try to go without them for 30 days. :)


  52. IRG says:

    I’d agree that for many people cutting out newspaper and magazine subs is a good cost-cutter. But not if they arebusiness expenses, as they are for us. We need to know what is being written up (we’re PR/marketing/content/sales promo consultants)and everything can’t be found online.

    We did drop two print paper subs and try to go online to their web sites, but we’re finding we are spending more time than we did when we could just read the actual papers. We haven’t yet compared our time costs (charge per hour versus cost of sub). I think we may yet end up back with the print editions (everything is NOT posted online, plus we actually look at ads, again, for business reasons). Time IS money also.

    As for Netflix. When we first joined almost five years ago, we had a three at a time membership. We’ve since switched to the basic one at a time. It includes the watch online option, which is great. Especially since they now include some TV shows.

    Given the cost of DVD rentals and the cost of going to a movie here, the netflix rental is very cheap entertainment. (One movie ticket here costs more than the monthly fee!) We figured it out once and realized our per unit cost was well under $1 a year based on the number of movies we watched. (It’s really cheap entertainment for us when friends are over. And yes, if you have friends close by, you can even share a sub.)

    As for cable. We live in a city where you simply cannot get the basic channels consistently without it. (We’ve tried. With antennaes, converter boxes, TV tuners for the PC, etc.)

    We closely evaluated what we actually watched/taped, and compared it to the various “tiers” offered by Time Warner. it’s one clever company cause they break up the popular channels and you end up having to get three tiers for any decent channels (not talking premium). So, for now, that expense isn’t getting cut. If the signals somehow become available when the switch is made in June, then we’ll reconsider.

    I hate paying for cable, but we cut back elsewhere.

    We are watching a lot more on our PC and when we can get most of what we’re interested in, we’ll downgrade our cable.

    Cost is relative and it’s not just about paying down debt with the money you save from these types of cuts. It is quality of life.

    We don’t have the time/energy/resources to go out so home entertainment for us, the family and friends, is relatively cheap (even including monthly cable) compared to what it costs for say an evening at the theater or a concert (which we really, really miss and only do now when we can get discount tickets).

    We don’t spend on big vacations, or big ticket items, so these things are a good value to us and a solid ROI on our $.

    FYI: We do use the library as much as we can for a lot of things. But it still costs $4 a visit in public transportation (going up) and that can add up for what is considered “free.” (And videos can only be rented for a week. So basically at times, it would cost us $4 to rent only one video since little is available at our branch! That’s NOT a good investment of time or $. We watch something like 8 or 9 movies on netflix for a bit under $10 a month. Do the math.)

  53. Battra92 says:

    I gave up photography a few years ago thinking that I could no longer afford the cost of pro-film and processing. A 36 exposure roll of slide film costs me about $10 including the processing if you go cheap. Scanning can be quite a bit more depending on who you use. So this was a considerable cost saver to me and I was saving at least $30 a month.

    I was miserable without it. I’ve tried everything from getting more into drawing and even bought a DSLR. I missed my film too much and I am now blissfully spending money on this hobby again. I just have to get better at it as my skills have dropped considerably.

  54. neal says:

    thanks, I just dumped a five dollar per month web service that I barely ever used. Five dollars never seemed like enough to care to bother canceling, but I added up all the months it sat there unused and I spent close to $100, all money that basically went down the tubes.

  55. angela says:

    One thing I can suggest is a substitute…instead of Net Flix use the Red Box…typically you can Google a code for a free movie (DVDONME – is currently working). If you are cancelling magazines, try going to Library and getting them. You find different ways to save all the time; you just need to dig to find what you are looking for. Sometimes searching is half the fun.

  56. Sylvie says:

    Thanks for the reminder about conducting a 30-day trial. I forget! I think I have to choose between All or Nothing, when in actuality there are lots of other options.

  57. angela says:

    One more thing I would suggest is if you are not a heavy cell phone user, see if it would benefit you by switching to a pay as you go plan. We did this…purchased $100 worth of air time each for my husband and myself. By doing that it loaded 1015 minutes on each phone at a total cost of $200. We also have 1 year to use them up. I tracked our bills and noticed we only use the phone about 150 minutes each, per month. That will last us both over 6 months, at a cost of $200…where as we would have paid around $474.00 for 6 months…this saved us over 1/2. We are also are more conservative when we talk on the phone now as well.

  58. sm4k says:

    My wife and I had this mentality when we were getting on the ‘get out of debt’ train. First we sold her Mazda RX8 that we still owed a considerable amount on. We felt that if we really decided that we missed the car enough (we do miss it, just not enough for a car loan), we could always go out and buy another one.

    Then we tried it with Cable TV. We unplugged the cable and used services like the local library and Hulu for two weeks, and decided that we could live without it. Our friends think we’re crazy because we finally upgraded from our single 23″ tv to a 42″ LCD now that we’ve got extra money and the prices are low enough, and we don’t even pay for cable–but it’s great!

  59. resa says:

    i am laughing, because i just last week realized that there is a $4.99 plan at netflix. one movie at a time, max of 2 per month. we were on the one at a time $8.99 plan, but we really only used it for the kids anyway, and they allllllwayyyys keep the movie 2 or 3 weeks! (so they can see it 4 times before they send it back, LOL).

    $4 month for no change in service sounded good to me!

  60. RP says:

    I find it interesting how many of the comments here assume a lot of entertainment is a need.

    Isn’t there something else lacking in our lives if we need a lot of entertainment?

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