Updated on 08.09.08

The Gift Card Dilemma(s)

Trent Hamm

Mix and Match faces by misocrazy on Flickr!A few days ago, on the very day I pledged to reduce my personal book buying budget to $0 for the coming year, a little surprise came in the mail: a $25 gift card.

To a bookstore.

Ordinarily, this kind of thing is just something to laugh off and not worry about, but the whole situation made me think seriously about gift cards, and it made me realize that there are a lot of interesting little problems related to them.

Should you use a gift card as soon as possible after receiving it? I’ve come to believe that this is the optimal strategy for gift card use. Why? First of all, if you don’t use it, you tend to forget about it (and potentially lose it). According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “More than 10 percent of the $58.3 billion in gift cards bought [in 2006] won’t be used”. Why? Often, it’s because they’re simply lost or forgotten about in a desk drawer somewhere. I know that we had a spa gift certificate for years floating around – it finally got lost in the move.

A second factor to consider is inflation. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you have a gift certificate worth $100 to a health food store. With inflation at 9%, if you hold onto that card for a year, you’ll only get roughly $91 (in today’s dollars) worth of stuff when you finally use it. Our spa certificate was for $50 off a couple’s massage – when we received it, the couple’s massage at that spa was $89. Now it’s $129.

My advice? If you have a gift card, use it as soon as you can. This eliminates the risk of forgetting about it or losing it and also prevents inflation from eating away some of the value of the card.

How should you handle spending “over” the amount of the card? I know that if I walked into a bookstore with a $25 gift card, the likelihood is that I would spend some small amount over the value of the card just to make sure I used all of it. If not, I’d keep the card around in my pocket and then use it in such a way in the future.

In either case, the presence of a gift card often subtly encourages us to spend money we wouldn’t otherwise spend. I often use them as justification – I can now get this $29.99 item I don’t really need for only $4.99! – for completely unnecessary purchases.

What’s a good strategy to adopt here? Go with a friend or two and then spend less than the value of the gift card. Then, if your friend is also making a purchase anyway, slip them the remainder of your card. Not only will they appreciate it, you also won’t find yourself stumbling to spend the last little bit of that gift card.

What if you don’t want the gift card at all? Not too long ago, I won a gift card to Sephora. For those unaware, Sephora is a store that sells cosmetics. What use could I have for such a card, really? I’m a guy living in Iowa who prefers to dress in blue jeans and comfortable shirts.

You have several options here, but my favorite is to simply re-gift such a card. Find someone you know who might actually use the card and give it to them, either for a gift-giving occasion or just because you can. This either serves a purpose of giving you a very inexpensive gift for someone or else helps you cement a relationship with someone. In either case, it’s an added value for you.

In my opinion, gift cards only work as a gift if you know they fill a specific desire of a person. Give a book lover a gift certificate to a bookstore and they’ll love you for it (especially if you’ve slipped it inside a gift of a paperback you think they’ll love or one that holds special meaning for you). Give it to someone you don’t know well and they’ll probably just shrug their shoulders. If you’re in a situation where you’re giving someone something as generalized as a Target gift card – one that doesn’t match any sort of specific interest or attribute about the recipient – just give them cash. Cash is the gift card that works anywhere, after all.

As for my book store gift certificate, I’m going to hold onto it until the end of my pledge. Using it now seems like cheating – and a sure way to convince myself to spend a little more and completely destroy my pledge.

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  1. Big C says:

    With a few exceptions, I think the advice to use gift cards quickly is a good one.

    My uncle is an avid golfer and has always wanted to play Pebble Beach. For his birthday a few years back, my family bought him a gift card to Pebble valued at $395 (greens fees at the time). He hasn’t used it yet, and now its costs almost $500 to play a round of golf there. He is now going to have to shell out $100 out of pocket if he even wants to use our gift!

  2. amy says:

    Hey, you could always do a give-away on your blog!
    Or regift it to someone who is also a book lover,
    or perhaps buy some children’s books to donate
    to your local library!

  3. Jeff R. says:

    “In my opinion, gift cards only work as a gift if you know they fill a specific desire of a person.”

    I work around this problem by purchasing a “generic” gift card like American Express, Visa, etc. It may cost a few dollars more, but it is worth it to provide the latitude for the person receiving the gift.

    One other point is that a generic card from the above companies is less likely to have problems because the store files for bankruptcy like The Sharper Image did.

    [ Jeff ]

  4. Katie says:

    Check your fine print before you wait a year to use it Trent. Many stores have started implementing a system where the gift cards expire aftre so many months or start charging a monthly fee until the gift card runs out. You may turn around in a year and have a worthless piece of plastic.

  5. AverageAK says:

    Seriously Trent, you’re overthinking this, and all of your agonizing about purchasing books is making me not want to read TSD. It seems like a very contrived problem.

    Debts paid? Check. Emergency fund? Check. Retirement and college funds? Check. So what exatcly are you agonizing about? If you want to go buy a darn book, then go buy a darn book. I’m almost certain your financial plan in life will not collapse because you bought a book, or “gasp” used a gift card for a book. Seriously, get a grip.

    I’ll start reading again when you have a real problem, or want to discuss the real problems with money that other people have.

  6. KC says:

    Use it ASAP assuming there is something you want to buy. OR wait until there is something you want to buy. You can’ always sell it for about 10% less on eBay. I do that with Starbucks cards and stuff like that I don’t want.

  7. Isabel says:

    I thought you still intended to buy books as gifts; so why not just use it towards Christmas or other gifts?? Personally, I wouldn’t wait a whole year to use it – there’s a good chance you may have to pay a monthly fee. Or, as you mentioned, forget about it.

  8. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    AverageAK: I don’t think you actually read this article or thought about it, nor the previous one. Neither one had to do with the issue of going into a bookstore and buying one book.

    The first one just involved books as my personal example of the “gazingus pin” phenomenon – and based on the comments, dozens of other readers also understood the “gazingus pin” concept and shared it.

    This post is about gift cards – I simply used the fact that I had one in hand as an amusing attention getter.

    Neither one has anything to do with whether I can afford to buy a single book. It’s not even about books. The worry comes in when it becomes compulsive, when you’re accumulating far more of anything than you actually need. One book isn’t a problem. Feeling the need to buy one every time – or worse, buy two or three – is a problem. That’s a far bigger issue than buying a book, and it’s one that I think you may have overlooked.

  9. Joyce Jarrard says:

    Trent, you must have one great local library if you can read and review two books a week and not have to buy any books!

    You’re darn right about book buying being addictive. My house can attest to that.

  10. April says:

    If your goal is a $0 book budget, how does using the card you received for free conflict with that?

    Or is the goal just no new books, period?

    I don’t think it’s a big deal to spend a gift card you received for free, in fact, I think holding on to it and possibly forgetting about it a bad idea financially, since it’s free money that could be used to buy books for you or for someone else as gifts.

  11. Elsie says:

    I hold on to my gift cards for a couple of reasons:
    1. I find them to be very useful for helping me stay within budget, so I never lose them. Seriously.
    2. I wait (not a year) until I need to buy a gift for someone. Most cards I get are good for gifty-type stuff.
    3. Some of my cards are for craft stores, so I wait until I’m bitten by the craft bug and then I have have “free” money to spend there!
    4. If I use a gift card ASAP just for the sake of using it, then I will surely have something I need to buy at that store in a couple weeks. Just always seems to work out that way.
    5. Just last night, I needed some random items (shoe inserts, packing tape, sunblock) and the Target gift card I had took care of that–no need to mess with my “real money”.

  12. Go to the bookstore and get something under $25 (including tax!). Write the amount that’s left on the gift card, then file it away. When you get another gift card to that store, take it and the old one, making sure to use the old one first. So maybe you can’t get a $30 book now, but get a $20 instead and the next time you get a $25 card, now you have $30 to spend. If you somehow lose the old card while waiting for another one to be gifted to you, then you only lost $5 (or whatever was left on it) instead of the whole $25.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “Trent, you must have one great local library if you can read and review two books a week and not have to buy any books!”

    I also request some books from publishers as well. My site is popular enough that most publishers are happy to ship me a copy for review, especially if the book is fairly new. Interlibrary loan helps a lot, too.

  14. Anna G. says:

    This is off topic, but how is your ‘cold’ doing and did you end up going to the doctor?

  15. Sandy says:

    My (otherwise intelligent and independent) 14 year old neice had the habit of carrying all of her cards around that she received as gifts in her purse, just in case she found herself near a store that she wanted to purchase something from.
    Well, one day, she accidently left her purse on the city bus and, well, you know the rest of the story. She told us that she had nearly $500 in cards. It was definately somebody’s lucky day!
    I try to encourage my girls to keep theirs in a safe place, and we can have a “shopping day” where we try to spend all the cards in one day. This is helpful close to schol times (my younger daughter just informed me she still has an Old Navy card, so we’ll be heading out there for school clothes next week!

  16. Wendy says:

    The fact that any company can decide not to honor gift cards if they file bankruptcy procedures is all the reason I need to use gift cards soon after receiving them.

    After my son was born, I was worried Babys R Us might go that route while I had hundreds of dollars in unused gift cards. Now, I try to give real gifts or money instead of cards.

  17. Extraordinary Wife says:


    I agree with the comments regarding spending it sooner rather than later. Perhaps a little Christmas shopping (for others, not yourself) is in order? That way you are “ahead” in your Christmas budget for gifts? Just a thought.

  18. Lee Hall says:

    It should also be pointed out that some degrade the value of their cards over time, which I think is evil. What merchants should do is to label the front of gift cards as “Expires: 2 years from purchase,” “Expire: Never” or whichever date they choose. That way, merchants are fair about the money being purchase, consumers are warned on any consequence of inactivity, and purchasers can make smarter purchases. Everyone is clear!

    Secondly, it’s better to purchase an all encompassing gift card like a Simon Mall Card or American Express gift card so the “giftees” are not confined to a particular store.


  19. MES says:

    I like gift cards as long as they are targeted to the places I actually shop. My in-laws send gift cards for Christmas every year, which is actually a great improvement over the oddball gifts they used to send. Problem is that the gift cards are to a higher-end dapartment store that I don’t frequent. Even if the money is free I have a hard time shelling it out when I know I could get the same thing elsewhere for a lot less.

  20. Mary says:

    I must agree with average that this seems to be a non issue. If you vowed to sped “$0” for the year on books, how does this count? Also, recieving copies from publishers seems to be cheating unless they are out on loan. What is really the goal here? Is it to not spend money on books or not to accumulate books. I could understand where you are coming from if it was not to acrue more books but how does using a gift card (that really can’t be used elsewhere) count? You could re-gift it, buy some books for your kids, or find another way to use it. Otherwise it’s throwing $25 out the window. On another note, it seems like you kinda get ‘rubbed the wrong way’ when anyone criticizes you. In fact, it seems like that is really the only time you respond to comments. Don’t take things so seriously! I think it’s great that you blog invokes critical thinking. Maybe there is some spiritual meaning in the desire to resist buying or accumulating more books. But someone else might apply the concept in another way. Just because someone does not agree with your concept does not mean they did not read (or even comprehend) your work. Don’t get mad and (mildy) insult your readers. This is harsh and could negatively impact your blog, even if you fell that you could do without the criticism.

  21. LoveandSalt says:

    I agree with the previous post–you get just a little snarky when criticized. Kind of breaks the spell…

  22. Gunny says:

    It comes down to discipline…I recieved a $50 Home Despot card from Pop, and built my (2) 4×4 square foot gardens with them (thanks to Trent’s tips, as well as the readers) with the caveat I wouldn’t go over the amount…which I did for seeds ($7). My tip-have an idea that is low priority on the spending list that you can’t quite get to and use it-good feeling of accomplishment when you line it out on the ole list. BTW, any ideas for 12 cukes and a zucc the size of my calf? I’m already tired of zucc bread!

  23. Gunny says:

    Comes down to discipline…Pop got me a $50 Home Despot card for Christmas. I used it to build (2) 4×4 square foot gardens with the caveat I wouldn’t go over the amount. I ended up with 1.97 left that a neighbor won’t take on a yardsale item. My idea-save it for a low prioity item you’ve been meaning to get to-it makes the use planned instead of impulsive, and is rewarding.
    BTW, any ideas for 12 cukes and a giant zucchini? Please don’t say bread…

  24. Gunny says:

    I’m not a smart man…

  25. Ken Deboy says:

    Wendy (comment #16) is correct – many companies won’t honor the cards if they declare bankruptcy. Also, some companies get bought out and the new owners won’t honor the gift cards. Even if the company doesn’t, uhm, cease to exist, there is a chance they will close their store(s) in the city you live. I say use ’em soon or risk losing ’em.


  26. Amp says:

    I try to spend less than the amount of my gift card, then hand it to the next person in line and explain how much is left on it. Even if it’s 25 cents, they’re always thrilled.

  27. Robin says:

    I have a gift card that was given to me by someone that I was very grateful to receive a gift from, but its to a restaurant (not a chain) that is in a city about an hour from where I live. While receiving a gift from this person was incredibly nice and I appreciated the sentiment a lot, now I can’t figure out when I am going to drive an hour to go to dinner. I’ve never thought gift cards to be a very good gift – especially because you always know exactly how much the person spent on it, and for me that takes some of the joy out of receiving a gift. I don’t want to delude the value to me with the monetary value.

  28. Gigi says:

    I love getting gift cards! I always try to use them ASAP too. I’ll forget them if I don’t. However, regarding small amounts left on the card…if I end up having a little left over and I know I won’t come back to the store for some time, I always give the card to the person behind me in line. They get a discount, I’ve got my item(s), and the gift card is used in full. Everybody wins!
    Thanks, Trent! I love even these kinds of posts…it’s nice sometimes to have you take a break and write of something not too deep!
    Keep up the good work!

  29. ReddH says:

    Why not keep the gift card and the next time you have an urge to uy a book, write it on a post it note and stick it to the card. If you get any other gift cards you could do the same thing and then you know when your year is up that you can get these books you’ve wanted and they won’t “cost” you anything!

  30. i’ve picked up a few gift cards recently through promotions and they are in an envelope in my purse with my christmas list. i’ll use them to help lighten my budget for the holiday. maybe you could use your card to buy a christmas gift for someone else?

  31. Jim says:

    I think Trent puts a ton of effort into every one of his posts, and I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to read a comment from someone who just read the first sentence or two and then fires off insults about the article or about him in general.

    If I were you, Trent, I’d just delete comments like that. You have far more patience than I do.

  32. momof4 says:

    to Gunny

    you can freeze shredded zuchinni in freezer bags for use in breads etc later. We mix it with smashed black beans to make quesadillas all year as well. You can just slice it and fry the slices in a small amount of oil with salt..my kids like it this way…i’m sure there’slots more…

  33. Michelle Littleton says:

    If you have a card that you don’t think you would use, and you don’t have a way to regift it, it would make a great donation to a local shelter, foster care service, etc. I have worked for a women’s shelter in the past, and I have been involved in foster care in the past, and I know how helpful those kinds of gifts can be. Just a thought, if you can’t use it, or pass it on to a friend or family, donating it would be the next best step.

  34. Eric says:

    I completely disagree with using the cards immediately. My wife and I were married nearly two years ago and we still have a couple of gift cards sitting the drawer. We always wait to use them until we really need something from that store.

    Luckily in the state of Washington, we have two great laws. Companies can not charge any kind of inactivity or “lack of use” fee. Those 2 year old cards are still worth their full value.

    Also in the state of Washington, once the balance on the card is below $5.00 you just ask the store for the cash and it is yours!

  35. I’ve gone back and forth on this as to how best to manage gift cards. I think your advice to use it as soon as possible is certainly the easiest way to handle the situation, but in my experience I end up feeling pressured to buy something I might not otherwise want. Similarly, I am not a huge fan of spending less than the value of the card, simply because you end up losing some value. So when I get a gift card, I try to evaluate how likely I am to use it — if it somewhere that I am likely to purchase something from, I wait until I am ready to buy something. To try to fight off expiration problems, I keep a spreadsheet that lists the gift cards I have and when they expire — its a small bit of effort, but it helps me keep track of these gift cards.

    Also, an encouraging sign in the last year or two has been how many large retailers have moved away from expiration dates on their gift card, which makes me even more inclined to wait to use a card until I need to use it.

  36. Shevy says:

    Zucchini fried in butter, mmm. Now if I could just get my 5 yo to touch it.

    Next year plant less. I remember once when I was a little kid my dad overplanted and we were eating it just about every night, making zucchini bread, plus giving it away to all the neighbors.

    Never having grown it myself I wonder if it’s possible to pinch them off early if you see that you’re going to have too many….

    As for the gift card issue, I got a $30 gift card for a book store a couple of years ago that disappeared almost immediately. I think someone who was cleaning up wrapping paper tossed it in its little envelope by mistake and I only realized it was missing a day or so later (far too late for dumpster diving). I love books, so it was a Big Deal.

    Trent, do as others have suggested and use it for a book or books to give as gifts. Don’t risk something happening to it or its value over the course of the year. If you don’t trust yourself in the bookstore, send your wife.

  37. I don’t think using this card is cheating at all. The goal was to not spend money on books. This is not your money. Whoever gave it to you wanted you to have a book.

    Also, you can use your gift card to buy gift books for someone.

    I think that’s when gift cards truly are gifts, as opposed to cash. They were giving you the enjoyment of getting a book. You were not obligated to save that money or spend it on rent. They don’t often work that way.

    You can also combine your gift card with sales and coupons. You didn’t specify the bookstore, but both Barnes and Noble and Borders have coupons of single items all the time if you join their mailing lists.

    In some cases it’s probably best to wait for what you need or really want. Obviously, you have tons of books that you would like to buy.

    If all else fails, I’ll take that giftcard off your hands.

  38. Fiona says:

    To Gunny: I can’t stand zucchini myself but I have had and enjoyed a rich chocolate cake made with zucchini. I think the zucchini was peeled and grated to give moisture and bulk to the cake. I couldn’t taste zucchini at all (much to my surprise and delight) and it was much more interesting than zucchini bread. The only way I’ll eat zucchini from now on. I gather that freakish size rather than excess crop has been your problem but for future years you could harvest the zucchini flowers and use them as the Italians do – stuffed with savoury or sweet mixtures and fried – and reduce the crop. As to the calf-sized specimen – zucchini and their near relations are notorious for doubling in size overnight. If the cake doesn’t appeal, I’m sure you could devise a pickle.

  39. Joel says:

    Personally I detest gift cards but for absolutely different reasons above. I married and had a child recently, and lots of people prefer to give gift cards rather than give cash or consult the wedding/baby registry. I hate shopping.

    Long ago I learned that buying anything pricey left me with a sense of buyer’s remorse whenever I looked at it. There’s a certain Zen like quality of life when you only buy stuff when you need it (not just because it’s on sale, or you might need it in the future).

    For this reason alone I hate gift cards. If you don’t want to give me a gift, give me cash. It’s a cop-out to give a gift card (which is basically cash, but limited to one store) instead of a real gift. When I get one, I now have to go shopping, which I view at best as a chore, a to-do on my long list of never-ending string of tasks.

    Not sure I’ll like the gift? Include a gift receipt so I can return it (if I dislike it strongly enough). Consider the gift/receipt combo as a heavier version of a gift card. At least giving a gift shows you gave it SOME thought.

    But please, do not make me go shopping. Just give me a real tangible gift or sweet, debt-reducing cash.

  40. Gunny says:

    Fiona, thanks-correct, I need to harvest earlier. Shevy thanks as well, but alas; it’s only one plant-no way to plant less. Your ideas sound great. Momof4, The recipes sound great too. My daughter saw the zucc and cukes next to each other and asked about Cucumber Bread. Hmm. I’ll pass the ideas off to Household 6. I blame Trent. $%#^ compost. $^%&# Gift card!
    Concur with use it or lose it.

  41. A Non says:

    Why go through all the hassle of keeping track of gift cards. I sell all mine on eBay and use the cash wherever I like.

  42. Jane says:

    To Gunny, you might trt allrecipes.com for zucchini recipes, they have a new one that is supposed to have the texture of crab cakes, I haven’t tried it yet, buy the reviews are great.

    Trent, thank you for the great post on gift cards. I was going to just save them for a Christmas shopping trip. Now, I can still use them for Christmas, but I will use them quicker. I lost a water massage because I didn’t use the gift card befor it expired. I really like to receive gift cards, and I will use them quicker. Thanks for the post.

  43. liv says:

    Gift cards are awesome! This Christmas, I plan on setting up a gift card white elephant gift exchange (last year was board games)…but anyways…while it can backfire, you should make a list of things you want throughout the year, or grocery/necessity lists. if a random gift card should appear in the mail that matches the list, then you really are getting something you need. remember, only use the list for things you will have to SAVE for to get!

  44. I almost always use gift cards to buy people presents. I know, it’s not what they are intended for, but if you don’t need or want anything from the store it is a great way to re-purpose the card. I feel badly giving gift cards, most of the time – I have a hard time seeing how it’s different from cash; the same thing but less versatile.

    Someone gave us a $100 gift card to 10,000 villages. There was nothing I wanted but we used the card toward a $150 bowl for my mother in law ‘s birthday. we still paid something for the gift, and were able to get something really nice for less of a cash outlay. perfect!

  45. Jason says:

    I’d like to share an alternative to gift cards that I use. Take a bill (preferably a crisp new one) of the desired denomination for the “gift card” and on the blank border write a suggestion for spending, I.E. “book store gift certificate,” “farmer’s market gift certificate,” or my favorite “Liquor Store Gift Certificate.” This way it shows you’ve put a little thought into what the recipient would like (at least as much as a Target gift card shows anyway), without limiting what they can do with it, paying some company in advance, or giving them something to lose in a drawer. It also allows more creativity than the boxes marked Starbucks, Target, etc.

  46. Tracy says:

    You suggested using a gift card right away, then won’t take your own advice. Maybe the giver knew about your $0 spending on books goal, and wanted to give you a book, knowing how much you love them. A very thoughtful gift indeed.

    Go buy yourself a book and enjoy it :)

  47. reulte says:

    Why don’t you take your son to the bookstore and let him buy himself (and baby sister) a book for you to read to them (I really like Simms Taback’s “Jacob’s Coat” and “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” for his age, maybe a ‘touch’ book for her.). Explain the card to him the best you can, have him pick the book/s and get in line and ‘pay’ the cashier. Leave the bookstore when he is tired of looking at books (not when YOU’re tired). This could be an early lesson in how a ‘credit/debit card’ works. Go on a very slow day . . . when the cashier will notice the small customer in line and have him do it all by himself if he feels like it.

  48. Emily says:

    Don’t forget that if you wait until the company closes down, you may not be able to use the gift cards. When The Sharper Image announced it was going bankrupt earlier this year, it also announced their gift cards were essentially worthless. They got in trouble for that and began accepting the gift cards again, but only if you spent a certain amount of cash in addition to the card (I believe it was $50).

    Sometimes competitors will accept coupons of the companies closing, (http://blogs.creditcards.com/2008/08/gift-cards-bennigans-steak-and-ale.php) and sometimes you can use it at partner businesses that are still open, but that doesn’t always work out. We just got a comment from a reader saying they tried to use their Steak & Ale gift card at a partner restaurant (the back of the card said it would be accepted there) but that place said they could not honor the card and could at most give them one free meal and one drink, which was a fourth of the value.

    In this tough economy, you may be best using the card ASAP in case the business shuts down.

  49. Dee says:

    I agree with Sally Villarreal, and I’m surprised it took 34 comments for someone to bring up combining a gift card with coupons. A couple of Christmases ago, I got a JCPenney gift card from my in-laws. I had just lost a lot of weight and I needed new clothes. By combining the GC with sales and coupons, I pretty much doubled the value of the card. Besides using a gift card to buy things for others (also using coupons and sales to stretch the value), you could also check out sites where people trade gift cards they don’t want for ones they do. I love the idea of passing the card to the person behind you in line – good karma!

  50. Kevin says:

    Amp –

    That’s a great idea about using the “leftover” balance on a gift card.

    I also agree with a couple people that you should either let your kids pick out a book, regift the card or give it to charity perhaps if you really don’t want to buy something for yourself.

  51. bunny says:

    if you ever again end up with a sephora gift card, you might consider trying out a shaving cream by jack black or one of the other men’s lines they carry. these products aren’t just for men who spend a ton of time on themselves, they’re for any guy who appreciates a close shave. i worked there for many years and men from all walks of life enjoyed these products.
    also, hello many years supply of body wash!

  52. Peter says:

    If you like gift card but have a hard time using up the last few buck on the visa/mastercard type, you can transfer the balance to PayPal now at http://www.cashfromcards.com.

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