How to Throw a Fun Yet Affordable Graduation Party

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Laurie Blank.  Laurie is a wife, mother to 4 and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

Summer is around the corner, which means families everywhere will be getting ready to throw high school and college graduation parties. If you’re preparing to throw a graduation party and have been talking to parents of other grads, you’re likely beginning to prepare to spend a LOT of money – or panicking about how a graduation party will affect your family finances.

The good news is that a great graduation party doesn’t have to be super expensive. Abandon thoughts of catered dinners and expensive decorations, and consider these ideas for a fun yet affordable graduation party.

Share Your Party

If your graduate has a best friend, family member or significant other who is also graduating, consider doing a shared graduation party. Not only will you be able to split the costs with the other family, but many of your guests will probably know both graduates and will likely appreciate having to only attend one party as opposed to two.

Cut Down on Equipment Rental Costs

It can be expensive to rent party tents, chairs and tables. A cheaper idea may be to rent a local park pavilion or to hold the party at the home of a friend/family member who has a large garage where most guests can be indoors without the need for a tent. Borrowing tables and chairs from family and friends can help cut down on costs there. Since the tables will be covered with tablecloths anyway it doesn’t matter much if they don’t match.

Keep a Handle on the Food Budget

There are several ways you can make sure the food budget for your graduation party doesn’t get out of hand.

Choose Your Party Time Carefully

Know that time of day makes a difference. If you hold your party at lunch time (between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) or dinner time (between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.) people will expect a full meal. However if you hold the party during midday hours, you can get away with serving a lighter assortment of finger foods and appetizers.

Don’t Do the Catering Thing

Catering is often the largest expense for graduation party holders, but it’s not always a necessary expense. Choosing foods that are inexpensive and easy to prepare, and asking for help from close friends and loved ones will help you save substantially on food costs. Here are some ideas for easy-to-prepare and serve, inexpensive foods.

  • Go to the warehouse club for maximum savings. They have great specials on deli meat, or if you really want to save you can get pulled pork for about $2 a pound and throw some BBQ sauce on it.
  • Inexpensive salads. Again, the warehouse club is your friend here. They sell pastas, lettuce and other veggies at amazingly low prices and huge quantities. Look online for salad recipes that are inexpensive yet delicious.
  • Potato and other chips may not be an adult favorite but kids love them. Warehouse clubs and stores like Aldi sell chips for super cheap.
  • Fruit and vegetable trays. Instead of buying already prepared fruit and veggie trays, shop at the warehouse club or Aldi and recruit a couple of friends to help you put together a nice array of fruits and veggies along with some store bought dips.
  • Warehouse clubs such as Sam’s Club and Costco sell delicious half and whole sheet cakes for amazingly low prices. You can usually get a whole sheet cake for under $40. If you don’t want to go the cake route, have close friends and family members contribute a plate of bars or cookies and have a dessert buffet instead of cake.
  • Lighter fare. If you’re doing a midday party you can get away with deli sandwiches cut into triangles and an assortment of veggies, fruits and chips.
  • Instead of serving sodas, choose to make punch with any combination of lemonade or Koolaid and add in lemon lime soda or Ginger Ale. Much cheaper, and different too. People drink soda often but rarely get to indulge in punch.


Technology has made it very easy to do your own graduation party invitations, either on your home computer system or at a DIY photo system like the ones at Walmart. With pre-made templates to choose from, creating your own invitations will be cheap and easy.


Decorations don’t have to cost a lot of money. Consider these ideas for a beautiful but frugal graduation party.


Buy tablecloths at the dollar store in your child’s school colors for a colorful but inexpensive addition to your party.

Table and other Decorations

Instead of buying table centerpieces, use photos laid on tables or arranged nicely around the area, or use other items from home that reflect your child’s interests and talents. Books arranged nicely with ribbons work well as decorations too.

You can also decorate using your food choices.  Check out this Pinterest board for fun but easy ideas such as Diploma Cookies and Graduation Hat Pops.

With a little creativity and work, your child’s graduation party can be fun without draining your bank account.

A Word about Your Home’s Appearance

If you’re having your child’s graduation party at home, you may feel like you’ve got to remodel and redecorate and have your home looking picture perfect for the party. Know that cleaning, decluttering and a few inexpensive home enhancement decisions like a fresh coat of paint and a few flowers can go a long way. No need to remodel your entire home to impress people for one day. On the other hand, if you’ve been meaning to remodel anyway and have the cash on hand, an upcoming graduation party can be a great excuse to finally get it done.

How about you all? What are your tips for saving money on graduation parties? Do you have any ideas for inventive graduation gifts? 

Share your experiences by commenting below!

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Would You Spend $28,000 for a One Week Vacation?

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Marie. You can read more of Marie’s articles over at her own blog, Family Money Values. Enjoy! 

Home and Garden TV has a show called Island Hunters. This past week, they featured a couple (business owners and spouses celebrating a 15 year wedding anniversary) with a budget of $28,000 for a one week vacation. I watched in absolute disbelief as they surveyed 3 ultra luxurious private island retreats and chose the one that $6000 over their budget.

Could you (would you) spend as much for your one week vacation?

How do the ultra rich spend their vacation time and money?

While we are not part of the billionaire club, we have spent thousands of dollars on vacations. Our most expensive one was to Hawaii. We took (and paid all expenses for) one of our adult sons. But even staying in ocean side vacation homes and indulging every activity whim, we parted with $5000 a week for our 2 week trip. That amount put me in shock for quite awhile prior to committing to my years long dream of visiting the island states.

Billionaires sometimes build their own vacation dreams.

According to How to Vacation Like An Eccentric Billionaire some of the wealthiest folks build themselves a dream vacation home and then decide to make it available to others – for a hefty fee of course.

One of the most mentioned is Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Group). He built his private getaway on an entire island – Neckar Island and later opened it up to anyone who wants to spend From $80,000 per night for up to 34 guests ($2,353 per person per night) to book the entire island. At certain times of the year, you can get just a room instead of the entire island for around a mere $4000 a night.

A couple of other billionaires with similar retreats for rent include:
• Nick Troubetzkoy – Jade Mountain – which can be rented for the night for around $2200 to around $3000 but this might not be all inclusive.
• Thurston Twigg-Smith – Twin Farms – an all inclusive in Vermont – starting at $1500 a night for 2.

The ultra rich don’t want mundane luxury travel.

While I was thrilled to sleep to the roar of the ocean waves and breakfast on the deck watching the sun rise over the sea, some aren’t quite so satisfied with typical vacation experiences

According to Adventures in Affluence: How the Billionaire Vacations they seek out extraordinary adventures like diving with the sharks or having a world famous chef cook them dinner in the chef’s home or being safely escorted to or through digs they would never consider visiting while at home. They might want to visit a dive bar or walk through a funky neighborhood with their guide.

Still other vacation pursuits of the affluent might include a hunt your own dinner, where they stay at a luxury cabin, get shooting lessons, go on a hunt and (assuming they actually catch something) have the chef prep it for dinner – hairy deer pelt to yummy venison steak.

Of course, there are still folks who enjoy activities at luxury all inclusive resorts – such as taking a snow sleigh ride or helicopter ride over beautiful scenery.

Who spends like this?

I believe there are three categories of travelers that might consider spending huge amounts on vacations.

People so rich that money is no object.

These folks are already used to a luxury lifestyle and don’t usually want to down grade it for a vacation experience. Similar to what Donald Trump had to do to become the US President and downgrade his living style to camp out in the White House. He has already designated Mara-a-Lago in Florida as his winter white house.

People who can write off the cost as a business expense.

Our HGTV couple wanting to spend a week on a private island probably fits this profile. They own a pool design company together and were checking out the way the different resort pools were designed and executed, even while touring them.

On our Hawaii trip, my spouse met someone who fessed up to traveling on the company expense account quite a lot. Heck, I even expense out my trips to our lake condo when ever I can. If you pay US taxes, expensing trips to a business reduces your bottom line profit and hence the taxes you own on income for that business.

People who have saved up for a special occasion.

Our HGTVcouple may also fit this category, as they were celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary.

This category fits me best. My spouse and I worked hard for years to achieve our degree of financial freedom. A Hawaii trip has been one of my suppressed desires since the 1970’s when my brother was stationed there in the Army and the rest of my family got to visit him there.

This category also may fit engaged couples seeking an alternative to an expensive church wedding and reception. Spending $5000 or $10,000 on a destination wedding/honey moon could end up being a whole lot cheaper than a traditional ceremony/reception.

Most of us, even the high net worth folks, don’t spend nearly this much.

What do the high net worth folks spend?

In 2015, Business Insider reported on a BMO Private Bank study that claimed affluent Americans (these folks have over a million in investable assets) spend around $13,000 a year on leisure travel.

What do average North Americans spend?

Until recently, we vacationed only every 2nd or 3rd year. Each year we would take just one trip. On that trip we typically spent around $3000 total for the two of us – including all travel, meal, lodging, activity and souvenir expenses.

Value Penguin Value Penguin reports that the average cost of mainland trips is $144 a day. So for our typical 10 day trip that would total up to $1440.

That seems low to me, how about you?

How about you all? Do you vacation? How much do you usually spend?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

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Tax Free Ways to Pass on the Family Wealth

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Marie. You can read more of Marie’s articles over at her own blog, Family Money Values. Enjoy! 

Perhaps from the moment you left home you have been struggling with all your might to become financially independent.  Maybe you worked hard, saved well then became a real estate tycoon by buying one rental home at a time until now you own multiple apartments.  Or perhaps you started a small, but very relevant web site that grew and grew until it started drawing the big bucks.  Or maybe you inherited some money from dear old Grandpa George, invested it and made it grow.

Now you have an unfamiliar problem.  Too much money, too many assets.  You don’t want your kids to have to start all over again, but how do you get the wealth to them without it being decimated by taxes?

Taxes can take a big bite, especially in the US – even now that the annual US Federal estate taxes don’t kick in until you have at least $5.49 million. But, some states do still charge estate taxes.  The inheritor does not pay these estate taxes, the estate of the deceased person does.

Laws can change rapidly, the US national debt is huge, revenue has to come from somewhere to pay it off.  Estate tax laws may become much less favorable in the future.  It pays to be alert to possible inroads to your hard earned money.

Back in 1996, when Mom died in the US, her estate was worth around $700,000 (which would be a bit over a million dollars in 2016).  It had to pay $80,000 ($122,375 in 2016 dollars) in estate taxes.  She and Dad worked hard for those dollars and would have been appalled if they had realized the government would get them on their deaths.

Your IRA can be a double whammy after you die.  It gets counted as part of that $5.49 million, your beneficiaries may have to take all the funds out within 5 years of your death AND the distributions get added to their taxable income, probably raising their income taxes significantly.

Canadian laws might be a bit more favorable. According to Canada Inheritance Tax Laws & Information:

“Non-registered capital assets are considered to have been sold for fair market value immediately prior to death. Any resulting capital gains are 50% taxable and added to all other income of the deceased on their final return where income tax will be calculated at the applicable personal income tax rates. They are taxed at the applicable capital gains tax rates.

The fair market value of a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) or a Registered Retirement Income Fund (RRIF) is included in the deceased person’s income and taxed at the regular applicable personal income tax rates with no special treatment for any capital gains earned within the RRSP or RRIF.”

In other words, Canadians aren’t taxed on the entire worth of their assets, just the capital gains.

Currently in the US, there are several ways to avoid being taxed on your hard earned dollars.  Some of them apply in Canada as well.

Make annual gifts.

In the US, each person can give cash or assets valued up to a certain amount (which changes each year to account for inflation) to as many people as they want.  A husband and wife can each give up to that amount.  In 2017, the amount is $14,000 per giver to EACH person they give to.  If a person gives over that amount in one year, it is added to a lifetime gift/estate take exclusion amount.  Anything left in the estate over the exclusion amount is subject to estate taxes on death.

In Canada, each person can give unlimited cash to as many people as they want.  There really isn’t a ‘gift tax’ per se.

Of course, you can’t read the future, so you have to balance the desire to avoid taxation with the potential for your future need for that money.  You should make sure you have enough to care for yourself before giving any away!

Instead of cash, in the US, a person can give assets, including shares in a business.  Establishing a family limited liability company (LLC) is one way to pass along highly valued real assets (such as a vacation home), over time, without too much hassle.  The vacation home is titled in the name of the LLC.  The operating agreement of the LLC is set up to designate a manager-member type arrangement so that the original owners retain control.  Then the original owners (which probably are the parents) can gift shares in the LLC to the members, and may be able to do so at a discounted price (since LLC member shares are not as liquid as cash).  This results in the possibility of gifting assets actually worth more than $14,000 in one year to one member.

This passing of interest in the LLC from original owner to members can continue over time until the majority of shares are owned by members.  This strategy gets that vacation home out of your estate and into your heirs without taxation.  This same concept can also be used for more liquid assets, if desired.

Open a Roth IRA or Tax Free Savings Account.

In the US, people can establish a Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) and contribute certain amounts to it (which decline by income levels).  In Canada the Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) is a similar vehicle.

Both provide for tax free earnings and withdrawal from the account tax free.

Soon to be changed laws in the US allowed beneficiaries of an inherited ROTH IRA to keep funds in it, withdrawing over their expected lifetime, so that the funds continued to grow tax free.  Some called this concept a STRETCH IRA – because the tax free status is stretched over multiple lifetimes. In Canada, any income following death is taxed as ordinary income.

Pay for College.

Since Canadians aren’t limited in the amount of cash they can give, this one really only applies in the US.

If you are wanting to pass along family wealth to the kids or grand-kids without using any part of the gift or estate tax exclusion amounts, you can directly pay for medial or college expenses.  You have to write the check out to the institution though and not to your child or grandchild to give to the institution.  It is important to note that this only applies to payment of tuition, not room or board or books, etc.

There are other, more complex ways of passing assets tax free (or tax reduced) to your heirs.  Estate planning is a complex topic and you should consult someone who knows the laws applicable to you and is familiar with your own situation before making decisions on what you should do.  This is especially true for those folks who have assets both at home and in other countries.

How about you all? Do you have other tax free ideas to pass on the family wealth?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

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Helping Kids Prepare Financially for Driving and Car Ownership

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Laurie Blank.  Laurie is a wife, mother to 4 and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

One of the biggest parenting – and child – milestones is when your child becomes old enough to start driving on their own. Driving and car ownership are big responsibilities in many ways. Along with the responsibility to drive safely on the road, kids need to be taught the financial costs of driving and car ownership as well. Here are some tips on how you can prepare your kids for the financial impact of owning and driving a vehicle.

Calculate the Costs with Them

It’s important to teach your children a good deal ahead of when they get their license that driving and vehicle ownership costs money. When they become old enough to get their learners permit, sit down with them and start having discussions about what kind of car they want to drive, the costs of purchasing the car, purchasing gas, the cost of car maintenance and repair and the cost of insurance.

Since you’re spend-tracking (you are spend-tracking, right?), go over your own transportation costs with them so they can get a real-life idea that driving and car ownership costs money.

Don’t Pay for Everything

This is just my personal opinion, but I’m a huge believer in having kids pay for at least part of their transportation costs, even while they’re still under eighteen. Kids tend to hold more respect for that which they’ve worked hard to pay for.

Whether it’s a car, a college education or whatever, there can be a lack of understanding with kids regarding the work that it took to be able to pay for those things. When you give some or all of the responsibility for paying for car costs to your child, you help them to appreciate the privilege of driving, to learn real-life lessons about how the world works and you help them prepare for the transition to independent adult.

Set Rules for Driving Preparedness

It’s helpful when kids and parents have a mutual understanding of how vehicle ownership and driving responsibilities will work in your home. For instance, if your child wants to have their own car, show them how to set some money aside for a car maintenance/repair fund. Make sure they have enough money saved for an insurance deductible in case of an accident.

If your child will drive a family car, set clear rules about when they can use the car, when they can’t, and who will pay for what portion of gas, insurance, etc. It’s important too to have a clear discussion about what the consequences will be if the house driving rules are broken, who will pay the fine if your child gets a ticket and so on. When your child knows clearly how the rules work beforehand, there will be less pushback when a consequence needs to be administered or when they’re handed the bill for the increased insurance premiums due to getting a speeding ticket.

Other Driving and Vehicle Ownership Suggestions

There are other responsibilities that go along with driving besides the financial ones. For instance, one of our house rules is that we don’t push our kids to get their license right at the legal age of sixteen, instead allowing them to determine when they’re emotionally ready for the responsibility. It’s important to teach your children these rules as well:

  • Never talk, text or browse on your phone will driving. Pull over in a safe place if you have to make a call or text
  • Obey all traffic and driving laws at all times (this will be easier for kids if they see their parents doing the same)
  • The better you take care of your car, the less it will cost you
  • Make sure to insist that those who ride in your car wear seat belts at all times and stay calm while on the road so that they don’t distract you as you drive
  • Always be attentive, cautious and defensive when you drive, watching out for other drivers who may be distracted or aggressive
  • Avoid confrontations with other drivers by being polite on the road and heading to the nearest police station if there’s trouble
  • For tips on what to do if your vehicle breaks down on the road, check out this AAA Auto Checklist.

Driving and car ownership are big responsibilities, both financially and otherwise. The more you can teach your kids ahead of time on how to be prepared for those responsibilities, the better they’ll be able to handle all of the tenets of driving.

How about you all? What other suggestions do you have for teaching your kids about driving responsibilities?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

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Office Work Hacks

The following post is by MPFJ staff writer, Marie. You can read more of Marie’s articles over at her own blog, Family Money Values. Enjoy! 

Getting along and getting ahead in the office involve age old problems.  Here are some problems with ideas on solutions.

Inability to focus is causing you to be less productive.

You head into the office each day refreshed and ready, but once you get logged in to your applications, the next thing you know it’s lunch time and you haven’t accomplished anything!

Hack: Downsize distractions and focus on priorities.

You can’t control your office environment, but you can change its effect on you.  If the guy in the next cube has a constant stream of visitors, talks to himself out loud, plays loud music or just otherwise distracts you – put on your headphones (they will discourage visitors from approaching and can block the noise).  Reduce clutter in your area so that you aren’t distracted by it.  If you are in a high traffic area, see if the company will put up some noise and sight protection in the form of higher cube walls, signs or other preventative measures.

Focus on priorities by writing down the very most important things that you accomplish each day, and listing tomorrow’s priority tasks.  Check in once in a while with the boss or project leader to make sure you are on track.  Avoid diverting phone calls, emails, text messages, and non-essential or less important project tasks so that you have laser like focus on the priority items.  BUT, if you get stuck working on priority items, it is OK to switch off temporarily to work other items – as long as you get back on track fast.

You feel invisible to the boss.

A boss or mentor higher in the corporate chain of command is an important ally when trying to advance your career.  He or she can steer special projects to you, make you known to other executives, put you in for a raise or bonus, push your ideas, save you from a general layoff, or help in a myriad of other ways.

Hack:  Go face to face

Electronic or phone communication is fine, but your boss is inundated with it day in, day out.  Get to know the boss by going face to face on select topics.  You won’t be invisible long – but take care to be visible in a positive way!

Here are some ways to to meet person to person with your boss.

If he assigned a task or deliverable to you and you finish it successfully, try hand delivering it with a very short verbal reminder of what it is and when it was requested.

If your boss does an annual evaluation, request a touch base meeting once a quarter or twice a year to ‘verify that I’m on track’ with what is needed.

Ask around to see what your boss’s outside interests are, and if you have similar ones, strike up a conversation in the lunch line, bathroom or break-room about the topic.

Volunteer for special projects or activities in which your boss is also involved.   Working directly together on a project will allow you to directly demonstrate your ability, creativity and productivity.

If your boss is not at the same location as you are, try using the phone, video calls or attempting to schedule a visit to his or her location for a special meeting on something important to the boss.

Your work performance suffers due to co-worker or staff member office socialization.

Yes, you are part of a group.  Yes, the group is important.  Some socialization is good for the group and good for productivity, but too much is just a waste of time.  Creativity can be spawned by some group socialization, but so can negative, hurtful gossip that distracts you from the job at hand.   If your good friend in the next department makes a habit of stopping by for a chat each day, and ends up talking for half an hour, the benefit of inter-department communication is outweighed by the loss of work time from both of you.

Hack: Turn the talk back to work subjects.

Don’t be a jerk, do visit for a few minutes, but then gently turn the talk back to what is going on with the project, or a new idea you had to make things better, or a discussion of how to go about the next steps you both need to take.  Don’t get me wrong, managers can gain a lot of good perspective by being open to informal communication with their staff and peers, but perspective on who will take the Superbowl may not be all that beneficial.

Use off hours (such as breaks, lunch and after work time) to really socialize with co-workers.

Meetings suck your office time, then you have to stay late to get your actual work done.

As a manager, I attended and ran a lot of meetings.  There were very good reasons to hold many of the meetings, but often the purpose was not realized.  Sometimes (actually many times) the meeting participants are unprepared to fully participate in what could be a great meeting. Sometimes the meeting organizer isn’t aware of other work that should be happening in the meeting time frame.  Meetings don’t equal work done (usually), but can be beneficial in some cases.

Hack:  Make your meetings meaningful.

When you attend a meeting:

  • Understand its purpose.

Question the meeting purpose it doesn’t make sense or if a meeting is not the way to achieve that purpose, but question in private.

  • Make sure you should be attending – are you an interested party, can you contribute? Check in with the meeting organizer or your boss if you are unsure why you are attending and then:
  • Participate fully.

As the meeting organizer:

  • Make sure you have a purpose.

Consider carefully whether a meeting is the very best way to achieve that purpose.

  • Verify that each and every meeting participant is required.
  • Hold the meeting for the shortest possible time, with the tightest possible agenda.
  • Lead efficiently.
  • If you hold a lot of meetings, get training on how to lead effective ones and how to accomplish things without meetings.

Any meeting where the leader talks and everyone else sits around fidgeting is a failure!

Work sucks but you don’t feel like you can do anything to change the way things are.

When we lack seniority, we often don’t feel empowered to put our own imprint on our work place.  If we try, sometimes we are told “This is the way we do it – it’s always been done this way”.  Yet you do know of a better way – or at least think you do.

Hack: Figure out how your company solicits or allows input. 

Most companies have implemented multiple ways for employee ideas to trickle up to higher levels of management.  Many companies long for the great employee suggestions and go to great lengths to make sure they are heard.  You just need to figure out what those currently are.

A few methods I have seen at various employers include:

Company wiki’s with sections for various parts of the company – where anyone can post an idea.

Ongoing braintrust meetings – open invites for certain departments, levels or mixes of employees gather to present and discuss ideas for new products, process improvements and etc.

Awards – formal channels to submit written proposals to an award committee to review and get implemented.

Third party award systems – third parties sometimes are hired to come in and solicit money saving suggestions from the folks closest to the work.  These usually come with some pretty significant ‘prizes’.

Special calls to action – a director or vice-president is on a special mission and requests ideas on how to accomplish that mission.

Company Strategic mission committees – most companies have a mission, with goals, strategies and tactics to get to them.  Ask around to find out who is eligible to work on these committees, offer up strategies and tactics or be on the projects to implement them.

Brainstorming meetings – typically held around one particular topic.

Once you understand the change procedures, explore the particular item you want to change.  Learn the history of how and why the process came to be.  What was tried before, would it fail again now?  Was your idea previously suggested?  How could it be implemented differently to be more effective?

Of course, you can always just talk it over with the boss or your other co-workers.  Building support for your change can give its chances of adoption a big boost.

The above work hacks are based on my own work experience and may not necessarily work for you.  It’s always good to get the lay of the land before diving in head first on some of these things.

How about you all? What work hacks have you seen?  Are there issues in your workplace interfering with your productivity?

Share your experiences by commenting below!

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