Personal finance: How to save, spend, and think rationally about money
Finances can be a stressor, regardless of tax bracket. Here are tips for making better money decisions.
VICKI ROBIN: I was leading a session on a relationship with money. I just was curious about where people were with this at this point. This was in 2016. We had 50 people in the room. We circled up and we went around the room, just say something about your relationship with money. And I realized every person in that room was in fear about money. From the 80 year old who I know has millions of dollars to the 20 year old who's like already $20,000 in debt. And it just, honestly it infuriated me like what kind of society requires that everybody participate in something that terrifies them. This feels so amiss to me.
DANIEL KAHNEMAN: People are not fully rational and they make many choices that if they reflected upon them they would do differently. There's no question about that. The major tendency is people tend to frame things very narrowly. They take a narrow view of decision making. They look at the problem at hand and they deal with it as if it were the only problem. Very frequently it's a better idea to look at problems as they will recur throughout your life and then you look at the policy that you're to adopt for a class of problems. Difficult to do would be a better thing. People frame things narrowly in the sense, for example, that they will save and borrow at the same time instead of somehow treating their whole portfolio of assets as one thing. If people were able to take a broader view they would in general make better decisions. So that is certainly one of the weaknesses of human decision making. We call it narrow framing.
Four layers of financial independence
ROBIN: First of all, I'd like to distinguish between independence and freedom. So, financial freedom is like freeing your mind. Financial freedom is understanding that I'm me and there's an economy out there and I have a relationship with it but it doesn't run my life. It's freeing my mind from the messages of the consumer culture, the messages of the economy. The messages that a house is a starter house. No, that's my house. I could die in my house. It's like there's so many presumptions that drive us into waste slavery, debt, and it doesn't matter whether you are at the low end or the high end. If you are engaged in that sort of anxious process of more, more, more, you are not free.
So the first layer of financial independence I talk about is this freedom of the mind. This freeing your mind. Of saying like I am sovereign. The economy is secondary. I will move my sovereign self into the economy for my own purposes rather than I am a schlump, the economy is my mega-boss and I don't know, my boss seems to be as big as the sky and so I will just let my life be run by my boss and the tax system and I'm just going to let myself be run by this thing. No. So you are sovereign beings so that's your first layer of financial independence is your own sovereignty. And then the second layer is to get out of debt. And for some people debt feels endless. And the first step to getting out of debt is stop going into debt. There's many people who have written to us who flatten their debt in a couple of years. Impossible debt. Debt that was going to be endless. They would die with this debt. And once they see what the debt is doing to them in terms of the actual opportunities, the future opportunities of their lives, that's the sort of link that we try to get people to make so that something in the future is more important than the immediate pleasure of buying one more tchotchke that you're never going to use.
And the third level really is to get those six months of savings in liquid assets whether it's bank accounts. Someplace where you can actually within 24-48 hours you could realize that money. So that you have an emergency fund. So that you are not tumbled back into debt as soon as something happens amiss. You lose a job which, you know, many people now feel that even their very, very important and significant jobs are precarious. So you want to get out of the zone of precariousness and part of how you get out of that precariousness is savings. And then over time the next layer of financial independence is you start to see that surplus savings can be invested in such a way that it throws off an income. And over time if you become a systematic and sometimes obsessive saver – and you can see, you could chart it. You can watch your passive income grow knowing money is your life energy, you track everything you buy. And an easy way to do it if you don't like writing in a little notebook every time you do a transaction is just use your debit card. I said debit, not credit. You use your debit card and your bank has a complete record of all your purchases. Every month you take a look at your purchases, you sort out in categories that apply to your lifestyle. You just look at that and you kind of tell yourself the truth about whether spending your life energy in that way makes a difference.
Understanding finance and keeping emotions controlled
KAHNEMAN: You need to be numerate for certain kinds of decisions so numerate people have a significant advantage over those who are not. Understanding compound interest makes a huge difference whether you're a credit card borrower or somebody with savings. People have a very hazy idea of compound interest and it's very detrimental so I would say that first of all you need to be numerate but many people are. Then you need to frame things broadly. I mean it frequently goes with numeracy but it's not quite the same thing. By taking the broad view it is very important not to have overly strong emotional reactions to events. And what I mean by that is that most of us tend to respond to gains and to losses, to changes that happen in our life. Actually you're better off if you frame things broadly and you think of you win a few, you lose a few, and you have very limited emotional response to small gains and to small losses.
Money can buy happiness — if you spend it right
ROBIN: There's so many ways in which we project onto money the ability to not only make us happy but to make us better or better than other people or safe or so many deep, gut level emotional feelings are playing themselves out in our relationship with money.
MICHAEL NORTON: We want more money and we want more happiness so maybe if we get more money we'll get more happiness. And it turns out that the relationship is really a lot more complicated than that. It's not too surprising to say that money can't buy you happiness. We've heard that phrase a lot, but that doesn't help us understand then what kind of spending will actually make us happy and what kind won't.
ROBIN: So we've got a certain limited time on the planet. We're going to spend a third of it sleeping. We're going to spend another third of it commuting and showering and sitting at a desk and doing somebody else's bidding. That's not a lot of life. So you think I've got a third, I have a third of my waking hours are mine to do whatever I want. Who am I? It's like it then sends it into an existential question. Who am I? What do I care about? What do I want the impact of my actions to be? What do I want to learn? What do I want to understand? What do I want to feel, taste, touch? What do I want in what Mary Oliver calls my one wild and precious life.
NORTON: What we tend to find when we look at the data is that the biggest category of things that people spend on is stuff for themselves. Of course we need to pay rent or our mortgage. We need to have a car. We need to have food and clothes, but it seems as though people are spending an inordinate amount of their money on stuff for themselves. And the biggest problem from out standpoint as psychologists is the percent of money that you spend on stuff for yourself is completely uncorrelated with how happy you are with your life. It doesn't make you unhappy. It's not like if you buy a lot of stuff you're miserable which sometimes we think is the case. It's just the case that it's flat. No matter how much it seems you buy for yourself, nothing really seems to happen.
ROBIN: Once people start to pay attention to the flow of money and stuff in their lives in this way their consumption drops by about 20-25 percent naturally because that's the amount of unconsciousness that you have in your spending. So, when you become conscious that falls away and many people say they don't even know what they used to spend their money on. They just oh, surprise. I'm spending less. I don't know how that happened. I just paid attention. I just asked myself is this purchase of something making me happy.
NORTON: When you focus on other people you sort of reverse the arrow from me to you, it seems that on average when people give to others which can be giving to charity, it can be treating a friend to lunch. It can be buying people gifts. Those actions of giving rather than keeping seem to be associated with more happiness. But another opposite of stuff for yourself is to think about changing, you can still spend on yourself but change from stuff to something else. And lots of research over the last decade has shown that on average when people buy experiences it tends to pay off in more happiness than buying stuff for themselves. Often when we buy stuff for ourselves we end up by ourselves with our stuff. Think of yourself on your phone playing a videogame, whatever else it might be. You're often alone with your stuff. Whereas experiences yes, we do some experiences solo, but many, many experiences have built into them that they're social. If we go out to dinner or go see a movie or go on a hike, whatever else it might be, now we're with other people. It turns out that talking to other people makes us happy. Even casual interactions with other people make us happier than sitting by ourselves in a room.
Teaching children about money
BRUCE FEILER: Eighty percent of children, eight zero, get to college having never had a conversation with their parents about money. Where it comes from, how it's earned, how it's spent, what debt is. You can't just give your kids, launch them into their lives without giving them the tools. So I went to what I thought would be the smartest people to talk to about this – Warren Buffett's bankers. They advise the wealthiest families in the country and I thought they must know more. They can help my family. It turns out that these wealthy families are making even more mistakes and I walked away from this conversation with a number of takeaways. Takeaway number one – show them the money. It's incredibly important to talk to children about money at an age appropriate level, but you need to talk. Buffett's banker said to me, "I spoke to the richest woman in America and she said it's a burden if I tell my children how much money they have." And he said, "It's much more of a burden to burden them with ignorance than to burden them with the truth." Number two, actually try to limit the influence of money. After doing all this research in our home, we have chores, we have allowance. We do not overlap the two. Because if you do it turns out the kids will do the chores just for the money. You get an allowance as part of being a member of our family, but sorry, someone's got to put the dishes in the dishwasher, someone's got to make their bed. You're part of the team, you have to take care of yourself. And the last thing is let them make mistakes. Buffett's banker chided me when I told him we were kind of forcing our kids to put their money into different pots – spend, save, give away, et cetera. He said, "Let them decide for themselves." And I said, "But what if they make a mistake? What if they want to buy something and they've spent all their money on candy? What if they drive into a ditch?" And his answer was one of my favorite quotes in "The Secrets of Happy Families." He said, "It's much better to make a mistake with a six dollar allowance than a $60,000 a year salary or a $6 million inheritance." The point is when the kids are young, when the stakes are lower, let them make their own mistakes. Then you're there to pick them up. You don't want to get that call when they're 24 and suddenly they're in debt and they've made bad decisions and they're really in a hole.
The new road map
ROBIN: There's several ways to expand markets. One is you export and another is to educate your citizens to want more than they need. And then you've got an infinite way to, you've got an infinite market called the endless willingness of people to buy into the story of more is better and keep buying stuff. So that is the old roadmap. Growth is good, more is better, game over. The new roadmap says that there is something called enough and enough is not sort of like this oppressive ceiling that okay, I've got enough and I can't have anymore. No, enough is this sort of vibrant vital place. What we teach is an awareness about the flow of money and stuff in your life in light of your true happiness and your sense of purpose and values. And that you're enough point, having enough, is having everything you want and need to have a life you love and full self-expression with nothing in excess. It's not minimalism, it's not less is more because sometimes more is more. But it's that sweet spot. It's the Goldilocks point. And so enough for me is like one of the absolute fulcrums between the old roadmap for money and the new roadmap for money.
- Whether you have a lot of money or a lot of debt, it matters how you handle your personal finances. A crucial step when it comes to saving is to reassess your relationship with money and to learn to adopt a broader, more logical point of view.
- In this video, social innovator and activist Vicki Robin, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, and author Bruce Feiler offer advice on achieving financial independence, learning to control your emotions, spending smarter, and teaching children about money.
- It all starts with education and understanding. The more you know about how money works, the better you will be at avoiding mistakes and the easier it will be to take control of your financial circumstances.
- What is involved in navigating personal finance today? - Big Think ›
- How to save money, according to a financial psychologist - Big Think ›
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The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."