An Unreasonably Frugal Person Tries to Figure It Out

I used to be unreasonably frugal. What were once rational, economically efficient decisions—limiting “impulse purchases” to the change at the bottom of my bag—became, on the aggregate, absurd.

When I started college 10 years ago, I refused to pay 65 cents for a morale-boosting cup of coffee, because I had an unlimited supply of “coffee” available at the dining hall under a pre-paid “continuous feed” plan. My clothing budget is around $50 a year. I spent two years sleeping in a sleeping bag on a futon on the floor, because I thought sheets and a bedframe were too expensive. If life were a game of Oregon Trail, I’d be the wagon party on barebones rations.

My parents are absurdly financially responsible—champions of the Midwestern middle class—and much of my frugality was influenced by them. Their income was average, but their expenses were tiny. They paid off their mortgage in five years. They paid for their cars in one payment using cash. Their honeymoon was a camping trip to Indiana. We went out to dinner as a family once a month (if even that), and when we did go out, we did not order appetizers.

The costs of a few permitted luxuries—air conditioning the summer of my mother’s pregnancy, a family vacation … to Michigan—were still kept to a minimum. Sometimes, we bought our groceries at the Food Town Outlet, and we indulged by buying two dozen paczkis on Ash Wednesday, which was the day they went on the reduced rack. We stopped doing this after my brother and I got sick on 50%-off cinnamon bread a week past its sell-by-date.

Of course, extreme frugality isn’t healthy—it’s the bare bones wagon parties that are usually the first to die on the Oregon Trail. An adult, 28-year-old woman cannot wear her high school wardrobe to work, and she cannot maintain a social life by ordering “water” (tap water—I carry my own bottle) every time she goes out with her friends. More importantly, she cannot live on store brand bread alone.

Actual “living” should include affordable luxuries, and my unreasonable frugality came with a high opportunity cost. I had a chance to fly to Italy for 100 euro, and I didn’t do it. I figured that with the cost of a hostel and incredibly delicious food, I would probably spend three hundred euro. I repeat: three hundred euro. FOR FIVE DAYS IN ITALY.

I’m getting better about this. I recently bought one pair of new, full-price boots. Two years ago, I inherited (but eventually paid to move) a queen-size bed, frame and all. I took myself on a vacation.

For a while, I was doing great. I’ve always been interested in maximizing the value of my dollar. As a kid, I loaned my brother portions of my allowance, on the condition that he paid it back with interest. I bolstered my savings, and tucked some money in a 401(k). So I got smug—financially smug. And I was lucky.

But I also haven’t earned much money, and have been in the low-income bracket for a while. In my best year, I made about $35,000; my worst, $12,000. I’m a former English major, a liberal arts graduate, and I’ve spent at least three of the six years since undergrad cobbling together part-time, temporary, and freelance jobs. (I spent most of the non-cobbling years as a funded, but still low-income graduate student.) If you live close to the bone, and are a few bus rides out of town, $1,000 a month can be enough to live on, even in Boston.

Well, it’s enough if you don’t have debt, or health issues, or any dependents, which I was lucky I didn’t. My parents are (surprise) intimidatingly responsible savers, so they covered a large portion of my college education, and I covered the rest with scholarships and three work-study jobs.

I’m now in debt after starting law school this fall. Tuition is north of $45,000, and even with some scholarship money and an unbelievably cheap housing situation, I expect to go six figures into debt. It’s enough debt to buy a house, and because the legal field’s employment prospects continue to look grim, when I get that house, it probably doesn’t have a roof. And it’s haunted by poltergeists. See Stambovsky v. Ackley.

I’m also getting married in May. He’s getting a Ph.D. in experimental music (so: also low-income). A wedding is not a house-sized expense—well, it doesn’t have to be—but even a family-only wedding with a pizza-and-beer reception requires money, and it’s money I don’t have.

So I’m left with no recourse: I have to realistically approach my debt, a subject I find terrifying. I have to figure out loan payments, and aim for an occupation with a salary that exceeds my tuition. I might be tempted to sell my hair and donate my plasma and work three jobs and mooch, mooch, mooch (and I’ll probably do all of those things), but it won’t be enough. I have to manage the way I spend money, instead of merely spending as little as possible. I have to become that aspirational construct: a reasonably frugal person.

In the coming year, I’ll be documenting my law school bills, my upcoming wedding, and my career prospects right here for you all to see. Stay tuned.

 

Lauren C. Ostberg is a beard enthusiast, a nonfiction writer, and a law student. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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64 Comments / Post A Comment

guenna77 (#856)

“As a kid, I loaned my brother portions of my allowance, on the condition that he paid it back with interest.” i used to do the same thing with my mom when she needed cash but hadn’t gotten to the ATM. my brother however was a “deficit spender” – mom’s words – even at the age of 8 so no money lent to him was ever going be repaid.

laluchita (#2,195)

The idea of day old paczki’s is heartbreaking. They are so amazing fresh and they are only once a year and they cost like $2 a piece! WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT TO SOMEONE YOU LOVED?

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@laluchita In my neighbourhood we can get pazcki ALL THE TIME >:)

laluchita (#2,195)

@planforamiracle yeah but they’re only good on paczki day! That’s the only day you can get them with the proper egg dough and classy filling. Paczki day is seriously my favorite holiday.

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@laluchita maybe so. I live in a neighbourhood with a bunch of Polish bakeries and I’m pretty sure their paczki are legit!

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

Looking forward to this series (having been told that I’m unreasonably frugal myself)!

I draw the line at mooching, though.

lisaf (#3,089)

@CubeRootOfPi YES! I refuse to spend 50 cents on locker rentals at the gym! Yet I am amoung the more wealthy of my friends, who get very annoyed by my frugality!

NO MOOCHING, unless it’s like, taking advantage of free stuff (at a law school there are likely free lunches often, provided you attend a presentation on a boring topic)

cjm (#3,397)

@lisaf Secret of law school: Go to all the free lunches. 1) Save money. 2) Sometimes eat better than the lunch you packed. 3) Maybe learn about something you might be interested in but never knew about! For reals, the topic might be helpful and less boring than you think!

As someone whose parents spent my childhood exercising extreme frugality to get out of credit card debt, I’m really looking forward to your series!

PS Stambovsky v. Ackley is fantastic. I do contract-law-adjacent work (not a lawyer, though) and sent that case to my coworkers for Halloween :)

astauff (#4,376)

Wait can you please explain the 100 euros to Italy thing in more detail?

jquick (#3,730)

Study STEM! If you can’t afford a beer and pizza wedding then you shouldn’t be getting married, or go down to the county courthouse and get married there (I did). Are you prepared for a life where hubby is talented, yet earns no income? He’s trying to work at odd hours (nites, weekends), and as a lawyer, you have your nose to the grindstone working 12 hr+ intensive days?

blueblazes (#1,798)

@jquick Seriously, I read that and thought, “Fiancee must be a very special snowflake indeed.”

Seems to me that she’s going from extremely frugal to compounding bad financial decisions one on top of the other.

Hindsight will be 20/20 as always. If I could do it over, I would have gotten married at the courthouse and thrown a party later, once we were better settled. I would NEVER have encouraged my husband to follow his dreams to grad school.

We’re buying a house right now on my income alone because he has none to speak of, terrible credit and a spotty job history. A theatre degree will do that.

I just see where the author is headed, and it makes me feel tired for her.

themegnapkin (#444)

@jquick in this economy, I would think law school would be a frugal person’s nightmare. Srsly – at $45k a year, that’s $135k total, and the median salary for a starting lawyer is $60k (unless you have good grades at one of the top schools). At least she seems to have her eyes open re: her employment prospects . . . but as a frugal person who graduated from law school into a better economy, there is no way I would go to law school now.

clo (#4,196)

@themegnapkin if she can even get a job. i know many talented lawyers who are practically unemployable.

@blueblazes Read a cool article where a couple had their “wedding” reception type party on their one year anniversary instead of having a giant wedding bash.

NoName (#3,509)

@jquick As a person with a STEM degree who no longer works in STEM (thank the universe), this is not the cure-all people seem to think it is, especially if you are a woman. The hours + gender discrimination were not worth it for me to stay. Also, people who work in STEM have employment problems all the time, too. Not a guaranteed income.

Blackbird (#2,196)

@NoName I just wanted to chime in and second this. I’ve had friends with STEM degrees spend months or years looking for employment. Plus the working conditions (hours, mostly) required for a lot of the jobs can be absolutely insane. STEM degrees aren’t the cure-all for employment people think, especially now that there are so many people out there with STEM degrees competing for the same jobs as (and with more experience than) those right out of a degree program.

kthkskddn (#2,342)

@Blackbird Yeah seriously. I get that people are excited to share the advice of “Study STEM at a state university, then ALL THE MONEY!!!” but it’s honestly not helpful to anyone who’s already graduated.

Blackbird (#2,196)

@kthkskddn And I think a lot of people don’t get what kind of work they’re going to be doing for “ALL THE MONEY!!!!” Almost everyone I know who is well-paid in STEM (more specifically computer-related work) is either constantly on call, needing to drag their computers with them everywhere and be available at the drop of a hat to fix something the second it breaks (which can take hours), or works in fields like software development where a combination of crunch times and having work that’s *incredibly* hard to estimate time to completion on leads to working late nights and weekends on a regular basis just to meet average deadlines.

clo (#4,196)

@Blackbird Yes x 1000. I was a social science major and now am in tech support. Everyone tells me to go back to school to be a programmer, and sure I would make more money, but I don’t want to work 24/7. I’ll always put quality of life and family time over money.

clo (#4,196)

@NoName The gender discrimination is no joke. I pretty much left my last job for my new one because I couldn’t take the rampant sexism and sexual harassment. No female managers, every girl they hired got hired on looks, I was told months after being hired the main reason I was hired was because I have big boobs, etc. And this isn’t in some backwards town – this was in San Francisco. I’m very seriously considering pursuing a new career because of it. If I have to listen to one more teenage male programmer tell me ‘lol, no’ to everything I say, I swear…

ATF (#4,229)

@NoName No kidding. I’m a scientist with a master’s from a great university and I live in the biotech hub of the universe (Boston/Cambridge). Do you know what the vast majority of pharma’s do now? They hire scientific contractors and *not* full time employees. All the benefits of someone with advanced degrees and work experience, none of that pesky benefits business (beyond Romneycare). I was paid handsomely per hour but I lived in a world where at any point I could’ve been let go because priorities changed. And that did eventually happen.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@jquick You all are sort of scaring me…I just went back to school for software engineering (my undergrad was in a liberal art and I have been teaching high school since). I already have a better-paying job at a local small company run by a woman, so it seems good, but seriously I’m afraid all of the work is just depressing and terrible now.

loren smith (#2,300)

@MissMushkila I work for a software development company, and our dev guys are happy, for what that’s worth. They are all guys though, so….

clo (#4,196)

@MissMushkila The nice thing about being a software engineer is you could always start your own company at least… It just depends where you end up. Lots of places pay a lot but want you to work all the time. Some places pay less but have a better balance. I think startups tend to be more abusive of the balance than more established companies.

blueblazes (#1,798)

@MissMushkila And having a computer-related degree doesn’t mean you have to work in a computer-focused company or at a sweatshop/startup. Nonprofits, health care, education, realty, (basically all industries) have tech jobs available. I do web stuff for a nonprofit, and no one here, not even the lowliest programmer, works more than 40 hours a week.

clo (#4,196)

@jquick good point!

kthkskddn (#2,342)

@MissMushkila I’m sorry if my comment made you a little anxious! I think many of these comments, whether they’re coming from “STEM people” or “non-STEM people,” are expressing the frustration that 1. the only way to financial security is by studying a STEM subject, when the reality is that there is job insecurity in many of those fields, and that many of the good-paying jobs come at the expense of work-life balance; 2. that not everyone is suited for a STEM subject (not just personal taste but also aptitude!) and it sucks to hear a variant of, “Oh, were you aware that many well-paying jobs are in STEM? (Yes I was aware.) You should probably have done your entire college career differently. Sucks 2 b u!” and 3. many STEM jobs come with a lot of sexist bullshit. To the last point, I think that probably varies a lot depending on the company culture (I live in the Bay Area so I have heard some horror stories as well as situations that seem really supportive and caring). Also, I’m sure you also know about women in computer science professional organizations that provide support for going into a men-dominated field.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@NoName While there is a problem with gender discrimination, I don’t think the solution is to discourage people from STEM careers. Rather, we should be encouraging girls to go into those fields to make it more balanced.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@Blackbird They are not a cure all, but we definitely need more of them. It is also a highly versatile field, whereby you can branch out and do alot of different things with a STEM agree.

Of course, not everyone is cut out for it. I think alot of humanities majors would be in for a rude shock once they actually took some engineering classes.

ellabella (#1,480)

@Eric18 Yes, but we also need to be honest about what it’s like to be in these fields. It’s not fun to spend 22 years in the ivory tower being told that girls are just as good at math and science as boys, only to go into a field with a fratty culture and a misogynist boss. Women (especially in college) should get accurate representations of what it’s like in different fields in order to help them make decisions about their careers.

Also, women going into fields in equal rates (see: med school, b-school, law school) doesn’t necessarily make them more gender-equitable. When men continue to hold positions of power and the industry is not accommodating to women’s or family issues, industries can maintain a sexist dynamic even with equal influx of men and women.

/Can you tell I’m speaking from experience? For the record, I have a quite strong humanities background but explored STEM in college and have chosen to make it my career.

heavyrotation (#4,261)

@astauff Yeah! I want this opportunity to come my way please.

Morbo (#1,236)

A PhD in experimental music?
So much of academia is a scam…..

franklina (#3,924)

Did your parents read The Tightwad Gazette? It’s borderline ridiculous but completely genuine frugal living tips before it was remotely cool.

It was originally a newsletter and I think all the tips are compiled here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Complete-Tightwad-Gazette-Dacyczyn/dp/0375752250; obviously diligently frugal readers picked up secondhand or library copies :). Sample headlines: “Using items you were about to throw away (milk jugs, plastic meat trays, and more!); ” Halloween costumes from scrounged materials” etc…

faustbanana (#2,376)

@franklina I’m into frugality to a degree, but I think I’ll keep on throwing away my plastic meat trays.

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

@franklina Tightwad Gazette is an interesting read. I also wouldn’t reuse my plastic meat trays, but I have on occasion re-used dryer sheets (they are often good for a small second load of laundry, and once they’re spent they work great for dusting).

I think you have to pick your things to be frugal about. I like to be frugal about something to balance out not being frugal about something else e.g. buying store-brand groceries whenever I can to free up money to dine out with friends now and then.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

Looking forward to this!

Tatiana (#194)

Looking forward to seeing how you do! You sound incredibly responsible with money already, so I’m already inspired. Best of luck!

tussock (#1,296)

I would think about taking on debt in terms of investment. Is the debt allowing you to make a good investment that would otherwise be impossible? My partner took on a large debt for graduate school, but it allowed her to enter a new field, be a lot happier, and make a great deal more money. It was a good investment, and the cost of the debt (interest & fees) was worth it. Some of that debt was living expenses that allowed us to live frugally but not miserably. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a financially responsible way to approach debt financing of things; it doesn’t have to be frugality versus embracing debt.

clo (#4,196)

@tussock this is clearly NOT a good investment as the author says- poor employment prospects for both people in the couple paired with lots of debt.

Penelope Pine (#2,808)

Can someone please write a post on how to manage one’s love life to avoid deadbeats/experimental noise musicians/subway buskers/aspiring “models”/etc.

Part of managing your money is managing your expectations about love, and guarding your heart against the above.

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@Penelope Pine hmm.. I’m more into the ideal of cutting people some slack. I guess this is a very personal thing, since we all have our boundaries about what works for us in relationships. But I have no issue (on principle) with dating any experimental noise musicians and whatnot, so long as they live within their means and maybe that means bartending or whatever to make ends meet.
Bonus if said starving artists are receptive to a little tutelage on financial literacy/saving if they don’t already have these skills.

kthkskddn (#2,342)

@Penelope Pine Marry someone who makes money. Deprioritize compatibility in all other areas of life. Posted!

clo (#4,196)

@planforamiracle Well, right. It’s fine to pursue any career, but don’t date people who don’t make ends meet who expect you to pick up their slack. Each person has to contribute to the relationship if it’s serious.

EDaily (#4,396)

@clo To be fair, we don’t know what the experimental music guy’s deal is besides that one sentence, so it’s unfair to judge him.

may june july (#2,862)

@planforamiracle I struggle with this as the girlfriend of a bass player in a jam band. I want a secure future for us, but not at the expense of being a big jerk who complains all the time and then tells my boyfriend to give up on his dreams. He works as many hours as he can at another job and just this week talked to me about maybe opening a 401k (swoon!). Sometimes I wish things were easier and he made a ton of money, but I wouldn’t want to be with someone else because of that.

ellabella (#1,480)

@clo yeah, but does this contribution always need to be financial? I think this does depend on the couple’s specific situation, but if one person CAN make ends meet for the two people, why can’t/shouldn’t they be with someone who doesn’t necessarily contribute as much financially? Especially if the person making more money is doing something that makes them happy as well, and isn’t just giving up their own dream to financial support the other person in following their passion.

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@clo sure, and “equal contributions to the relationship” can look a whole bunch of different ways depending on people and their abilities. I think what @may june july said above, about her boyfriend balancing his starving-artist-ness with a second job and maybe opening a 401k, is a reasonable compromise.9
For me personally, I’d be fin0e with dating the experimental music guy (that I’m sorry we’re kind of making an example of here), so long as he wasn’t in denial about it and racking up credit card debt by buying fancy dinners and expensive shoes all day long. That’s what I meant about living within one’s means.

clo (#4,196)

@ellabella That’s why I didn’t say that had to contribute *financially*. My own wife is in graduate school for science and I basically support us. However, she is paid to go to school, didn’t take on any debt, and will have much higher earning potential than I after. So we’re both contributing, but my financial contribution is much higher than hers. She is contributing by investing in our mutual future.

clo (#4,196)

@planforamiracle I was agreeing with you. Like I said to ellabella – I wasn’t saying that have to contribute *financially*. I don’t think there’s something explicitly wrong with dating someone who doesn’t earn a lot. The issue is more about responsibility (as you said, and again, I agree). Is the person willing to take a crap job to pay the bills if needed? Or do they expect their partner to work the crap job while they sit around? Are they willing to be frugal while they aren’t earning much? Do they have reasonable goals they are working towards? I personally support my own wife while she is in graduate school, but it’s an investment in our future, and she didn’t take any debt to do it.

clo (#4,196)

@EDaily Yeah, I didn’t really mean him specifically, cause I don’t know their situation. I was speaking generally – don’t date unambitious slackers. The money they earn in a year doesn’t really matter if they want to work towards mutual goals with you, especially financial ones. Money is the #1 reason couples divorce, so I think it’s pretty important there be agreement on financial issues.

fennel (#2,494)

@clo

yes, we don’t know what his situation is. But if he’s getting his Ph.D. in experimental music, he’s already getting paid for what he does, because (at least if he goes to a good school — and I don’t think the bad programs usually have Ph.D. programs for this) those schools provide stipends and full tuition. Then, after the Ph.D., the experimental classical composers I’ve known have already had residencies and commissions. It’s not a stable income that is exactly the same from month to month, sure, but it’s not like being in a random rock band without a label, guys! These are all terrible analogies to make about somebody! “unambitious slackers” — you’ve got to be kidding me! He’s got a lot of advanced, rare skills and there are people willing to pay for them at this level. He’ll make some money — he just won’t make financier-level money. But there’s nothing wrong with having goals in life that are more important to you than earning the most money you are capable of earning.

clo (#4,196)

@fennel as I said in multiple other replies, I was never talking about this guy specifically or his earning potential. Also, not all PhDs pay and when they do they often don’t pay well. My spouse is in a PhD program as well.

Also, I agree life is not about earning money. All I’m saying is couples need a financial plan together.

EM (#1,012)

Just googled “paczki” and now I want one very much but have no idea where to find them. Is a doughnut a reasonable substitute?

Also, interesting to read about people who are very frugal in some ways but choose in other ways to make arguably poor financial choices on a much larger scale, like going to grad school and then getting a law degree. Reminds me of Meghan Daum, when she writes “it’s hard to recognize that you’re acting like a rich person when you’re becoming increasingly poor.” That said, good luck to Lauren! I am looking forward to reading about her adventures.

Whiteflash93 (#2,276)

How does a frugal person decide to get a law degree on loans while knowing that employment prospects are grim? My parents and I discussed possible career choices and I chose the one which most likely guaranteed employment – because they are midwestern depression babies and frugality is their life. So how did you ever come to that unwise choice?

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Whiteflash93 Yeah, I want to know more about the decision to go to law school.

ellabella (#1,480)

@Whiteflash93 it looks like she’s at Vanderbilt, which has a 98% employment rate, 85% of grads in jd-requiring positions.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@ellabella “Only a little more than 1 in 8 of you won’t end up being lawyers!”

themegnapkin (#444)

@ellabella Vanderbilt is a top tier law school, and if you get good grades there, you legitimately have a chance at a BigLaw job. If that’s what she wants, then law school might not be a terrible economic risk.

ellabella (#1,480)

@themegnapkin Yes, thanks for further explaining it—this is what I meant. It’s sort of disingenuous to assume that going to law school is always a bad/risky (financial) decision, since the difference between top- and second/third-tier law school job prospects is so wide. And some people end up hating law school and choosing not to be lawyers, but can still get well- or at least more-than-$35,000-a-year paying jobs after going to a top-tier law school. Also, some top-tier law schools will forgive your loans to a certain extent or give you a stipend should you decide to go into public service, so the risk of taking on all those student loans can certainly be minimized.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@ellabella And no shield from the shitty economy that newly minted lawyers are entering. Trust me, many grads at law schools ranked higher than Vandy are struggling.

People forget that not everyone can be top 10% of their law school class. Someone has to be in the bottom half. And they don’t get the six figure jobs out of law schools, not even at Vandy these days. They do get the six figures of debt, though.

cocokins (#5,371)

This hit fairly close to home. I graduated in ’06 with my BA in English. Then, I went to grad school for the same. I graduated in ’09 with MA in English Lit (useless!), and though I was able to go for “free” on a fellowship, I still racked up debt (my stipend just didn’t cut it). A year later, I got married. The average wedding cost is something like 25,000, which is crazy. I spent 10,000 and that is still extremely stupid. Of course, this year, we decided to buy a house. It’s just…one thing after the next? And there are some things I wish I did differently, but you can’t go back in time. I don’t know what I’m saying except that I wish I did three things differently: 1. state school for undergrad instead of pricey private school (with all the loans that went with it), 2. waited until I knew what I really wanted to be before I went to grad school, 3. paid off both our cars before deciding to buy a house.

There you have it. My regrets. :)

Eric18 (#4,486)

Yeah, law school and a PhD in experimental music? Buckle up folks, you’re in for a bumpy ride (life).

haverwench (#7,400)

I have to confess, the behaviors you describe as “unreasonably frugal” really don’t sound that unreasonable to me. I LIKE spending as little as possible; it’s like a game to me. So all the stuff your parents did–paying off a mortgage in five years, paying only cash for cars, eating out only once a month–sounds great to me. I also think it definitely makes no sense to pay for coffee when you can get it for free, and I was still wearing several (classic) pieces from my high school wardrobe to work in my late 20s.

To me, the line between reasonably and unreasonably frugal isn’t a particular amount you’re willing to spend, or a particular set of things you’re willing to spend it on. It’s simply the way you answer this questions: are you willing to spend money, if you have it to spend, on something that you know will make your life better? If the answer is yes, your frugality is reasonable. Mind you, your standard for what will make your life better may not be the same as anyone else’s, but it doesn’t need to be. If you spend when it’s *worth* spending, and refuse to spend when it isn’t, then yes, you are a reasonably frugal person.

Oh, and incidentally, a wedding doesn’t have to be even in the same league as a house when it comes to expenses. Ours was 10 years ago and cost us around $2,500 for 75 guests (you can read about it on my blog at http://ecofrugality.blogspot.com/2012/06/our-big-fat-cheap-wedding.html), and I know of lots of people who have spent even less. Try http://www.stretcher.com/menu/topic-r.htm?side#weddings for some pointers.

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