Want to take a peek into the wallets, bank accounts, credit card bills and brokerage statements of Average Joe and Jane Q. Public? That's what we did for this episode of Motley Fool Answers. Read on (or listen ahead!) to see how you stack up.

 

 

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ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Hey, this is Motley Fool Answers. I am Alison Southwick and I am joined by Dayana Yochim and Robert Brokamp, personal-finance experts here at The Motley Fool. How are you guys doing today?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Feeling above average, I would say.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Interesting that you should mention that, because today we're going to talk about the finances of the average American. We'll peek into wallets, brokerage accounts, and credit card statements to see how Joe and Jane Public are doing so you can see how you stack up. You might find today's show extremely affirming, but if you find it depressing, never fear. Before we're done, we'll show you how to get on track.

The inspiration for today's show came to us from Ryan. He writes: "I feel I'm doing well with my 401(k) retirement, but I see my balance, and I wonder how well I'm doing. I'm married, 31 years old, and I have $26,000 in my account. Is this good or bad?"

So his question reminded me of the time when here, at The Motley Fool, one of the benefits is that if you need some financial advice you can, for the low, low price of taking Robert Brokamp out to lunch, he will sit down with you and you'll talk to him about your money and where you are and how you're doing and what you should do next.

And we sat down with him over Thai food, I believe, and the only thing I remember from the conversation is that Robert said, "You guys are doing OK. You're going to be fine."

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Yup. I remember that, too.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Like, that's all I wanted was for someone to tell me. "You're going to be OK."

ROBERT BROKAMP:

I know that. That's why I say that to everyone who asks me.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

That literally they aren't going to remember anything else you said.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

They just want to feel good, so I do that for them.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

He practices in the mirror. "You're going to be OK."

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

"You're doing great. You're doing great." And that's what this show is hopefully going to do for you guys, fair listeners. But if not, like you said, we're going to offer advice to get you to a place, eventually, where Robert's going to look at you and he's going to say, "You're doing all right, kid. Keep it up."

Although also his advice was, because we were just about to have a kid ...

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Don't do it! No, that wasn't it.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

That wasn't it. It was, "Well, it's possible that you're just not going to save any money for a while, and that's what you're going to have to accept."

ROBERT BROKAMP:

It's true.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

My husband was not happy with that. Well, let's talk about average. The average American is 37 years old. They are employed and make $50,000 a year. The average American also thinks that they are a better driver than the average American.

The bad news is, though, that the average American doesn't have an emergency fund, by which we mean a six-month financial cushion should you lose your job or have a health issue. Nor have they calculated how much they need in order to have a comfortable retirement.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Oh, average American! We can do better than that.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

We can totally do better than that.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Could you do better than average, though? What if everyone does better than average? Because it just raises up the average, doesn't it?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Yeah, Mr. Math guy.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

(Rips up some paper) All right, let's just get into this, shall we?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Got it.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

The first thing we're going to do is talk about net worth. And what are we talking about when we talk about net worth? Because I'm pretty sure Ryan doesn't care that he's a better driver than the average American.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

I love that you're looking at your scraps of paper -- trying to reconstruct your notes.

All right. Net worth. It's simple. It's assets minus debt. Or, put another way, it's what you own outright minus what you owe.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

All right. That sounds pretty easy. Let's talk about net worth, then. Some of the averages -- and this is awkwardly broken out by age from the Census Bureau -- so ...

The average net worth if you are in your mid-30s to mid-40s is about $35,000.

Average net worth if you are mid-forties to mid-50s is about $85,000.

And average net worth if you are mid-fifties to mid-60s is $144,000.

And then finally, over 65, average net worth is $171,000. Sorry. I had to make sure that that was only six digits, and not seven, because that would have been pretty crazy.

So that's average net worth. You can take a moment to think about where you fell in that. And in the meantime we're going to transition to talk about one part of that equation -- debt. So we have even more averages to consider. This is a numbers-heavy show, people, and there's a reason why there's a back button for listening to a podcast. I don't recommend listening to this one on like 2x or whatever speed some people try to do.

Let's first talk about debt. When we're talking about debt, we're talking about what?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Credit card debt. Student loans. Mortgages. Car loans. All of that kind of stuff.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

All right. Well, the numbers I have are average credit card debt. So less than half of people actually carry a balance.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Go, people!

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Yeah! Way to go, people. But the average balance is about $16,000.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Ooh.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Wah-wah. Average mortgage debt -- this is according to NerdWallet -- is around $150,000.

And average student loan debt -- this is according to Experian -- is about $29,000. This includes all of the 40 million Americans who have at least one outstanding student loan -- $29,000.

So for our listeners that are squirming hearing these numbers, because they didn't like where they fell, what's their best way to beat the average here?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

So when we're looking at debt, not all debt is equal. We've talked about this on other shows. The first thing is to really look at your credit card debt. Credit card debt is the worst kind of debt to have. It's got high interest rates. I think the average rate now is around 14%-15%. It always tends to hover around there.

Unlike mortgages and student loans, it's not money you've borrowed in order to buy something that's going to go up in value or is an appreciating asset. It's provided you with an education that's going to help you earn more money, say.

Ideally, you want your credit card debt to be zero. If you have a revolving balance, the next best thing is to keep it to less than 30% of your line of credit. That's what's going to keep you looking OK in the eyes of lenders and banks and other people who want to do business with you.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

So tackle that credit card debt.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

So tackle that credit card debt. If you've got a high interest rate, call your lender. Ask for a lower interest rate. If you've been a good customer, they'll give it to you. If not, find a low-balance transfer deal.

Attack that debt with fervor. With everything that you've got. And then once that card is paid off, if you've got more, apply all that money to the next debt. Lather, rinse, repeat. Just get rid of this, because there's no better first investment you can make than getting rid of credit card debt.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

And what about student loan debt? Because that's gotten a lot of attention lately.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

That has gotten a lot of attention, and I think it's a serious concern. If you can go to college without paying any sort of student loans, that's awesome. But if you have it, as Dayana pointed out, it is an investment. You have something that ideally will increase your earning potential. Your life satisfaction. All that good stuff. So it's not a bad thing that you have it.

Interest rates these days -- between 4% and 8% -- so that's a middle-range interest rate. And then the other kind that's out there is a mortgage. Mortgage rates, these days, are about 3.7%. So once you've paid off the credit card debt, then hit the student loan debt.

The question with paying off debt is always, What else could you do with the extra money? You pay the minimum. Should you pay more? Should you invest it? And the typical rule of thumb is if you can earn a higher return than the interest rate on your debt, invest it. Student loans are sort of in that middle range of 6%-8%. There's no investment that guarantees you'll get that return whereas paying off debt is a guaranteed return. So I think it's actually smart to pay off your student loan sooner if you can.

Mortgage -- 3.7%. That's pretty low. It's got the tax benefits, so you don't necessarily have to be in as much of a hurry, but I do think it's a good idea to have that paid off before you retire. It's great going into your golden years without having to worry about that expense.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

That's a good goal.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Yeah. And I think when we're talking about debt -- people are going to have debt. Most people aren't going to be able to pay cash outright for their home ...

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

No.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

No.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

But here's another average we can trot out that has to do with debt that is a number that I think is important, and it's good to be competitive here. Your credit score. So the average FICO score is 640. That's not great. It's OK. You're going to get loans, but if you can bump up that score, it means a lot of money in your pocket later.

Let's say you want to borrow $20,000 to buy a new car. You plan to pay off the car in five years. If your credit score is below 660, you're looking at paying an interest rate around 10.4% ...

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Yikes. Wow.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

... if your credit score is 720 or higher, the interest rate is just 3.25%.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

That's amazing.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

So we're talking about the difference, over that five years, of paying about $5,800 in interest over the life of the loan versus $1,600.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Mm-hmm.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

So credit score ...

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Give it some love! 

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Do give it some love. Be way better than average here.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

We've already done a show on how to improve your credit score. So go listen to that.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

It actually touches on one of the important things about net worth and its limitations. Let's say you take out that car loan. You've borrowed the same amount of money, but in one of those loans, you're paying a higher interest rate and another loan has a lower interest rate.

It's the same situation if you decide to pay $10,000 in cash and you pay off your credit card. Your net worth actually hasn't changed, because you took something from your assets to pay off a liability. It's in the future, and as you see your net worth change that, you'll be able to appreciate making those decisions.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

That's probably a good opportunity for us to move to the other side of the equation, which is assets.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

What you own.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

What a good transition we have there.

So when talking about assets, we're talking about everything we own, so here's some stats.

The average woman owns 27 pairs of shoes.

The average man owns -- how many shoes do you guys think?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Does it count the ones that my wife owns but that I wear every once in a while?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

It includes your ruby red slippers.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

I'm going to say five.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

I'm going to say 11.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Twelve. Nice, Dayana.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Oh, thank you.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Really?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

You've got to count the red Chucks.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

You look disgusted, Robert. You look absolutely disgusted ...

DAYANA YOCHIM:

The blue Chucks.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

... at your fellow men.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

The white Chucks. The leather Chucks.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Lots of Chucks.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Lots of Chucks.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Lots of Chucks. The average household also has 2.28 cars. Another way to look at it is that there is a car for every two people in the U.S.

But here's a fun little stat that doesn't really apply to this show, but I'm going to trot it out anyway, because we're trotting out stuff. The U.S. actually ranks 25th in the world for most cars per capita.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Really?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Whoa!

ROBERT BROKAMP:

I'm surprised at that.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

I know. Isn't that crazy? So most of Europe has us beat. Like Italy and Germany. They have more cars, per capita, than we do.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Their cars are smaller.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

That probably is true.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

I guess maybe that has something to do with it.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

They can park them in their pockets.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

And Monaco has the most, but I don't have the number for you, so sorry. I have a feeling my shoe collection and my 2012 Jetta -- while they are assets -- they don't necessarily have a lot of value. So, Bro, can you talk to me a little bit about how I should look at my assets?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

So you really are looking at everything you own with your net worth. And just in case you're curious, as a rule of thumb about how to value all your furniture and all that stuff: One rule of thumb is half of the value of your dwelling. So the house and the property. On your homeowner's insurance, you have the value of the home itself. Half of that is roughly an estimate of how much all your furniture and CDs and clothes are worth.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Oh. OK.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

That said, you can't really do much with that stuff. Most of it is depreciating in value -- all those shoes becoming less and less valuable every day.

What's probably most important to you is what can you use of your net worth to accomplish some financial goal? And that is usually, for most people, retirement. That's really that type of number. How much you've saved and how much of your debt you're getting rid of. Those are the numbers that will really affect your financial future.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Yeah. Because if you've got a lot of valuable stuff, it's not liquid. it's hard to sell, it's going to stick around, it gathers dust, and it's not growing in value in your IRA, for instance.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

So you're saying my visions of taking everything to Antiques Roadshow and just cleaning up -- this is not going to happen?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Actually, I was reading an article about this, because I was wondering. How do homeowner's insurance companies value? Let's say your home burns down. You're supposed to have an inventory, and if you don't have an inventory, you're going to be in a lot of trouble, because how do you prove to the insurance company you own these things? But they mentioned that Antiques Roadshow. Some people get this idea like, oh, yeah, this antique bobalee boogalee thing -- I have five of those, by the way -- is worth a lot more money than it really is. People are often disappointed. So make sure you inventory your possessions, but they may not help you retire anytime soon.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

It turns out it was a knockoff bobalee boogalee.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

It was actually a googaly moogaly.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

I just patented that, so don't take it.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Yeah, you're going to go far with it, so don't worry.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Yeah. Just add the dot-com and you'll be flooded right now with traffic.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

All right, let's talk about retirement assets, because I happen to have those numbers right here. It's almost as if we planned for this.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Almost.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Almost. All right. So let's look at some of the numbers here. And again, this is kind of cut into random ages, so it makes for bad radio, people. I'm not going to lie, but we're just going to plow through this. All right.

So if you are between the ages of mid-20s to mid-30s, on average, households with retirement accounts have about $13,000.

If you're between mid-30s to mid-40s -- $31,000.

Mid-40s to mid-50s -- $60,000.

Mid-50s to mid-60s -- $100,000.

And then the average across everyone is $40,000.

Dayana, what do you think of those numbers?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

I'm pointing at the frowny face on the happiness scale here. The numbers there aren't great.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

So basically, on average, people who are right on the cusp of retirement only have, on average, $100,000.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Let me provide a couple of other depressing statistics. 

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Yay!

DAYANA YOCHIM: One out of five workers who are covered by 401(k) plans don't actually participate. They don't even contribute ...

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Free money. 

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Free money, people. Free pre-tax money. And in 2013, I saw a survey that said the average 401(k) plan participant stashed away about $8,300 into his or her account. That might sound OK to folks, but know that the allowable maximum was closer to $17,000 that year. So we're really underperforming.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Yeah ... well, let's take it back to Ryan, here. Ryan, I hope you stuck around this long, because we're getting to your question. We're just now getting to your question, Ryan. Robert, how's Ryan doing?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Ryan is above average. Congratulations, Ryan.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

You're 31, and you have $26,000 in your retirement account.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Right. So enjoy that, right now, Ryan. Feel good? OK, good, because you're actually behind when it comes to your retirement savings, and that's the important part about ...

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Boo!

ROBERT BROKAMP:

... all this average stuff. He's only 31. He's got years to make up for it.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

You're going to be great, Ryan.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

But just because you're above average doesn't necessarily mean you're actually going to be able to accomplish the goal that you want and you could actually be below average and still be on track. It really depends on what you want to do.

Let me give you an example. There's a study out there called "National Savings Rate Guidelines for Individuals."

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Catchy.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Yeah. Written by the Ibbotson Group. Very smart people. A nice, long article about figuring out whether you're saving enough for retirement. We look at someone like Ryan. Someone who is saving 10% a year and you include what you're contributing to your account, as well as the match, and that's what Ryan is contributing. Thirty-one years old.

Someone like him, if he wants to retire at age 65, should probably have about $85,000 saved for retirement. So Ryan has $26,000. You've got years to make it up. Don't feel bad. But that's sort of a benchmark there, where you can be above average and you're actually still behind, a little bit.

Now for someone who is, let's say, 45 years old, makes about $80,000 a year, and saving 10% a year, they should have about $330,000 saved. So it's a good framework, or ballpark, of where someone should be.

Where should you be? Well, you can read that exciting article. You can use an online calculator. You might want to go to a fee-only financial planner that will charge you for maybe two hours' to four hours' worth of work just to look at that one thing -- am I saving enough? Because you definitely want to do it now, sooner than later. Studies show that people who have done this are more likely to accomplish their retirement goals.

So if we were to wrap this all up in a pretty little bow, what is your bottom-line takeaway?

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Mine is that I love looking at average stuff. It's fun to be a voyeur.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

She's competitive.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Yeah. Sometimes I'm ugly competitive when I play certain people in table-tennis games. But remember, this is not a competition or a race. Your goals could be very different than other people's goals.

But what you can get from this exercise is context so, again, you have a little bit of a comparison. You can use it as a framework for "I should be paying attention to these things."

So the important stuff about my net worth is making sure that my debt isn't overwhelming and that's it's good debt. That I keep interest rates down on the other stuff. The assets -- maybe I shouldn't concentrate on acquiring physical assets. That mostly it's about saving money and investing it in ...

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

In boats.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

No.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Don't buy a boat.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

No boat.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Just get a friend who has a boat and then hang out with them on the weekend. Right?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Right. Unless you live on the boat. My dad lived on a boat for a while, and that's sort of an example. That's important to him. Go buy the boat.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Right. Your dad who hid all the money in the couch cushions.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

It wasn't the couch cushion, but I'm not saying where it was.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

But it was on a boat.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

It requires scuba gear to find it. Not really. He doesn't live on a boat anymore.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

So where was I? Oh, yes. The big takeaway -- use this as a reason to actually start looking at your assets, liabilities, and all of that stuff. As Robert said, the people who do the math and the people who bother to run the numbers are the people who are much more prepared ... and they use it as a kick in the butt to start going in the right direction.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

I would say the important thing is that your net worth isn't your self-worth, and that's a phrase you'll hear a lot in the world of financial therapy. So if you want to retire early, someone like that should have a lot more saved than someone who never wants to retire, and these people do exist. In fact, there are studies that show that retirement may not be good for your health. For those types of people, you know what? I'm going to spend some of mine and go to Europe. I'm going to have my emergency fund, hopefully. I'm going to have insurance, hopefully. But I'm not going to save 10%-15%. I want to live life now. I don't plan on retiring.

So you have to line all those up with what you want to do with the rest of your life. You mentioned kids earlier. I think that's fine. I mean, if having kids is more important to you ...

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

And if living in poverty for the rest of your life is what you want, then fine.

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Right. And you can sell them later, if you regret the decision, so that's good. But yes. You have to line it up with what you want to do.

We've talked a lot about The Millionaire Next Door, a book that shows actually that people who have a lot of money aren't living high-cost lifestyles. So never assume that the person next door to you with the big house and the Mercedes is actually, on a net-worth basis, worth more than you. They may not be.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Yes. That's a very dangerous comparison to make, in fact.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

I mean, it just sounds like the best way to be a millionaire is not spend $1 million. Right.

************

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Every so often, we get the joy of talking to a smart person, but we don't get too long. In fact, we only have time to ask a handful of questions, and today we're talking to Russ Roberts. He's a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and he's the host of EconTalk, a great and popular podcast that is endorsed by Tom Gardner, our Motley Fool CEO. Russ Roberts joined us at Motley Fool HQ to talk about his most recent book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

So your book deals with his thoughts on human nature and what it takes to be truly happy. Why should I care what an economist thinks about being a happy person? Those aren't the kind of people that are just joyful, in general.

RUSS ROBERTS:

That's a very unfair question, but I think a very apt one. The good news is that although we call Adam Smith an economist, he would not have described himself that way. He saw himself as a moral philosopher, and he was interested in why people make the moral decisions they do. That included everything from not just what we could call moral dilemmas, but also, How do I treat people when they've got a tragedy or great success?

So he was very interested in human interaction, and I think that's something we don't think quite enough about. He has a lot of insights that are just as valuable today as they were in 1759, so I think it's still worth studying.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

What is the most basic concept in economics that you think most people get wrong?

RUSS ROBERTS:

I'd say the most important concept that people get wrong, that is utterly fundamental to economics, is the idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is your next best alternative. If I make a decision and I choose Option A -- let's say I'm going to buy a house -- I can sometimes forget that I'm tying up the principal in the house that can't be used elsewhere to earn money. Someone goes, "Oh, I made so much money on my house." Did you take into account what you might have earned elsewhere? Because that's really crucial.

Equally important in thinking about opportunity cost is time. "Oh, I chose to go to college and I made all this higher salary, but, of course, I had tuition." But not just tuition. You also had the four years of your life that you could have done something else. So when you want to think about whether college is a good idea, you want to think about what you're going to do in those four years and not just the out-of-pocket tuition.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Your podcast, EconTalk, is not only celebrated. It's also been around for a long time. If you think about podcast years, it's been ages. What has been the biggest shift in your thinking since 2006, when you started the podcast?

RUSS ROBERTS:

I have learned a lot from talking to a bunch of really smart people. I think the biggest thing I've learned is that evidence and data are rarely as clear-cut as the proponents of a viewpoint think they are -- including myself -- so it's forced me to be more honest about why I believe what I believe and when evidence is just an example of confirmation bias rather than helping me to really understand the world. I've become a lot more skeptical about data and complicated statistical analysis, and I hope that's made me wiser.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

It's possible that some of our listeners will think EconTalk is boring. "It's above my head." What is a good episode that someone should start with and why?

RUSS ROBERTS:

A lot of it is about day-to-day life, so I've interviewed the woman who cuts my wife's hair. The guy who sold me my car. An organic farmer. The guy in charge of potato chips in Northern California for Frito-Lay. And in those kinds of episodes, which you can find in our archives, you'll see economics in everyday life and understand things about the things going on around us that you might not have thought of.

The other place to start, I would say, is I've done about 30 episodes with Michael Munger. If you go to the archives, it's on the left-hand side of EconTalk.org on the home page. Go to the list of guests. Go to Michael Munger. Those are all applications of economics to everyday life. Mike's an amazing storyteller and has a lot of insight. So I think those are a lot of fun.

********

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Thanks to Russ Roberts for joining us. You can, and should, listen to his podcasts, EconTalk, on iTunes or wherever you listen to stuff like that. Wherever you're listening to us, actually, you can probably find it. And you can get his latest book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life now, again, pretty much anywhere.

This show is edited by Rick Engdahl. Music composed and performed by our own Dayana Yochim. You can email us at answers@fool.com, and pretty please give us a rating on iTunes or Stitcher or really anywhere you can rate us. Until next time, I'm Alison Southwick. Do you guys want to say goodbye?

ROBERT BROKAMP:

Goodbye.

DAYANA YOCHIM:

Good night, Gracie.

ALISON SOUTHWICK:

Good night, Gracie. Fool on!

[End]

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