Eleanor P., 25, talks about money, frustrations with her bank, independence, and indulgences

Ramit Sethi

Eleanor P.’s story is fascinating. It took a major event — being sent to collections for her student loan — to start managing her money. She has some family experiences that have made her want to be financially independent, and she keeps a close budget. At the same time, she doesn’t consciously budget for indulgences like clothes, and has few people her age who she talks to about money. Take a look at Eleanor’s profile below.

The stats
Name: Eleanor P., 25
Lives in: Seattle
Income: $40,000 / year (pre-tax)
Works at: Microsoft, as a writer

When did you get started managing your finances?
I decided I needed to be more proactive. I was at a point where I was doing nothing and realized I needed to do something. A lot of the stuff I had been doing had been a whole lot of nothing. And even destructive “head in the sand” nothing.

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I had gotten an MA at the University of Toronto. I had taken out a bunch of loans from the government, but I didn’t have enough $ to pay for the entire year. So I got my student loan check for $20,000, paid 1/2 my tuition, and lived off the rest for the rest of the year. I didn’t pay the university with the rest, thinking I’d pay them. I moved home, I got a job, and then they started calling me: “So, about that $10,000 you still owe us…”

Then they sent me to collections.

That was the turning point?

Yeah. I finally called them up, saying no more of this pretending. I had just been sticking my head in the sand. It was at that point that I realized I’m not making a lot, but there’s no reason to be this way. I decided I was going to make some changes. I set up a payment plan, check for $250. They were kind enough to stop adding interest. I owe them about $5k now. I’m slowly paying that down slowly. When I ran the numbers, I had an extra $200 each month that I could set aside, that I could scrape together. I decided I was going to try to invest it.

I called some no-fee financial planners. They literally laughed in my face. “How much do you have in debt? Call us when you have something to invest.” One of my co-workers got invited to one of these lunch deals by Ameriprise. No one that I knew knew anything about investments or financial planning.

What are the financial pressures you face as a woman?
My mom was a single parent, so I grew up in a household talking about money. I heard everything about money, down to “I don’t know how we’re going to pay for groceries next month.” I think this is more me, but I feel like I have to be totally and entirely 100% independent. I think that’s pretty uncommon. I know that when I meet other young men, I come across as intimidating because I’m so fiercely independent. I’m terrified that I’m going to end up in the place that my mother is in. That is, at 50, she’s disabled and does not have any retirement money to speak of–none, absolutely none–and is unable to work. She is married, fortunately, to someone that we adore, and who is willing to take care of her. But I’m terrified that I will find myself in a position where I’ll be in a position like that. So I want to build a financial position where someone doesn’t have to take care of me.

Tell me about your frustration with your bank
I’m frustrated with Ameriprise. It feels like walking into a department store to get a pair of pants that are made to fit everybody. You need something that’s a little more flexible, and custom-fit for you. I need something to grow and stretch with me to help realize that I don’t know what I’m going to be doing for the next 3 years. I feel like i explained it, and he heard me, but the particular systems are set up to not be particularly flexible. For example, I don’t even know if I’m going to be in this country in 2 years.

The fee for the year for the service is $300. Still, that works out to $25 a month, not so bad considering I’ve no idea where to start or how much I should be aiming for or anything like that.

The guy at Ameriprise set me up with a money-market account that has a sub-account. The main account is where all of my paychecks go, and all of my bills get paid out of this. Every week, $150 gets forwarded from this account to my old Bank of America acct, and this is my gas/groceries/new shirt from banana republic money. This system mostly works out — if I get stuck (about once a month), I can cover the difference with a check drawn against my Ameriprise acct. The second Ameriprise acct — the sub-acct – is my “investment” acct, and has about $1300 in it now; about $275 gets automatically transferred into this every month. Joe, my Ameriprise dude, has started pestering me recently, because I’ve reached the $1000 threshold where I can start investing (according to their rules), but for a variety of reasons, and because I’m beginning to feel like I’m wanting to bail, I haven’t been calling him back, and have just been letting the cash accumulate.

For one thing, the website is TERRIBLE. It obfuscates how much you actually have versus how much you owe, and doesn’t give you streamlined access to moving things around. I think the worst part about the website being so bad is that I feel like I have less day-to-day control over where my cash is going than I did when I was just moving things back and forth between my checking and savings account at Bank of America. The Ameriprise bill-pay section of the website has its own separate login (totally unintuitive — long stretch of ones and zeros), and you can’t look at your bills AND your account info at the same time. Genius, eh?

For example, it can take up to 5 days to transfer money. You think you can plan for it, but that’s not how I am, and I’m getting fed up with it. I’m getting bank overdrafts, when all of last year I hadn’t had an entire one. It makes me think, ‘I’m working so hard, making more than I made last year, and this stuff shouldn’t be happening.’ And so it feels like the system is inflexible.

And I’m at a loss because it feels like there’s so much information, it’s hard to parse it all, and it’s so easy to get overwhelmed. I’m a smart girl, but I don’t know where to start.

What’s surprised you about your personal finances?
My mother and stepfather finally kicked my sister and me off the family cellphone plan, the very last vestige of family support. So I had to call up T-Mobile and take control of my cellphone. And after the whole fiasco of collections, I was convinced that my credit score was just going to be in the toilet. I was prepared for them to say, “We’re going to put you on the probationary plan,” and I’d be embarrassed. And then the rep said, “You have really good credit!” And I said, “Seriously?” (laughs). I guess that putting all your bills on automatic payment does wonders. That was really surprising! She said, you’re in one of our top tiers!

What’s your budget like?
I make $663/week after-taxes. $800/week pre-tax. (Her hourly rate is $20, making her income about $40,000 per year.)

$150 week: Goes into BofA account. This is my cash for spending: Gas, grocery, daily incidentals, going out.
$100 /month car insurance
$550 / month for rent
$50/month for utilities
$50/month for choir I sing in
$100/month for paying off dentist
$50/month cellphone
$320/month savings account at Ameriprise
$250/month to University of Toronto (no interest rate)
$226/month goes to Sallie Mae (4%)

Let’s talk about women and men and money. How do you think you differ from a guy your age when it comes to money?
I don’t drink much. I don’t play video games. So I don’t spend a lot on gadgets. …It’s probably easier to think that a lot of guys spend less emotionally than women do. It’s easier for me to buy myself a shirt as a pick-me-up. The process of buying new clothes is comforting. (I don’t do that very much, though.) I feel like guys probably spend more money on toys. And we spend more on clothes.

You mentioned buying as a pick-me-up, as a comfort. What is buying something comforting from?
It’s kind of exciting to get something new, you know? It makes me pretty, and I think that there’s something nice about rewarding yourself. And that having something — within reason — that you can put on…that makes you feel like you stand a little bit taller. Whether that’s to catch a certain guy’s eye, or to give you a different feeling in a job interview, those are all things that you need. If you earn an extra $50 and you’re having a crappy day…sometimes that’s $50 well spent.

What’s your philosophy on managing money?
Sometimes I think that managing your money is knowing when to spend your money, because it’s not worth it to be wealthy and miserable. You don’t want to be someone who has to buy love, or buy happiness and continue to spend money to feel good about yourself, of course. But sometimes that little extra indulgence can be the difference. A nice pair of earrings. It’s that little bit that can make the difference.

When was the last indulgence you had?
The last indulgence I had was 3 days ago. I bought a blouse from Anthropologie that’s made of summery cotton. It’s very pretty, quite flattering.

You know, before, I was working and didn’t make very much, so I got a part-time job at Ann Taylor, where I got a spectacular discount. I stayed at that job partially because I could build a wardrobe.

I noticed you didn’t put in an amount for shopping in your budget.
Yes…um…that’s sort of a bone of contention. If you run the numbers, there’s about $300-$400 each month. That’s sort of cushion money, or if I decide I really need a shirt from Anthropologie.

What’s the best financial move you’ve ever made?
Calling up the University of Toronto and setting up a payment plan. The woman I spoke to was so sweet, kind, so nonjudgmental. She said, “I’m so glad you called us up. We’ll work something out.”

How informed are your friends about money?
Not very. It’s kind of an uneasy topic. I find that I’m a lot more outspoken than my friends about it. There’s still this feeling that money isn’t something you talk about. Money, sex, religion…things you don’t talk about. I’m in a choir, and the women in their late 30s to 40s, are a little bit more willing to talk about it. But they still don’t speak in specifics. My younger friends are wide-eyed at all of it.

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  1. April D

    I like that you included an actual budget in this profile. The specifics interest me more than the abstract concepts. I also like the “best financial move” question. I’d like to see those two bits of information included in all of the profiles you post.

    That aside, if you need an editor to look at these profiles, I am willing to offer my services. The replies are written in a chatty manner, which isn’t the easiest style to read. Specifically, the interruptive punctuation—parentheses, em-dashes, hyphens, and ellipses—could use some work to make the profile more reader-friendly.

  2. Sra

    I liked the format of the profile.

  3. m

    Youre story is very similar to mine. My mother is the same way, and after my parents got a divorce my mother spiraled into bankruptcy. This led me to become focused on relying solely on myself as an adult….I worked at Ann Taylor to build my business wardrobe when I was in college, too.

  4. For The Client Who Would Be King

    […] Eleanor P., 25, talks about money, frustrations with her bank …My mom was a single parent, so I grew up in a household talking about money. I heard everything about money, down to “I don’t know how we’re going to pay for groceries next month.” I think this is more me, but I feel like I have to be … […]

  5. John M.

    Dude, this is totally a scam by you to meet chicks.

  6. finance girl

    I volunteer as a financial counselor for women here in Seattle.

    I used to work at MSFT as well. Eleanor if you are interested we can meet to talk about your financial goals and your Ameriprise experience.

    Check out my blog if you want to find out more about me and to email me.

  7. Lauren

    I totally understand wanting to treat yourself every once in a while, but I think that Eleanor needs to be more reasonable. She makes $40,000 a year and her indulgences are at Anthropologie. That chain is marketed towards people with incomes STARTING at $200,000. I am one year younger than Eleanor and my husband and I fall into that range. We still consider Anthropologie out of my price range. It’s great that she’s trying to steady herself financially, but I see some major pitfalls at the same time.

  8. finance girl

    Hey Eleanor, just read your comment that you are interested in connecting.

    My email address is bauhaus_sea at yahoo dot com and we can take it from there 🙂

  9. Starving Artist

    $3000-$4000 a year in clothes? Wow. Okay, to each their own. I like the format, Ramit. It could use a bit more editing.
    Not to steal space, but I’m having some issues with my 401K and I’m looking for some advice. Anyone got a second to read my post? I screwed up my investment mix. Pretty bad 🙂

  10. Dimes

    I like, but it’s a little long.

  11. serpah

    Great post with real numbers, which I thought was really insightful. I’m worried about the “soft area” of $300-$400 on “shopping” that she mentions above. Mainly because I have to be careful about that kind of thing as well. It’s really easy for me to go out and blow all of that in one day and not realize it.

    Lauren, I’m interested in knowing where you got that number for Anthropologie. How do you know what the target market’s income level is for those stores? And how do you work out which stores are made for people with your income?

  12. Cooper

    Lauren, I know you meant your comment to be helpful, but I don’t think it really was. I think that one of the main reasons women have trouble managing their money is guilt over clothing/makeup/beauty that others might call frivolous. Women are demonized for being shallow and vain for buying these things, but in actuality they’re no sillier than more typically “male” indulgences like expensive liquor or fancy steaks. It seems like Eleanor has a good grasp on what she’s doing with her money and has her splurges under control.

    That being said, I would have liked to hear Eleanor’s thoughts on retirement funds in this interview. I’m three years younger than Eleanor and in sort of the same situation uncertainty-wise: I plan to leave my current job within two years, either to move to a better position or pursue my Ph.D. I’m really interested in how other people my age, male and female, are planning for the long term. Personally, I think I’m going to open a Roth IRA, since I believe that you can withdraw the principal without penalties regardless of age, and I’m not comfortable with having my money absolutely unreachable until 59 1/2 yet.

  13. sfordinarygirl

    I’m really glad you opted for the Q&A format – it’s much more suited to this type of story than a profile which would cut out a lot of parts that didn’t fit the theme.

    I liked her best financial move calling the University of Toronto setting up the payment plan. If only more people realized consolidating loans and setting up payment plan is as simple as a phone call.

  14. SusanO

    I second the love for the real budget numbers, as well as the desire to see more discussion about retirement planning.

    As far as clothing is concerned – women’s business wardrobe retirements are substantially different than men’s. Men are allowed to have 2 or 3 good suits, and a few unremarkable casual items (khakis, dockers, etc.). Women, on the other hand, are somewhat expected to have a much more varied wardrobe, as well as one that changes as trends change; it’s a societal thing, but there you have it. Men’s shoes last forever; I’m lucky if I can get a pair of pumps to last more than a year. Both Eleanor and m were very wise to work a stint at a good clothing store.

    That said, I also think Anthropologie isn’t a great choice. I find the prices way out of proportion to the quality of the clothing. I got an $80 gift card there and was barely able to find a skirt; it was lightweight cotton, and rather cheaply made. I spent $20 on a cute skirt at target that had a much more substantial waistband and a wonderful silky satin tie. I guess my point is – expand your horizions! There are lots of fun places to get the “feel pretty” bug.

  15. Elissa

    Well done, Ramit. I really enjoy this profile. Eleanor’s story is unique enough to bypass stereotypes yet universal enough for most people (well, I guess most girls) to relate. The whole “being fiercely independent” backstory is something that I think a lot of people can relate to. While I grew in an a bit of an opposite situation than Eleanor, I still realized that I didn’t want to end up like my father and I was determined at a very young age to be 100% independent and look out for my best interest 99% of the time.

    As for the “splurges” that Eleanor likes to indulge in every now and then, I think it’s completely normal. Of course you shouldn’t regularly shop at Anthropologie when you make $40,000/yr, but that’s not was a splurge is (if you’re thinking of a reoccurring habit that will run you into debt, pick up a dictionary and learn some new words… start with splurge). Yes, you can buy similar items elsewhere, but that’s not the point. Everyone splurges on something sometime, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just because you think it’s stupid to spend money at a high-end store doesn’t mean that other people should not shop there. People are different. And that’s a GOOD thing. We should keep it that way.

  16. Eleanor

    This is really interesting reading all of the responses.

    I realize now I should have been more clear with Ramit on what I spend on clothing. While I was still at Ann Taylor, I had a monthly clothing budget of about $200, which, with my discount, went a pretty long ways. I don’t really set aside a specific budget for clothing for a couple of reasons: 1, I have a very specific body type (short and quite curvy) which makes it difficult to find clothing from season to season. If we hit on a season where there’s a style that works for me (ie, A-line skirts), I tend to spend more; if we’re in a season (like right now) where the style is loose-fitting with no waist-line, I can go six-weeks without buying a new article of clothing. 2, I have a three-day shopping rule that stands me in good stead: if I try something on and am still thinking about it three days later, then I should figure out if I can afford it and go back for it. The Anthropologie top was not prohibitively expensive considering that it fit well, it was distinctive, and it passed the three-day test. I’m not a compulsive spender, so I find that often the act of just trying something on will satisfy the desire to purchase, and the three day rule ensures that the pieces that are distinctive and investments do make it into my wardrobe.

    As for what happens with the rest of that $300-$400 each month: that’s my “emergency” cushion, really in the event that the $150 that goes into my BofA acct isn’t enough for a week (which it sometimes isn’t), or if something unforseen comes up. I drive a 1993 subaru legacy which had its first major breakdown last month (bought it three years ago for $2300, has 170k on it, have driven it across the country twice), and had to spend $400 to fix it. BUT, I was able to pay cash to fix it — no credit! That counts for something, right?

    That said, I contacted Ramit because I’m not totally happy with my finances, I still think there’s room for improvement, and I’m still learning how to do this.

  17. mona

    eleanor is BRAVE because i could never have the balls to disclose the details on how i spend my money, in fear of being chastised for spending $50 on a new skirt or wii game when i have X amount in credit card debt. but if anything, i know that talking about it helps make one more self-aware, which helps with financial responsibility. i’m slowly getting there myself.

    i liked this style of interview more than others similar to it i have read. thank you for sharing.

  18. kms

    Eleanor may receive criticism for the amount of money she spends on clothing but she did mention that she doesn’t drink (nights out at the bar add up!), she doesn’t play video games (I just bought a Wii and four games), and she doesn’t buy a lot of toys and gadgets. A lot of people have something they like to treat themselves to and just because one person may consider a certain store too expensive, another may find benefits. For example, Old Navy is definitely within a majority of budgets yet I rarely can find a nice work outfit because the styles don’t fit my body type. It might just be me, but I don’t think her clothes budget is the main focus of her interview. If anything, it seems like she has the most trouble with her banking and investing and I’m surprised more people didn’t bring up that topic.

    Ramit, I like the style of the profile. While it does read a bit chatty, it makes the profile seem more personal and not as if you were making major edits.

  19. Alex

    These articles would be much more interesting if they had a picture or two. Who doesn’t want to see pictures of stylishly dressed, professional young women?

  20. Lauren
    This is where I got my info and I’m sorry that I originially said $200,000. It starts at $150,000.
    I’m surprised at the animosity I’m receiving but I guess I should have expected it. I’m just sick and tired of these stereotypes of how women manage their money. They don’t apply to everyone, that’s for sure.

  21. The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Morning Roundup: Independence Day Edition

    […] Meet Eleanor P. This is a lengthy interview with someone struggling to get out of debt – an excellent but sadly familiar story. (@ i will teach you to be rich) […]

  22. thefeeonlyplanner

    I have several suggestions and comments:

    -I find it interesting that there has been no mention of 401k contributions at all. Perhaps Eleanor is a contract employee or recently hired and not eligible for Microsoft’s plan. She must step up to the plate and start contributing AT LEAST up to the amount that she will get the full match! Yes, you do have the money, just stop buying clothes at anthropologie:-)

    -Ditch Ameriprise NOW. In your case, you will be better served with an online account at and continuing to build up your emergency fund. You will be pestered more because they want you to invest your $1,000+ money into some of their funds so they can make morey from you on top of the $300 (for what???).

    -Earn more money. Yes, you should work harder and make more money! As a writer, I am sure you can freelance and make some extra $$ on the side. Plus, you can build your resume with some of these projects. Try or others. Or go back to Ann & Talyor and get your clothing fix that way:-)

    -Don’t give up on finding fee only planners in your area yet. In Seatle it is much tougher to find anyone who will work with you but they are out there. One or two hours of advice with them once a year will be money worth spentEmail me for a few recommendations.

    Nice to see young people trying to improve their finances. I wished such skills were required courses in our public schools!

  23. beth

    That was a great profile. I suspect that Eleanor is holding off on retirement savings because she’s not sure if she’s still going to be in the country in a couple of years. I infer that she’s Canadian, and the possiblity of moving back to Canada would probably wreak havoc with retirement accounts that exist under our country’s laws. I’d be curious to know if that is in fact the case.

    I ran the numbers and she’s got $6,324 in slush funds – $527 per month on top of the $150/week allowance. That doesn’t seem egregious to me when you consider travel, gifts, clothing, car repairs, etc. It might be better accounted-for, but I think Eleanor’s headed in the right direction.

    And, as a side note, I’m envious of the no income tax you’ve got in Washington.

  24. serpah

    Lauren, I was curious about your comment mainly because I’d like to find out what stores are my “target market” and where to find that information. I find it fascinating, really.

    In my opinion, the best thing to do with “little money” is to set up a small account using ETFs (see that give a nice mix of diversity and don’t charge insane management fees. Stay away from mutual funds. Build up on your ETF, which is actually traded like a stock, and has fractions of a cent on the dollar in terms of management fees. I don’t know if they have a Dividend Reinvestment Program (DRIP). If so, get on board..

    That should have you starting out with a good mix of diverse stocks that will have your investments performing around where the stock market performs, which averages out to a nice fat 7% a year (I believe).

  25. April D

    I don’t think Anthropologie should be off limits to Eleanor because of her income. Some people prefer to make purchases less often in order to buy something they really want or something of higher quality. I’d rather save for months for a good pair of jeans than to buy a cheap pair that don’t fit as well. To each their own.

    As for others’ comments on the editing, I think that making the profiles personal and using correct grammar, capitalization, and interruptive punctuation are two very different things. At the very least, add in a [sic] to let us know that the errors were left in on purpose. Sorry to wave my red pen around, but the English language gets enough abuse as it is!

  26. Raven

    I was shocked by the Ameriprise description. What a waste of $300/month. It sounds as though Eleanor has begun to “solve” her problems by turning them over to someone else instead of thinking them through and educating herself. She sounded pleased with herself for taking hold of the situation, but in reality she had taken only the first step (recognizing it), followed by the second step (Ameriprise), which was obviously ill-advised. She could do much better by severing her ties with Ameriprise (assuming she hasn’t been hoodwinked into a long-term contract), putting the $25/month into savings, retaining the Ameriprise budget in a self-directed manner until she develops the knowledge and gumption to revise it, and budgeting a realistic amount for clothing and “feel-better” purchases. Then she needs to take *full* responsibility for her situation by studying the basics of personal money management, reflecting further on her own (perhaps subconscious)attitudes toward money and their effect on her current situation, and evaluating her finances regularly to see what adjustments need to be made.

  27. Matt

    Eleanor might consider a Roth IRA, for the fact she can withdraw contributions early without penalty. Considering the short time frame involved where she might move out of the country, it is not as likely she will have a huge amount of gains on the investments anyhow. If she ends up staying, then these savings will have the largest impact on her retirement nest egg.

  28. Lauren

    serpah, unfortunately I don’t have a good answer for you. My husband is in love with Giada de Laurentiis, looked her up online and found that she’s married to a designer for Anthropologie. That got him interested in the store, so he looked it up and found the statistic. Since we just recently fell into that income range, he told me about it, being shocked that they determined that we could afford to shop there. I have no more info on stores demographic ranges. Sorry.

  29. Nate

    Wow! People are really fast to dish out the criticism, huh? Ramit, I think this is a wonderful profile for the following reasons:

    1. Profile of subject clearly laid out (age, sex, location, income).
    2. Detailed monthly budget laid out in the article, and
    3. Most importantly, a brutally open and honest “confession” of this young woman’s finances and her views on not only her finances, but the role her life situation plays in developing those views.

    Just the fact that Eleanor offered to do this interview/profile says a lot about the value she places on her personal finances.

    I’d love to read more profiles like this. Keep up the good work!

  30. Wouter

    Ramit, great post – I’d love to read more profiles like this as well.

    People, please read the posts more carefully before jumping to conclusions. Eleanor did not say she spent $300-400 a month on clothes at the Anthropologie. But if she did, IMO that type of amount for clothing only would be excessive at a 40K salary, especially if you’re working for Microsoft (I worked there for a while and dress-code is VERY informal). My wife and I are making approx. 200K gross/year and if she wanted to spend that much a month on clothes, we’d have a serious fight on our hands.
    From where I sit, I’d ditch Ameriprise as a bank, switch to Tracfone as cellphone (I don’t need a lot of minutes, I spend less than $10/month on my cellphone), and I would pay off all loans agressively before starting to invest. The Sallie Mae interest is pretty low, and it’s nice that the University of Toronto does not charge any additional interest, so theoretically you could be better off investing savings rather than using it to pay off debt. However, debt is debt. I’d pay it off first so there are no surprises when circumstances change.

    Just my opinion of course. I have great respect for Eleanor , I may disagree with some of the points in her plan but the important part is that she HAS A PLAN.

  31. Kibrika

    Thanks for the post!
    I agree that the actual numbers are nice though I’m too lazy to translate them into some currency that I understand.
    I enjoyed the “chatty” style. Didn’t notice any mistakes.
    I was happy to hear that others have a similar outlook on buying clothes and stuff:)

  32. Anne

    Ameriprise is not a good firm. It has 37 regulatory actions against it (check them out on NASD Broker Check). The ‘financial advisors’ there are really salesmen, pushing products. Go to the Ameriprise website and search on ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘revenue sharing’.

    You will not be ‘advised’ to get into low-cost Vanguard index funds. I know you are in loaded, expensive funds, probably with 12b-1 fees.

    This is what happens to your investments when you pay these kinds of fees (look at the chart):

    I bet you were not clearly told about all the fees you are paying. Do you know what you pay a year for fees in total? Expense ratios, loads or wrap, transaction costs, etc? This comes right out of your investments.

    When you say sub-account, that scares me. Are you in a VUL or an annuity?

    Look here:


    I suggest either:

    A. Get your monry away from Ameriprise and into a good Vanguard (or Fidelity) Target Retirement fund, or

    B. Take some time to learn to do your own investing (it’s easy) and DIY.