Monday, April 11, 2011

New 'ghost towns' rise across the U.S.

Empty businesses. (Rick Barrentine/Corbis)  

 The economic downturn is pushing the vacancy rate above 50 percent in some communities.

American Ghost Towns of the 21st Century

There are several counties in America, each with more than 10,000 homes, which have vacancy rates above 55%. The rate is above 60% in several.
Most people who follow unemployment and the housing crisis would expect high vacancy rates in hard-hit states including Nevada, Florida and Arizona. They were among the fastest growing areas from 2000 to 2010. Disaster struck once economic growth ended.
Palm Coast, Fla., Las Vegas and Cape Coral, Fla., were all among the former high fliers. Many large counties which have 20% or higher occupancy rates are in these same regions. Lee County, Fla., Yuma County, Ariz., Mohave County, Ariz., and Osceola, Fla., each had a precipitous drop in home prices and increases in vacancy rates as homebuyers disappeared when the economy went south.
Data from states and large metropolitan areas do not tell the story of how much the real estate disaster has turned certain areas in the country into ghost towns. Some of the affected regions are tourist destinations, but much of that traffic has disappeared as the recession has caused people to sell or desert vacation homes and delay trips for leisure. This makes these areas particularly desolate when tourists are not around.
The future of these areas is grim. Our research showed that many have sharply declining tax bases which have caused budget cuts. Forecasts are calling for the fiscal noose to tighten on them even tighter.
These are the American Ghost Towns of the 21st century. Each has a population of more than 10,000 along with vacancy rates of more than 55%, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

1. Lake County, Mich.
Number of homes: 14,966
Vacancy rate: 66%
Population: 11,014
Lake County is located in central Michigan, a few hour's drive from the industrial cities of Flint, Pontiac and Detroit. It is in the heart of the state's fishing district and has been a vacation destination since the early years of the car industry. Many of those second home owners are now gone. This has helped drive nearly 20% of the residents below the poverty level and the median household income to under $27,000 a year.

2. Vilas County, Wis.
Number of homes: 25,116
Vacancy rate: 62%
Population: 21,919
Vilas County is located at the uppermost part of Wisconsin, near the border of the Northern Peninsula of Michigan. The county is plagued by two things. The first is that it has been a tourist area for Wisconsin residents. The second is that a significant part of the county's economy depends on the logging, forestry and construction industries, each of which struggled during the recession.

3. Summit County, Colo.
Number of homes: 29,842
Vacancy rate: 61%
Population: 26,843
Summit County sits northwest of the Pike National Forest and due west of Denver. The area is near to several major ski resorts. The local paper reports on revenue "The decrease isn't linked to the dramatic dip in assessed property values in Summit County, expected to be near 20 percent lower than in the previous valuation period. Those changes will show up in property tax bills starting in 2011."

4. Worcester County, Md.
Number of homes: 55,749
Vacancy rate: 60%
Population: 49,274
The Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation recently estimated that the county would have a sharp drop in its tax base in fiscal year 2012 and "another, more drastic, revenue decrease" for the fiscal year that follows. The twin engines of county's economy are tourism and agriculture. Experts believe the tourism business in Maryland's Eastern Shore could stay crippled for years.

5. Mono County, Calif.
Number of homes: 13,912
Vacancy rate: 59%
Population: 12,774
Mono County sits near the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Parks. Ironically, Bodie, the official state gold rush ghost town, is in Mono County. Finance Director Brian Muir recently said he expected another property drop in property tax receipts. Like most of the other counties on this list, tourism is a major source of revenue for its economy.

6. Dare County, N.C.
Number of homes: 33,492
Vacancy rate: 57%
Population: 95,828
Dare County includes the northern-most parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks. The situation in the vacation area is so severe that the "Outer Banks Voice" recently wrote, "If Dare County Manager Bobby Outten was intending to sound an alarm by suggesting that the EMS helicopter and school nurses were expendable in the next budget, he probably succeeded." His comments are unlikely to be terribly different from those of other executives of counties on the list. Vacant homes and homes which lose double-digit amounts of their value each year irreparably undermine the tax base. And, as services fall, fewer potential homeowners will consider investing in the area.

7. Dukes County, Mass.
Number of homes: 17,188
Vacancy rate: 57%
Population: 15,527
Dukes County encompasses the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. The enemy of the local budget is, as is true for most of the counties on this list, falling property values. Vacationers still flock to the resort island in the summer as do seasonal workers. The county is close to deserted when the weather turns cold.

 8. Sawyer County, Wis.
Number of homes: 15,975
Vacancy rate: 56%
Population: 17,117
The Sawyer County website has a link, prominently placed on the homepage, which goes to a list of foreclosed homes for sales by the sheriff's department. There are not many new homebuyers. The number of people who live in the county was flat from 2000 to 2010. The Hayward Community School District, located in Sawyer, will probably close one of its elementary schools. Sawyer is a fishing and biking destination, and has suffered from a drop in travelers from the southern part of the state.

9. Burnett County, Wis.
Number of homes: 15,278
Vacancy rate: 55%
Population: 16,196
Burnett County is at the western most part of Wisconsin near Minneapolis. The county's population fell from 2000 to 2010. County Administrator Candace Fitzgerald recently said that proposed budget cuts "could prove to be devastating and very hard to recover from." The county's attractiveness as a tourist destination has faltered. Home values have fallen for three consecutive years. Cuts in the Wisconsin State budget will lower state aid. People are more likely to default and abandon vacation homes than their primary residences. This has probably been an important reason vacancy rates in rural tourist areas in Wisconsin are so high.

10. Aitkin County, Minn.
Number of homes: 16,029
Vacancy rate: 54%
Population: 15,736
Aitkin County offers visitors two seasons for recreation. The first is in the summer when fishing is popular. The second is winter when snowmobilers come north. Aitkin is the last of the counties on the 24/7 Wall St. list demonstrating that rural regions which rely on tourists are especially exposed to economic hardship in a recession. They may take longer to recover than some industrialized cities do.

 News Source: YAHOO


New oil source under Utah ignites debate

File photo of open pit mines just north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada (AP/Canadian Press, Eamon Mac Mahon)  

 A push to tap into 12 to 19 billion barrels of "unconventional" U.S. petroleum has critics alarmed.

Debate stirred over 1st major US tar sands mine

SALT LAKE CITY – Beneath the lush, green hills of eastern Utah's Uinta Basin, where elk, bear and bison outnumber people, the soil is saturated with a sticky tar that may soon provide a new domestic source of petroleum for the United States. It would be a first-of-its kind project in the country that some fear could be a slippery slope toward widespread wilderness destruction.
With crude prices surging beyond $100 a barrel, and politicians preaching the need to reduce America's reliance on foreign supplies, companies are now looking for more local sources. One Canadian firm says it's found it in the tar sands of Utah's Book Cliffs.
Alberta-based Earth Energy Resources Inc. aims to start with a roughly 62-acre mine here to produce bitumen, a tar-like form of petroleum, from oil-soaked sands. For decades, other Utah operators have used oil sands as a poor-man's asphalt, and Canada has been wringing oil from the ground for years, but nobody has yet tried to produce petroleum from U.S. soil on such a scale.
And it could be just the beginning. The company has over 7,800 acres of Utah state land under lease, with plans to acquire more, and estimates its current holdings contain more than 250 million barrels of recoverable oil.
"This is not just a 62-acre project that will last seven years. We are looking at a 30,000-acre project that will destroy the environment in this area over many years," said John Weisheit, a Colorado River guide and founder of the Moab, Utah-based environmental group Living Rivers.
Weisheit worries that shortsightedness and the rush to feed America's insatiable appetite for oil could trump reason at the expense of other precious natural resources.
The Bureau of Land Management says Utah has an estimated 12 to 19 billion barrels of oil buried in its tar sands, mostly in the eastern part of the state, though not all of that would be accessible.
Weisheit says if Earth Energy is allowed to mine the land, he fears others may not be far behind.
"We used hear that it's not lucrative to extract oil from tar sands unless oil prices were above $60 barrel," he said. "But now that prices have risen, we're definitely seeing companies take advantage of the situation."
Living Rivers is challenging this project's approval and contends it would dig up fragile topsoil, destroy limestone plateaus formed over thousands of years and pollute groundwater downstream that flows into the Colorado River. The group claims the Utah Division of Water Quality didn't accurately assess the potential for widespread environmental damage from the PR Springs mine. A hearing is set for May 25.

Jim Carrey debuts a wild haircut

Jim Carrey (Jim Spellman/   

The 49-year-old actor posts a photo of himself with a striking new mohawk.

Jim Carrey Debuts Rocking New Haircut

Story photo: Jim Carrey Debuts Rocking New Haircut 
Jim Carrey | Photo Credits: Charles Eshelman/; courtesy Jim CarreyTV Guide
Jim Carrey is showing his rocker side with a new Mohawk haircut.

'The most dangerous thing you'll do all day'

Photo by Thinkstock  

A very common practice can raise heart attack risk by a staggering 54 percent.

The Most Dangerous Thing You'll Do All Day

We stand around a lot here at Men’s Health. In fact, a few of us don’t even have office chairs. Instead, we write, edit, and answer e-mails—a lot of e-mails—while standing in front of our computers. All day long. Why?

It all started last summer, when Assistant Editor Maria Masters came across a shocking study in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (one of dozens of research journals we comb each month as we put together the magazine). Scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana analyzed the lifestyles of more than 17,000 men and women over about 13 years, and found that people who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks.

That’s right—I said 54 percent!

Masters immediately called the lead researcher at Pennington, a professor named Peter Katzmarzyk. Turns out, this wasn’t the first study to link sitting and heart disease. Similar research actually dates back to 1953, when British researchers found that (sitting) bus drivers were twice as likely to die of heart attacks as (standing) trolley operators.

Here’s the most surprising part: “We see it in people who smoke and people who don’t,” Katzmarzyk told Masters. “We see it in people who are regular exercisers and those who aren’t. Sitting is an independent risk factor.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how much you exercise or how well you eat. If you sit most of the day, your risk of leaving this world clutching your chest—whether you’re a man or women—as much as doubles.
Bonus Tip: For the latest health, fitness, and nutrition tips and advice, check out our all-new Today's News channel!
This raised a rather obvious question: Why? Truth is, the researchers aren’t sure. But Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., one of Katzmarkzyk’s colleagues, suspects it has to do with an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which breaks down fat in the bloodstream and turns it into energy. Hamilton found that standing rats have ten times more of the stuff coursing through their bodies than laying rats. It doesn’t matter how fit the rats are; when they leave their feet, their LPL levels plummet. Hamilton believes the same happens in humans.

Still sitting? Then you should know that your office chair also:

1. Screws up your posture. The fascia, the tissue that connects individual muscles into a full-body network, begins to set when you stay in one position for too long, says Men’s Health advisor Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist in Indianapolis. If you’re hunched over a keyboard all day, this eventually becomes your normal posture.

2. Makes you fatter. This happens for two reasons. First, you burn 60 more calories an hour when standing versus sitting. But more importantly, says Hartman, when you spend too much time sitting, your largest muscle group—the glutes (a.k.a. your butt)—become lazy and quit firing. This is called gluteal amnesia. And it means you burn fewer calories.

3. Causes lower back pain. Weak glutes push your pelvis forward, putting stress on the spine, says Hartman. Here’s the other unseemly thing that happens when your pelvis tilts forward: Your belly protrudes, making you look 5 months pregnant.
Bonus Tip: For more strategies that will keep you fit and healthy for life, check out The Best Fitness Tips Ever!
So what’s a desk-bound worker to do? First, Hamilton suggests you change how you think about fitness. We have a tendency to segment our lives—work, home, and downtime. Exercise falls into the last category, something we squeeze into our busy schedules when possible. But if you stop thinking about exercise as an activity, and instead think of it as a lifestyle, it’s easier to make healthy choices throughout the day.

Ivory Coast ruler captured in showdown

In this image made from television, Laurent Gbagbo is seen after his arrest, at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Monday, April 11, 2011. (AP Photo/TCI via APTN)  

Troops loyal to the new president storm the bunker of defiant strongman Laurent Gbagbo.

Forces capture Ivory Coast strongman in bunker

 ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's elected president ended the 10-year rule of strongman Laurent Gbagbo on Monday, storming the bunker where he had holed up and putting him under arrest following a crisis that left hundreds dead and threatened to re-ignite a civil war.

Gbagbo's dramatic arrest came after days of heavy fighting during which French and U.N. helicopters fired rockets at his presidential residence. Forces backing the internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara had begun a rapid offensive to oust Gbagbo late last month.

Issard Soumahro, a pro-Ouattara fighter at the scene, told The Associated Press that the ground offensive to seize Gbagbo came after the French launched airstrikes until at least 3 a.m. Monday.

"We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker. He was there with his wife and his son," Soumahro said.

He added that Gbagbo was tired and had been slapped by a soldier, but was not otherwise hurt.

Gbagbo was interrogated and brought to the Golf Hotel, where Ouattara has been trying to run his presidency since the Nov. 28 vote. Officials were waiting for him to sign a document that formally hands power over to Ouattara, Soumahro said. TV footage from the Golf Hotel showed Gbagbo in a white sleeveless undershirt, and then donning a colorful print shirt.

"The nightmare is over for the people of Ivory Coast," Ivory Coast's U.N. ambassador said.

Youssoufou Bamba, who was appointed U.N. ambassador by Ouattara, said Gbagbo will face justice. He predicted that fighting that has wracked this former French colony will stop as soon as pro-Gbagbo forces learn of his capture.

But it will be very difficult for Ivory Coast to mount a domestic court to try Gbagbo, said Richard Downie, an Africa expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that it would "probably be a lightning rod for more unrest."

"(Ouattara) didn't want to come to power this way, through the barrel of a gun," Downie said. "He was elected fairly and freely. But this is the situation he was dealt. It's going to be incredibly difficult for him to bring the country together."

In western Ivory Coast, rebels fired into the air in jubilation in Duekoue, causing a panic among refugees who fled in all directions or dropped to the ground in terror. In villages going east from Duekoue people danced in the streets, waving tree branches. In one village, young men paraded with the orange, white and green Ivorian flag.

"It's a victory ... considering all the evil that Laurent Gbagbo inflicted on Ivory Coast," Ouattara's ambassador to France, Ali Coulibaly, told France-Info radio. He emphasized that the man in power for a decade would be "treated with humanity."

"We must not in any way make a royal gift to Laurent Gbagbo in making him a martyr," Coulibaly said. "He must be alive and he must answer for the crimes against humanity that he committed."

Some critics had accused Gbagbo of clinging to power in part to avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Court. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has begun preliminary examination of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ivory Coast, including accusations leveled against forces seeking to install Ouattara.

Ivory Coast was divided into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south by a 2002-2003 civil war. The country was officially reunited in a 2007 peace deal. The long-delayed presidential election was intended to help reunify the nation but instead unleashed months of violence.

Gbagbo, who won 46 percent of the vote, held power for a decade and already had overstayed his mandate by five years when the November election took place. When the country's election commission and international observers declared he lost the election after it was finally held, he refused to step down.

The former history professor defied near-universal pressure to cede power to Ouattara. The two set up parallel administrations that vied for control of the West African economic powerhouse.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that dictators should take notice that "they may not disregard the voice of their own people in free and fair elections." She added that "there will be consequences for those who cling to power."

Ouattara drew his support from the U.N. and world powers. Gbagbo maintained his hold over the country's military and security forces who terrorized his opponents.

Secret last words of the first man in space

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (AP)    

Moments before uttering his legendary catchphrase, Yuri Gagarin had his mind on something else.

Russia releases Gagarin's secret last words

MOSCOW (AFP) – One of the last things Yuri Gagarin did before making his pioneering voyage into space 50 years ago was make sure he had enough sausage to last him on the trip back home to Moscow.
This tidbit was among more than 700 pages of once-secret material linked to the life and times of the world's first spaceman that were released by Russia ahead of the April 12 anniversary.
The historic space shot turned Gagarin into an instant celebrity whose boyish charms became a powerful propaganda weapon for the Soviet Union as it scrambled to win its ideological battle against the United States during the Cold War.
His boy-next-door grin and outsized helmet became a staple of Soviet stamps while his heroism turned into a subject of elementary school literature that became comparable to the teachings of Lenin.
Russian authorities -- with their own space programme in trouble -- have grabbed on to that glory by making the Gagarin celebrations into a national event stretching from the halls of the Kremlin to the International Space Station.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is planning a visit to the mission control centre outside Moscow while his mentor and predecessor Vladimir Putin will hold his own meeting with Russian and Ukrainian cosmonauts in Ukraine.
But making the biggest news among Russians this weekend were files revealing the conversation Gagarin had while strapped into his capsule with chief rocket designer Sergei Korolyov -- a man who became a legend in his own right.
Gagarin is best remembered by a generation of Russian for pronouncing "Poyekhali!" as his Vostok spacecraft lifted off the ground.
The phrase can be translated as either "Let's Go!" or "We're Off!" and is now a regular part of the Russian lexicon.
Click image to see Yuri Gagarin related photos

But the Russian Internet was abuzz with what Gagarin said moments before his famous catchphrase.
One of Korolyov's biggest worries appeared to be that the would-be hero had enough to eat once he touched down on Earth.

Pregnant Portman gives up vegan diet

Natalie Portman (Michael Buckner/WireImage)  

The actress abandons morally inspired veganism because of her cravings.

Natalie Portman Gives Up Veganism

"I'm a veg." Steve Granitz/WireImage BREAKING: Natalie Portman is no longer the poster actress for the strict vegan lifestyle.

"I actually went back to being vegetarian when I became pregnant, just because I felt like I wanted that stuff," Portman tells the Q100 Bert Show in Atlanta. "I was listening to my body to have eggs and dairy and that sort of thing." (In addition to meat, eggs, dairy and any other products derived from animals are off-limits in the vegan diet.)

"I know there are people who do stay vegan, but I think you have to just be careful, you have to watch your iron levels and your b12 levels and supplement ... things you might be low in your diet," warns Portman, who turned vegan two years ago after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's book "Eating Animals."

In an essay written for the Huffington Post, Portman said the book reminded her that "some things are just wrong":

"Perhaps others disagree with me that animals have personalities, but the highly documented torture of animals is unacceptable," Portman wrote. "And the human cost Foer describes in his book, of which I was previously unaware, is universally compelling."

Car companies Americans think are best

VW Golf. (Volkswagen)  

When people think of great, high-quality vehicles, these brands come to mind first.


The Toyota Corolla is the bestselling car in the United States. The Ford F-Series pickup has been the bestselling truck for 34 years straight. But does that mean Americans consider them the best?

If you ask automotive research firms, the answer is Americans aspire to something a little more high-class. Think Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and BMW.

"The perception of the quality of the mainstream is certainly a cut below the luxury brands," says Eric Lyman, the director of residual values for the automotive analysis firm ALG. "People expect that a luxury good has higher quality—that's why it's considered a luxury good."

Volkswagen is the only non-luxury nameplate to make our list of the car brands consumers like best. Taking top honors: Porsche.

Behind the Numbers

To arrive at our list, we selected the top eight luxury brands and the top eight non-luxury brands on a recent quality perception survey from ALG, and the same from a J.D. Power and Associates study that rates customer satisfaction with dealer performance during the first three years of ownership. We also selected the top eight brands in J.D. Power's latest APEAL study, which surveyed purchasers and lessees as to how they rated their 2010 model-year cars after the first 90 days of ownership. The brands that placed the highest on two of the three reports qualified for our list.

It's important to consider all those factors, experts say. Popularity isn't just about which brand is the prettiest—or even the safest.

"When new-vehicle buyers go through the shopping process, vehicle appeal, along with price and perceptions of quality, is of major importance," says David Sargent, the vice president of vehicle research for J.D. Power.

Vehicles from brands that are perceived well also generate faster sales, higher profit margins and less need for cash incentives. In fact, 97% of highly satisfied owners recommend their vehicle to friends; among the least-satisfied owners, only 8% do the same, according to J.D. Power.

Foreign Vs. Domestic

While Porsche dominated our list with top honors in the appeal category, Lexus, considered a "premium" brand, took the No. 2 spot. It excelled on all three surveys, with scores all well above industry averages. That's no surprise—Lexus parent company Toyota is part of a high-quality, high-satisfaction winners bracket that Asian automakers continue to dominate.

"Typically we always see the top-tier Japanese brands along with Volkswagen as the top brands," Lyman says.

Indeed, Lexus was virtually unharmed during parent company Toyota's recall troubles last year, and Toyota itself ultimately suffered only slightly in dependability, appeal and quality perception ratings.

But the gap in consumer approval between foreign and domestic automakers is slowly shrinking. This year the Ford marque Lincoln beat Porsche as the most dependable car brand on the market, and GM's Cadillac took the No. 2 spot on J.D. Power's consumer satisfaction index survey. What's more, the domestic brands have been improving steadily in vehicle appeal and durability ratings during the past four years, with the greatest improvement occurring between 2008 and 2010. All are signs of a possible sea change in the foreign vs. domestic landscape.

"It's reasonable to expect that the gap will if not close completely will certainly narrow in the next few years," Sargent says. He attributes the change to a concerted effort on the part of Detroit to focus on quality. Ford has done especially well.

"They realized that they were getting a reputation along with other domestics of having quality that wasn't up to par with the imports, and they figured, 'We need to do something about this,'" Sargent says.

If consumer preference has anything to do with it, it'll most certainly pay off.

The Cars Americans Think Are The Best










Volkswagen has always been strong in the quality sector, says Eric Lyman, the director of residual values for automotive analysis firm ALG. Lately, however, it has faced some tough competition: "Typically we always saw the top tier Japanese brands, along with Volkswagen, as the top brands in perceived quality," Lyman says. "Now we're seeing some of the domestic brands, particularly Ford, in the mix there with some of those top Japanese brands. In fact they have now overtaken VW."

J.D. Power CSI Score: 779/1,000

J.D. Power APEAL Score: 797/1,000

ALG Score: 68.2/100

Average: 548










Audi's all-new A8 sedan, available in a V8 or W12 long wheelbase form, earned high marks from Consumer Reports' test driver: "It's the one we'd personally choose when comparing the A8 to competing high-end cars - such as the BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XJ, and Mercedes-Benz S-Class," reviewer Mike Quincy wrote.

J.D. Power CSI Score: 794/1,000

J.D. Power APEAL Score: 832/1,000

ALG Score: 72.7/100

Average: 566.2










Along with Porsche, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, Acura received the highest possible overall score for initial quality in J.D. Power and Associates' 2010 quality report. Second in total points only behind Porsche, it moved up from the 14th rank position it held in 2009. The Acura RDX scored particularly well in initial quality tests, according to J.D. Power.

Watch out for these traps at the mall

woman shopping at mall (Corbis)   

The one-day 15 percent discount offers from stores often aren’t as simple as they seem.


First Person: 8 Shopping Traps to Avoid at the Mall

*Note: This was written by a Yahoo! contributor. Do you have a personal finance story that you'd like to share? Sign up with the Yahoo! Contributor Network to start publishing your own finance articles.
Though today's shopping traps may look more sophisticated than in the past, their aim is the same as yesterday's misleading advertising -- not to save me money but to get me to spend more. For new and experienced shoppers, here's a look at eight of the most common shopping traps to avoid in malls.
Delayed Coupon
A recent shopping trap involves giving customers a coupon at the end of a purchase. The coupon may become active in the next day, week or month, tempting shoppers to return and buy more than they had initially planned. This shopping trap can be avoided by searching for online coupons that can be applied that very day and then bringing them along.
Scratch Cards
Another gimmick that mall stores have been using recently is scratch cards reminiscent of lottery scratch cards. To lure shoppers into the store, the scratch cards are handed out to passersby. There are no losing cards, which grants everyone the joy of a win. And once the shopper enters the store with a $5 scratch card, he is likely to fall into the shopping trap of buying something he wasn't planning on buying that day at all.
Save 15% on $75
Coupons that only come into effect when the consumer spends enough money are becoming more and more common in mall stores. Typically, the offers are made to club members -- shoppers who signed up to receive coupons in the mail. Though reserved for repeat customers, such coupons present an obvious shopping trap, one that's irresistible to someone who likes that store enough to become a club member. Seasonal shopping, four times a year, can help shoppers buy everything they need at one time and make use of such coupons only when they need them.
Save 15% Today
There isn't a store in a mall that doesn't offer 15% at the time of checkout if you'll apply for the store credit card. I've even come across instances when the proverbial "would you like to save 15% by applying for our card today?" has been replaced with a tantalizing "would you like to save 15%?" This shopping trap should be avoided for the simple reason that spending cash is psychologically more difficult than swiping a plastic card.

President to detail new spending plan

President Barack Obama at the White House, Wednesday, April 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)    

Programs for seniors and the poor could face cuts as the White House looks to trim the federal deficit.

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and Congress are shifting from short-term budget concerns to debates over the nation's long-term economic future, and everything — from Medicare and Medicaid cuts to tax hikes for the wealthy — is on the table.
Much will be revealed at midweek, when the House and Senate are expected to vote on a budget for the remainder of this fiscal year and Obama unveils his plan to reduce the deficit, in part by scaling back the government's chief health programs for seniors and the poor. The House, too, may vote on Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's spending plan for next year as Democrats readied arguments that it proposed "Draconian" cuts to Americans who need help the most.
Meanwhile, congressional officials were putting to paper a deal struck Friday night that would fund the government through September and cut $38.5 billion in spending. They were operating under a one-week extension of the budget, which passed the House and Senate in the last hour before the government was to begin shutting down.
The House's 348-70 vote to extend funding a few days provided no guarantees for the measure being written Monday that would fund the government through the next six months, but leadership aides said they expected it to pass as early as Wednesday.
Whatever its fate, official Washington raced ahead to frame the upcoming fight over raising the nation's debt limit and the election-year budget as a pair of interconnected battles that would make Friday's nail-biter seem minor.
To be sure, the GOP had succeeded in turning what's usually a fight over spending into a series of battles over spending cuts — a thematic victory for House Republicans swept to power by a populist mandate for smaller, more austere government.
"We've had to bring this president kicking and screaming to the table to cut spending," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on "Fox News Sunday."
Presidential adviser David Plouffe said Obama has long been committed to finding ways for the nation to spend within its means. He confirmed that the president would unveil more specifics for deficit reduction with a speech Wednesday that would reveal plans to reduce the government's chief health programs for seniors and the poor.
"You're going to have to look at Medicare and Medicaid and see what kind of savings you can get," Obama adviser David Plouffe said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But he contrasted Obama's approach to the Republicans in familiar terms.
"We can't take a machete," Plouffe said on ABC's "This Week." "We have to take a scalpel, and we're going to have to cut, we're going to have to look carefully."
Away from the talk shows, congressional officials still were analyzing Friday's vote to fund the government through the week.
The late hour of Friday's handshake left lawmakers little time to react. House members of both parties who voted for a few days' funding could not say on Sunday that they'd vote for the plan to fund the government through September.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who voted "yes" Friday to extend funding this week while the final compromise was written, said he was nonetheless undecided on whether he'd vote for the final deal. On ABC's "This Week," he said he didn't think the six-month compromise would pass.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., also a "yes" vote on Friday, would not commit to voting for the six-month deal either.
Pence praised House Speaker John Boehner for fighting "the good fight."
"It sounds like John Boehner got a good deal, probably not good enough for me to support it, but a good deal nonetheless," Pence said on ABC.
Friday's tally also offered a look at Republicans likely to be the staunchest opponents of any compromises on spending and policy.
Twenty-eight of the "no" votes were cast by Republicans. Sixteen of those are members of the 87-member freshman class. Also voting no: tea party star and possible presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

'The most tax-efficient man in America'

Doug Stivers (Photo by Nicholas Draney)   

 Doug Stives obsessively documents every expense so he can pay the IRS as little as the law allows.

A Tax Man Takes Account of His Life

Even though it's tax season, accountant Doug Stives skied at Snowbasin in Utah last month. (Photo by Nicholas Draney)
CPA lives better, works less thanks to the art of deduction.
In the thick of tax season, most certified public accountants are chained to their desks grinding out returns.
Doug Stives, a CPA from Red Bank, N.J., went skiing in Utah.
"I always dreamed of coming here for peak conditions," he said in mid-March between runs at Snowbasin Resort.
The trip is among the many perks that have accrued from his decision, in 2006, to become, in effect, The Most Tax-Efficient Man in America. The experiment has led to a new career, frequent travel and obsessive documentation of expenses, such as a $6 hot dog he recently bought in the Philadelphia airport.
The "aha" moment came to him, he says, after a college approached him about a teaching gig and he realized he could put into practice many of the tax strategies he had learned over the decades.
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Step 1 was to change jobs. Mr. Stives had been a partner for 36 years at The Curchin Group, an accounting firm. By accepting an offer to teach tax and accounting courses full-time at the Leon Hess Business School of Monmouth University in New Jersey, he was able to tap into a broad array of tax-free employee benefits not available to him at the firm.
Step 2 was the formation of Doug Stives LLC, the separate consulting business to which he attributes an impressive array of expenses. In general, people who are employees and have side businesses are often in the best position to maximize the tax code's benefits, say experts. Mr. Stives calls this "the best of all worlds."
The result, says Mr. Stives, is that while he earns less than 75% of his earlier pay, he takes home almost 90% as much. And he says he reaps another $40,000 a year in tax-free benefits from his college gig. Among other things, the school adds to his 401(k) contribution and provides tax-free, discounted health plans for Mr. Stives and his wife, plus disability insurance. As a partner in the accounting firm, he had to fund such expenses himself.
Not that all is perfect now. One peeve: dealing with what he calls "airline nonsense" -- long lines, rising fees and canceled flights. But overall, he says, "my quality of life is so much higher."
His wife of 40 years, Elizabeth Stives, agrees. "We travel so much now for his business," she says. "Next is Lake Tahoe."
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Mr. Stives, 64 years old, says he's too miserly to focus solely on maximizing deductions -- a practice he calls a "rookie's mistake." In 2010, for example, he spotted a bonanza in "bonus depreciation" for large SUVs used in a business, but didn't need another car. "Sometimes my cheapness overcomes my love of tax savings," he says. "My wife will tell you I got her on sale."
Instead, he says, he uses the tax code's many quirks as the means through which he can live a fuller life.

World's little-known man-made wonders

The Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior on Kizhi Island, Russia. Photo: Olivier Martel/Corbis  

It's worth the trek to see dozens of elaborate wooden churches in remote Russia.

Little-Known Man-Made Wonders of the World

Not all of the world's wonders get the attention they deserve. We searched the globe to find nine marvels that are so awe-inspiring, you'll find it hard to believe that they were crafted by human hands—and so far off the beaten path, chances are you've never heard of them.

By Ratha Tep
Of course you've heard of Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, but have you heard about an Incan city that seems truly lost to today's travelers, or the complex of 52 pre-Angkorian temples so deep in the Cambodian jungle that it takes a local to guide you there? These destinations are jaw-dropping, but they don’t pull in the massive western crowds for a reason: Some of them are remote. That's where we come in with suggested tour operators to make the experience easier and well worth it.

Sichuan, China

A Buddha so large it took 90 years to build
It took almost the entire 8th century to carve the 233-foot-tall Leshan Giant Buddha out of a mountainside in central China—about 1,400 miles west of Shanghai (and far out of sight and mind for most travelers)—but the result still stands as one of the world's largest Buddhas. Its ears alone are more than 23 feet in length (that’s the height of a two-story building), and even its smallest toe is large enough to sit on comfortably. But it’s not only the Buddha’s giant scale that’s impressive. On its head are 1,021 intricate, twisted hair buns hiding a complex drainage system that helps preserve the statue. The Mount Emei area itself has enormous religious significance; Buddhism was first introduced to China here. Thrill seekers can get up close to witness the Buddha’s sheer size by navigating down a steep, 250-step zigzag path along its side; those looking to take in the statue from a distance (and see additional figures carved into the cliff) can opt for a boat ride—the statue sits at the confluence of where three rivers meet.

Karelia, Russia

An open-air museum of elaborate wooden churches

It requires a flight or overnight train ride from Moscow or St. Petersburg and then a ferry ride to reach Kizhi Island, part of the 1,650-island chain on northern Russia’s remote Lake Onega. Your reward is becoming one of the choice few to explore the one-of-a-kind State Kizhi Museum, made up of nearly 90 wooden structures, including chapels, windmills, and granaries. Its most remarkable portion, set on a narrow strip of land on the island’s southern tip, is Kizhi Pogost, a walled enclosure that houses an octagonal bell tower and two 18th- century wooden churches. Twenty-two cascading bulbous cupolas fashioned from aspen shingles top the 121-foot Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior. Amazingly enough, this masterpiece was built without a single nail. Legend has it that a sole axe was used to carve the shingles and the interlocking corner joinery that hold the majestic structure up, and after its completion, was tossed into the water so a similar marvel couldn’t be built.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Medieval churches made out of volcanic red rock

Unless you're from Ethiopia, chances are you don't know about these 11 medieval churches in the small mountain village of Lalibela. The destination is first and foremost a place of worship, which explains why the Ethiopians haven't done more to market it to tourists. You don't have to be devout, however, to marvel at the churches' unusual design. Legend has it that a visit to Jerusalem after its fall to a Muslim general in the 13th century inspired King Lalibela to rebuild the holy city in Ethiopia. He commissioned workers to dig these churches out of the area's red volcanic rock. One remarkable group of four—the House of Emmanuel, House of Mercurios, House of Gabriel, and House of Abba Libanos—was created from the same massive piece and connected by underground passageways. Light filters into the cruciform structures through cross-shaped windows. Another church, the Beta Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), rests some 35 feet below the surface of the desert.

Dreamlike wave found in unlikely spot

Surfers find big wave in rare spot (  

 Surfers make a stunning discovery during an expedition in the jungles of Indonesia.

A dreamlike wave found in an Indonesian river is stunning surf world

As discoveries of secret surf spots go, the incredible find by Rip Curl team members during a recent "Search" expedition in the jungles of Indonesia may be unrivaled.

What makes this latest wave discovery so fascinating is that it was made not on a coastline or island shore, but on a remote jungle river that gets pounded by a powerful tidal bore. But unlike other tidal bores that produce relatively small, mushy waves, this remarkable phenomenon pushes swells upstream in dream-like fashion at heights of 8 to 10 feet.

"This was our biggest score in twenty years of exploring," says Tom Curren, a former three-time world surfing champion who has been roaming the world's coastlines scouring for the proverbial perfect wave ever since winning his last world title in 1990. Because the soft-spoken champ has never been one to boast, his stories of this new spot called Seven Ghosts (named after the nearest jungle village) has his fans reeling. Interest surrounding the expedition is hitting a fever pitch as rumors of their score leaked out.

What's so stunning about this find is the wave's coffee-colored walls break from top to bottom, similar to the hollow powerful waves that peel over coral reefs. But the riverbank refraction of the primary wave sends rebound wedges perpendicular across the river, carving the secondary wave into a line of spinning peaks with cookie-cutter perfection. These mirror-reflection spinners appear choreographed, with all the symmetry of a Rockettes' leg kick, the likes of which has never be found in the least not yet.