Fast Fixes for 10 Common Money Mishaps

These ten financial headaches don’t have to turn into migraines.

A money mishap -- for example, a miscalculation at tax time, a bill you overlooked or an unexpected fee -- can catch even the most organized person by surprise. But act quickly and you can probably fix, or at least minimize, the financial damage.

1. You have to change the date of your skiing trip, but you already bought the plane tickets.

Fast Fix: The best-case scenario is that you learn about the change in plans within 24 hours of booking the flight. A federal rule provides that before that first day is up, you may cancel a plane ticket and rebook fee-free. After that, expect to pay up to a $200 change fee for domestic fares on major airlines, plus any additional cost for the new ticket. (There are exceptions: JetBlue charges up to $150; Southwest doesn’t charge a change fee.) If you cancel your trip, the carrier will give you a credit (minus the change fee), typically good for up to ten months.

2. The $50 Groupon you bought for $25 for dinner at your neighborhood Italian eatery just expired.

Fast Fix: Go ahead and use the Groupon. The amount you paid for the daily deal is still valid after the promotional value expires (the same goes for LivingSocial coupons). Ask politely and the restaurant may honor the full value, but there’s no guarantee. If you know before the expiration date that you won’t be able to use a Groupon or Living­Social deal, you can try to unload it through a resale site, such as, a kind of Craigs­list for daily deals. You may have to sell at a deep discount.

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3. Your income tax bill is way more than you expected, and you can’t come up with the money by April 15.

Fast Fix: File your return by April 15 and pay as much as you can. Then wait for the IRS to send you a bill for the balance. That should take about 45 days, which will give you time to find some or all of the remaining amount. You’ll get hit with a late-payment penalty of 0.5% of the unpaid balance per month, but that’s a lot better than the failure-to-file penalty of 5% a month. Avoid the temptation to pay your tax bill with a credit card. You’ll owe a “convenience fee” of up to 2.35% of the amount you charge, plus interest if you fail to pay off the balance by the due date.

4. After a trip abroad, you discover that you’ve run up an eye-popping cell-phone bill.

Fast Fix: Call your provider and ask for a reduction. Be persistent, and remind the customer-service rep of your history as a loyal customer, says Logan Abbott, of If you were unaware of how much the extra minutes or data would cost, let the rep know. The good news is that overage charges, which can run up to 25 cents per minute or $10 per gigabyte, are easy to avoid. All major carriers must now provide text or e-mail alerts to customers who approach or exceed their wireless-plan limits. Contact your carrier before heading abroad to see whether you can enroll in a prepaid international package, or consider buying an international SIM card. Otherwise, use Wi-Fi as much as possible for data and phone calls while you’re out of the country and you won’t be charged by your plan.

5. You notice suspicious purchases on your credit card statement and suspect that a scammer got your number.

Fast Fix: Contact the credit card issuer as soon as possible to dispute the charges and ask for a new card. Your liability is limited to $50 on a credit card, but American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa don’t charge you at all. If you suspect that you have been the victim of ID theft, you could place a fraud alert on your account with one of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) so that lenders must take extra precautions before granting credit in your name. It also entitles you to a free credit report from each of the bureaus. The initial alert stays on your account for 90 days, but you can renew it.

6. You stashed money in a Roth IRA, but a year-end bonus put you over the limit for Roth contributions.

Fast Fix: You can avoid a 6% penalty on contributions you made in the year your income was too high if you withdraw your Roth contributions (and any earnings on those contributions) by April 15. (For 2013, you couldn’t contribute to a Roth if your income was more than $127,000 for singles or $188,000 for joint filers.) Even better: Contact your IRA administrator and ask for a form to “recharacterize” your Roth contribution and any earnings on it to a traditional IRA. As long as you make the switch before October 15, 2014, you won’t owe the penalty. If you made contributions to the Roth in earlier years, the administrator should calculate how much of the earnings should be attributed to the previous years’ contributions. If you switch to a nondeductible IRA, you’ll also need to file IRS Form 8606 to report the nondeductible contribution.

7. The department-store mailings you tossed turned out to be bills for a charge you forgot about. Now you’ve racked up $50 in late fees.

Fast Fix: The issuer is within its rights to charge interest, assess late fees, possibly increase the annual percentage rate and report delinquencies to the credit bureaus. But if you call customer service and explain the situation, you may get a break. Emphasize how long you’ve been a customer and why this is an isolated incident, and that you’d like to have the late fees waived or reduced. If the store has reported your delinquency to a credit bureau, ask that the report be withdrawn.

8. The tracking information for a package you expected says it was delivered to your home, but it’s not on your porch.

Fast Fix: The burden is on the sender to locate a missing bundle or reimburse you. If it appears to have been a theft, report it to the police; the merchant may require a police report. Then call the merchant with your tracking number, delivery confirmation e-mail and police report in hand. If the stolen package was a gift from an individual, she can expect coverage against loss or damage of up to $100. If the value was higher and she didn’t pay for extra insurance, you’re out of luck. A merchant such as Amazon will have its own arrangements with shipping companies in place. You can prevent this from happening in the future by having your packages sent to your workplace or the nearest mail center. You can also require a signature before the package is dropped off, typically for an extra $2 or $3. FedEx’s “Delivery Manager” alerts you to packages headed to your address and lets you make plans accordingly. UPS’s “My Choice” messages you about deliveries and lets you reschedule or reroute your package.

9. That gift card in your wallet you’ve been meaning to use? It expired.

Fast Fix: Check for a customer-service number printed on the back of the card or on the retailer’s Web site. You may be able to have the unused funds reloaded onto the card. If that doesn’t work, you might be able to recoup the cash by filing a claim for unclaimed property with your state. But the claims process could be a pain. Depending on your state, you may need the credit card number used to buy the gift card or a signed affidavit from the person who bought it.

10. A bill collector keeps calling about a debt he says you owe. But you don’t recognize the bill.

Fast Fix: Tell the caller that you can’t discuss the debt until you see something in writing, says Gerri Detweiler, of The collector is required to send a written notice of the debt within five days of initially contacting you. Once you get that notice (insist on snail mail), you have 30 days to dispute the debt. Send a letter by certified mail or with delivery confirmation stating that you aren’t sure you owe the debt, and ask the collector to verify it. That will buy you time to investigate whether you forgot to pay a bill or there has been a mistake. A collector who refuses to send you a notice by mail or threatens to take you to court unless you pay immediately is probably a scammer.

Former Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance