MONEY Kids and Money

How to Save on Your Kid’s First Cell Phone

Children are getting phones at younger ages than ever. But the earlier you give in, the longer you'll be paying wireless bills.

When Dallas mom Jan Valecka’s twins hit that contentious tween age, the rite of passage she dreaded most was a relatively new one: when to get them cell phones.

“They were starting to see all their friends get smartphones and iPads,” says Valecka, a financial planner at her own firm. “They started lobbying hard.”

She caved when they started 5th grade and got them basic cell phones. The boy-and-girl twins are now 13 and in 7th grade. Their upgrade to smartphones costs Valecka about $75 a month each.

Valecka is hardly alone in dealing with the emotional and financial consequences of giving kids smartphones. A quarter of U.S. 8-and 9-year-olds now have them, according to the 2015 Parents, Kids & Money survey by Baltimore money managers T. Rowe Price. And a new study from Pew Research Center discovered that only 12% of American teens age 13 to 17 do not have a cell phones of any type.

To make the correct call, though, do the math to be sure you are ready for far-reaching consequences. After all, it’s not just a one-time purchase that parents are agreeing to, but a stiff monthly charge that could last for many years to come.

If you get your 12-year-old a plan that costs, say, $50 a month, that will set you back $4,200 though age 18. And that’s not even including any ancillary costs like equipment and upgrades, repairs and app purchases. Data overages, especially if your kids are heavy video watchers, could inflict significant extra damage.

Indeed, 23% of households report paying much more for their kids’ phone plans than they originally expected, according to a study by the National Consumers League.

That doesn’t have to be the case if you are thoughtful about how your decisions will affect household finances. Here are some suggestions:

1. Start with baby steps

A basic cell with phone and texting capability can be very reasonable indeed; Sprint, for instance, offers a WeGo starter phone for only $9.99 a month.

There are also prepaid plans available, with varying restrictions on minutes and data, and low-cost handsets. T-Mobile, for instance, offers a $40-a-month prepaid plan with unlimited talk, text and data on its own network, and 1 GB of nationwide LTE data. With hard limits in place, parents are essentially saving themselves from any unwanted bill surprises.

Consider it something of a trial period: If your kids prove responsible with their new gadgets, and aren’t constantly calling or texting their buddies late into the night, then you can talk about graduating to more elaborate phones and plans.

When you are all ready, every major carrier offers a version of a family share plan, like Verizon’s More Everything and AT&T’s Mobile Share Value. Additional lines cost less money than standalone packages, but contracts are often involved.

At that point the training wheels are off—and if you are sharing your family data package with your teenager, be prepared to blow through some usage limits.

2. Have the money talk

“The question that must always be discussed is, ‘Who will pay for what?'” says Mark La Spisa, a planner with Vermillion Financial in South Barrington, Illinois. “It’s critical to talk about it in advance of a child receiving their first phone.”

For an 8- or 9-year-old, it is unfair to expect anything beyond a token contribution. But teens who have their own income from part-time or summer work can start chipping in to cover part of the bill.

Also consider who the phone is really benefiting. If it is mainly for the parents’ peace of mind, that’s one thing. But if it is only for their enjoyment, and parents are not deriving any benefit at all, then “then they should be footing the bill,” says personal finance expert Gail Vaz-Oxlade, author of Money Rules.

3. Resist the lure of the constant upgrade

For her own kids, Vaz-Oxlade pays the bills, because she wants to get in touch with them. But she draws the line at hopping on the “hamster wheel” of getting them the latest-and-greatest gadgets on the market. That’s just throwing away money, in her opinion.

As a result she, her son and her daughter are all still using trusty iPhone 4s they got a few years ago.

MONEY Kids and Money

4 Important Lessons to Teach on Take Your Kids to Work Day

Girl on phone in medical lab office
Stanislas Merlin—Getty Images

On the fourth Thursday of April, working parents all across America take their children to work with them so they can see what Mom or Dad do for a living.

April 23, 2015 marks the 22nd year of ‘Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work’ Day.

Some companies have organized activities for their young visitors; others have little or no planning. Regardless of how things work at your office, you can use your workplace to teach kids about the value of money.

Of course, your lessons must be age-appropriate. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to teach your toddler about the stock market, and older children will be bored with simplistic discussions. With that in mind, here are a few ideas that can spur your thinking on appropriate lessons for your kids.

Salary – You can give younger children an analogy of worth and value by equating your work time to money and purchases. Give them a frame of reference by how much of your work time it takes to buy an ice cream cone or a bike.

Beware of two unintended consequences — make sure your children do not think that just because you work a certain amount of time they will get an ice cream cone or a bike, and make sure they understand that your salary is private. You do not want them relaying their newfound information to everybody they meet in the hallway or the elevator.

Profit – If you work in a manufacturing environment, you can show your children the products you make and talk about profit in general — how it takes money to make the products and how your company has to charge more to be able to pay employees and stay in business. Make the discussion age-appropriate and do not use actual company numbers unless you’ve cleared it with your manager (and even then, it’s not a good idea to be specific).

You can extend the profit discussion to retail jobs as well. It may be harder to illustrate in an office environment, but it’s not impossible to do so.

Sales – If you’re in a retail environment, you may be able to show your children how transactions take place. When ringing up a customer’s cash purchase, you can go over basic math skills with younger children by letting them “help” you make change and hand it out to the customer. You can engage your older children with discussions about credit cards and debit cards — how they work, what the difference is between the two, and pros and cons of each.

Taxes – If you can keep out your own biases (and we all have them), you can teach your kids about taxes. For example, in the retail environment, you can explain why the customer pays more than the price on the price tag because of taxes, where the tax money goes, and how it’s spent.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day isn’t for everybody. If your workplace is hostile to the idea, you don’t think you can pay sufficient attention to your child and still do your job, or you can’t keep them from disrupting the office, then don’t participate. A bad experience at the office is worse than no experience at the office.

However, you should spend extra time with your children later on and talk to them about what you do at work. You can use that time for teachable moments about money. They may not pay close attention or seem to appreciate the effort now, but as they grow up, you’re more likely to see the fruits of your efforts. Take the extra time to teach your kids about money, and they’ll reward you by staying out of trouble (and out of debt) with their good money-management habits.

MONEY Love and Money

3 Money Questions Every Couple Must Answer Before They Marry

bride and groom wedding toppers on top of heap of cash
Malerapaso—Getty Images

An open-ended conversation about finances is a crucial step on the road to marital bliss.

Marriage season is in full swing. Countless couples will step up to the altar this spring. Most will spend a lot of time imagining their blissful life together. Some will make an effort to see how they can communicate better. And a few brave folks will tiptoe into a discussion about each other’s finances.

If these couples knew that many of the fights they were going to have throughout their marriage would be rooted in money and their financial choices, they all might take time to discuss and foster financial compatibility right now.

Since spouses are going to share money choices and the consequences of their actions, it’s important to be on the same page. I’ve been fortunate to be in a lovely marriage for over two decades, but money has been at the core of many of our biggest disagreements.

We aren’t alone. Our firm has worked with thousands of families to help them with their financial lives. One lesson we’ve learned is that the way a couple makes financial choices tells whether their marriage will thrive or not.

Good news: It’s never too late to have an honest conversation about money.

There are three things you should absolutely discuss before you are married. (It won’t hurt to chat about them after the wedding, too!) But when you do, remember these important rules for talking about money. Don’t judge your partner. Don’t state your opinion as if it’s a fact. Try to see the other person’s perspective. And, most important, keep your emotions in check.

Here are the three questions you must ask one another:

1. How do you like to spend money? There is no right or wrong. It’s simply about preferences. But we can all have differing perspectives that can become frustrating over a lifetime together. Early in our marriage, my wife organized a ski trip for us for my birthday. I thought it was an odd present, given that she had given me something that was for both of us. I had grown up thinking a present was a material thing that was given to you. You can imagine she was put off by my tepid response! Some of us like and get more enjoyment buying material things — clothes, maybe, jewelry, or some new technology. Some prefer to spend on experiences, such as dinners or travel. The way you like to spend money will be a huge part of your joint life together.

Like most people, my tastes have changed over time. Today, I’d rather spend on experiences than things. In your marriage, you will both evolve and adapt, but having a healthy way to talk about your preferences will make your life easier (and make you feel more appreciated).

2. How do you feel about debt? How you view and use debt throughout your marriage can completely alter your future. Debt allows you to spend tomorrow’s earnings today, but it also reduces your financial flexibility once you have it. I grew up in Africa to parents who struggled, and I watched my mother drowning under bank debt. That has given me a massive (and perhaps not logical) aversion to debt. My wife grew up in California and was surrounded by people who borrowed; she herself has had a credit card since she was a teenager. When we had less in savings, I wouldn’t consider borrowing a lot to buy a nicer home, and I’d only buy cars I could pay for in cash. She wasn’t thrilled that for much of our marriage we lived in homes that were not as nice as we could probably afford. When you are entering a relationship you should clearly understand each other’s perspective on debt. It’s the one thing you will both have to be responsible for, together or not.

3. How do you feel about saving? Saving is all about delayed gratification; there is no immediate payoff. That sits well for some folks, but others really dislike it. For me, saving is like a security blanket: I like to know that I can pay off my house, lose my job, have a modest catastrophe, and we will still be okay. My wife assumes we don’t need to worry so much about bad things happening. Truth is, I do worry too much about things that are very unlikely to occur. It’s also true that saving more today means spending less now. You need to discuss how important building a safety net or saving for a new home is to each of you, compared to spending and enjoying that money today. Saving requires sacrifice, so you need to agree how much deferred gratification you can put up with.

Discussing money and what we do with it can be a touchy subject, and you will probably both have strong feelings. But being respectful of each other’s perspective and working together is necessary for a healthy and vibrant financial life. A discussion about money is the starting point (and most important part) of any real financial plan that works. These conversations should be the beginning of an “I do” that lasts forever.

Read Next: A 3-Step Plan for Avoiding Money Arguments

Joe Duran, CFA, is CEO and founder of United Capital. He believes that the only way to improve people’s lives is to design a disciplined process that offers investors a true understanding about how the choices they make affect their financial lives. Duran is a three-time author; his latest book is The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now.

MONEY Health Care

How to Survive This Awful Allergy Season

pollen written on windshield covered in pollen
Joseph De Sciose—Getty Images/Aurora Creative

Lingering winter cold means pollen levels could rise quickly—and so could your medical costs.

Grab your tissue box. We’re in for a terrible spring allergy season. Experts say that the long winter may cause early-blooming trees to pollinate late this year, which means more trees pollinating at the same time.

About one in five Americans suffer from some kind of allergy, with seasonal allergies the most common, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. While not as severe as food and insect allergies, hay fever can put a real damper on your life—seasonal allergies are responsible for some 4 million missed or lost workdays every year, the National Academy on an Aging Society estimates.

The upside is that if you take your allergies seriously this year, you might feel better and save money. True story: My entire childhood, I had “seasonal” allergies that lasted almost year-round. (For some reason, no one thought this was weird.) As an adult, I finally got tested. I was allergic to my cat. Part of me wishes I didn’t know that, but I don’t have to buy as much Claritin now.

Here’s what allergies could cost you—and how you can save.

Over-the-counter antihistamines: 10¢ to 67¢ a pill

With hay fever, you can burn money on boxes upon boxes of over-the-counter allergy relief like Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. But you can save a ton if you just compare prices online, says Elizabeth Davis, editor-in-chief of GoodRx blog, a prescription savings blog.

“One thing that tends to be worthwhile is going for the non-name brand version,” Davis says. “It looks like you can get [generic Claritin] for as low as $10 for 100 tablets, but I’m generally seeing about $20 or so for a regular box of brand-name Claritin, which has 30 tablets.”

So shop online, save 85%.

Another medication to consider: nasal spray. Nasacort and Flonase were both recently approved for over-the-counter sale, where they cost between $17 and $25 a bottle, Davis says.

Prescription antihistamines: 50¢ to $1.60 a pill

Sometimes, over-the-counter medications won’t be enough to alleviate your symptoms. If you’re still suffering, or if you find yourself relying on Benadryl on a daily basis, it’s time to see an allergist.

While prescription allergy meds are usually more expensive—as low as $15 but as much as $40 or $50 for 30 tablets, Davis estimates—what you pay will depend on your health plan. Doctor visits, tests, and prescriptions are typically covered by health insurance, with a co-payment or co-insurance, after you meet your deductible.

The higher dosages in prescription meds might be what you need to kick your symptoms. A doctor might double, triple, or even quadruple your dose, or advise you to take a combination of antihistamines and decongestants, says Neil Kao, an allergist in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.

“When you go the doctor, you might say, ‘Well, I took Claritin, and it didn’t work,'” Kao says. “The doctor might say you need two—one in the morning, one at night. You might say, ‘The box says one.’ Well, that’s why I went to medical school!”

Also, while prescription generic Nasacort nasal spray costs more—typically $50 to $75 a bottle—and prescription generic Flonase costs less—usually $12 to $17—the prescription versions could be a better deal than over-the-counter versions if you have a low co-pay, Davis says. Talk to your doctor and check your plan.

Allergy testing: $30 to $275

Once you’ve spent serious money on allergy medicine, you may want to know if you’re on the right track, Kao says. Are you sneezing because there’s pollen in the air, or because you have a cold, or because your cat is shedding his winter coat? With a simple skin test, an allergist can determine what, if anything, you are allergic to.

According to HealthSparq, a health costs transparency firm, an office visit with an allergist typically runs $200 to $300 before insurance. Those estimates are based on insurer-negotiated prices on claims filed in Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Idaho.

From there, the cost of the allergy tests can vary from $30 to $275, and even as high as $4,000, depending on the type and number of tests given, according to HealthSparq. Pro tip: 77% of large employers offer a price transparency tool, according to Mercer, so you can get your own individualized price estimate.

Immunotherapy: $15 to $20 a session

After you know what you’re allergic to, allergy shots are another treatment option. Here’s how it works: Your allergist uses a skin test to decide which allergens to put in your shots, which slowly expose you to your allergens to get your immune tolerance back up to normal, Kao explains.

Kao recommends shots for sufferers with moderate to severe allergies who either do not get enough relief from medications or who do not want to take medications any longer. “Statistically, [shots] help about 90% of well-selected people,” Kao says.

HealthSparq estimates that it typically costs $15 to $20 a visit before insurance kicks in, but could be as high as $170 a visit, depending on your course of treatment.

However, Kao says that in the long term, allergy shots pay for themselves. Think of the money you won’t be spending on over-the-counter medications, prescriptions, antibiotics for sinus infections, and doctor’s visits. “That’s all money saved,” Kao says.

EpiPens: $450 to $500 for a two-pack

Pollen means something else for people with bee sting allergies: It’s time to carry an EpiPen again. EpiPens—or epipnephrine auto-injectors—provide immediate relief to anyone suffering from anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal allergic reaction. The pen is inserted into the middle of the thigh while a patient awaits professional medical attention.

Unfortunately, the price of EpiPens have increased significantly in the past several years. Davis of GoodRX Blog estimates a two-pack could run about $450 to $500 before insurance.

Coupons can help. At EpiPen.com you can apply for discounted epinephrine pens. Many patients with private health insurance can get the EpiPen two-pack for free, and everyone else can get $100 off, says Davis.

Alternately, you can get a generic epinephrine pen for $250 to $300, but you’ll need to ask your doctor to write a prescription specifically for the generic, Davis says.

Update: This article was updated to indicate the correct use of an EpiPen.

MONEY College

When a Two-Year College Degree Pays Off

Dental hygienist
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

You generally do better with a four-year degree, but sometimes a quicker diploma can launch you on the road to success.

Steven Polasck of Corpus Christi, Texas, liked math and science in high school. He considered attending a four-year college but ultimately decided to use his strengths to get a two-year degree in instrumentation from Texas State Technical College. He has not looked back.

“I went to work on the Monday after graduation,” said Polasck, 27, who monitors and fixes systems at a Valero Energy Corp refinery. “The first year I made almost $80,000.”

An associate’s degree has long been considered an inferior alternative to a bachelor’s degree. Now that more states are tracking their graduates’ incomes, however, it is becoming apparent that some two-year degrees offer much higher earnings than the typical four-year degree—at a fraction of the cost.

Making more students and parents aware of these better-paying options could help ease the college affordability crisis, which has so far led to more than $1 trillion in student loan debt.

The average net annual cost of a community college education—for tuition, fees, room and board, minus financial aid—is just under $6,000, according to the College Board. The average undergraduate at a four-year public college pays twice that amount out of pocket, and most students attending a public school now take five or more years to complete their degrees.

The fact that people still think a bachelor’s degree is always the better option is probably due to popular charts that hang in many high school guidance counselor offices, said Michael Bettersworth, vice chancellor and chief policy officer for Texas State Technical College, which has nearly 30,000 enrolled students.

The “chart” is a graphic representation of earnings by educational attainment, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing professional degrees at the top, bachelor’s degrees in the middle and associate’s degrees just above high school diplomas.

Median weekly earnings for those with bachelor’s degrees last year reached $1,101, or $57,252 a year, compared to $792, or $41,184 annually, for those with an associate’s degree, according to BLS.

But the chart fails to capture the full range of salaries earned by those with two-year degrees, particularly those in technical fields, Bettersworth said.

“It’s far more important what you study than how much you study,” he said.

While the average starting salary for somebody with a bachelor’s degree in Texas is around $40,000 per year, many technical associate’s degrees offer first-year pay of more than $70,000, according to College Measures, which tracks earnings and other outcomes for higher education.

Some well-paying jobs require less than two years of study. A line worker certification, a requisite for working on electrical power lines, takes about a year and brings an average starting salary of $70,000, Bettersworth said.

Texas is one of the states that has been gathering income data as a way to gauge and improve the success of its public college graduates. Other states conducting similar studies include Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The earnings advantage of some two-year degrees can persist throughout a worker’s lifetime. More than one in four people with associate’s degrees end up making more than the average of somebody with a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2011 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workplace.

Four of the 30 fastest-growing job categories according to BLS require associate’s degrees. The jobs include dental hygienist (median annual earnings of $70,210), diagnostic medical sonographers ($65,860), occupational therapy assistants ($53,240) and physical therapist assistant ($52,160).

Other jobs with strong growth and above-average pay that require two-year degrees are funeral service managers ($66,720), web developers ($62,500), electrical and electronics drafters ($55,700), nuclear technicians ($69,060), radiation therapists ($77,560), respiratory therapists ($55,870), registered nurses ($65,470), cardiovascular technologists and technicians ($52,070), radiologic technologists ($54,620), and magnetic resonance imaging technologists ($65,360).

Polasck said it is not unusual for experienced people with his type of degree to make up to $150,000 a year with “reasonable” amounts of overtime. Job prospects are good even with declining oil prices, since refineries produce gas and other byproducts regardless of prevailing prices.

“If I can go to this school for two years, and not be in much debt at all at the end, and be making pretty good money to start, why wouldn’t I do that?” Polasck said. “It’s common sense.”

MONEY couples and money

How to Get Your Tightwad Spouse to Loosen Up

fingers untying change purse
Chris Gash

If you've ever felt frustrated by your partner's frugality, try these 4 tactics for untying the family purse strings.

Lauren Greutman’s couponing began as a practical way to trim her family’s household budget, but the Oswego, N.Y., mom’s mission to save quickly escalated to the point where she wouldn’t buy anything that wasn’t at a deep discount. “I went overboard,” she now admits.

Her husband, Mark, concurs—and says he frequently felt frustrated by her frugality. “There were many eye-roll moments,” he recalls not too fondly.

Perhaps you can empathize? When one spouse is more anxious than the other about spending, marital discord over money is pretty common. In fact, one study found that “tightwads” tend to marry “spendthrifts”—and those couples are 23% more likely to fight about money. “Everyday spending decisions can gnaw at them,” says study co-author Scott Rick, a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. If your partner is economical to a fault, use these tips to pry open the wallet.

1. Find out what fuels the fire. Rather than passing judgment (again) on your spouse’s stinginess, discover what’s driving it. Break the ice with, “Honey, I’ve noticed that you are very conscious about our spending. Tell me what concerns you.” Is it a fear of going broke? Patterns learned as a kid? A countermeasure to your overspending? “The reason doesn’t necessarily justify the behavior, but if you can understand the fear or goal, you may be able to find a more agreeable way to address it,” says Brad Klontz, a psychologist in Lihue, Hawaii.

2. Look at the bigger picture. While you may never see eye-to-eye on spending, you’re likely to value similar financial goals, like retiring at 65 or going on vacation. From this common ground, analyze your finances to gain perspective on what’s rational (or not) when it comes to purchasing. “You can see where you have room for improvement or relaxation,” says Ed Coambs, a marriage counselor in Charlotte. Seeing where you stand may convince your spouse that spending $10 on lunch or $10,000 on a renovation isn’t apocalyptic—or may convince you that it is.

3. Request free rein day to day. Keep yourself from feeling hamstrung by your partner’s rules by asking him or her to allow you a splurge limit—say, $200 a month or 5% of each paycheck. That way you have limited license to spend as you wish, no questions asked.

4. Put a price on penny pinching. At the same time, help your frugal spouse do a cost-benefit analysis of his or her deal hunting. You might show how driving around to gas stations to save 3¢ a gallon actually wastes money. Or help your partner assess the hourly wage of cost cutting, as Lauren now does with couponing. “If I spend two hours a week and save $50,” she says, “then I feel it was worth my time.”

More Love & Money:
How to Tell If Combining Finances With Your Partner Is a Bad Idea
A Simple Rule for Raising Unspoiled Kids
How Well Do You Know Your Spouse’s Financial Habits?

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine and the author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. Her new podcast So Money features intimate interviews with leading entrepreneurs, authors and influencers. Visit SoMoneyPodcast.com.

MONEY Health Care

The Danger Lurking in Your Medical Bills

Claire Benoist

Medical billing errors are more common—and more costly—than you might think. Here's how to give your bills a checkup.

Odds are, there’s a mistake in the medical bill that’s in your mailbox. A recent NerdWallet analysis of 2013 hospital audits by Medicare found that an average 49% of bills contained errors, and that some medical centers messed up on more than 80% of claims to Medicare.

Such errors now matter more than ever to consumers: Greater health insurance cost sharing means that a mistake can take serious money out of your pocket. “If you’re responsible for the first $5,000 or $10,000 of your care, you’re going to want to be more attentive,” says Stephen Parente, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management who studies health finance.

But billing errors can be tough to spot, and tougher to remedy. Disputes can go on for months, and if you don’t take the right steps, your account could be put into collections in the meantime—a recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that a whopping 52% of all debt on credit reports is due to medical bills. Follow these steps to ensure a clean bill of health:

Understand your bill

Step one is knowing exactly what you’re being charged for. Can’t tell from the bill? Ask the provider for an itemized statement, says Pat Palmer, CEO of Medical Billing Advocates of America, a professional organization that assists individuals and companies with medical costs and disputes. Doctors use standardized numerical “CPT” codes to categorize treatments, and you can Google the numbers to find out what they stand for.

Question discrepancies

If the price strikes you as high for the services rendered, “follow your gut and investigate,” says Mark Rukavina, principal at Community Health Advisors, a hospital consultancy. Your insurer may offer an online price transparency tool. If not, try Guroo.com, a website that shows the average cost by area for 70 non-emergency diagnoses and procedures. A big discrepancy suggests that you should start asking questions.

Next, compare the bill to the explanation of benefits you get from your insurer. If these differ on the amount you owe, that can be another red flag, says Erin Singleton, chief of mission delivery at the nonprofit Patient Advocate Foundation.

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Diagnose errors

Even if you don’t have sticker shock, give your invoice a close read. Some common mistakes can be easy to spot. They include services that weren’t performed, tests that were canceled, and duplicate charges, says Kevin Flynn, president of HealthCare Advocates.

Palmer says one of the more frequent errors she sees is providers charging patients separately for things that are supposed to be under one umbrella, such as a tonsillectomy and adenoid removal. Ask your provider about this if you are billed item by item for something that might be one procedure.

Remedy the problem

When you spot an error, ask the billing department to start a formal dispute. Put your concerns in writing. Include any documentation you have and request that the provider support its claim as well, says Palmer. Also, notify your insurer, which can be a good ally if the company will be on the hook for part of the charge.

Typically you don’t have to pay disputed charges until the investigation is complete, but do pay the rest of the bill. And always respond promptly to billing communications so that charges aren’t sent to collections. That’s a very real risk; one in five credit reports is married by medical debt, with an average of $579 in collections. Fortunately, relief is on the way—the three major credit agencies recently agreed to institute within the next few years a 180-day grace period before adding medical debt to credit reports (now there is no official grace period) and to remove debt from a report if the insurer pays the bill.

Rukavina says that, with persistence, you should be able to resolve most disputes on your own. But if you’ve been fighting to no avail for more than a month or so, consider hiring a medical billing advocate to work on your behalf. Find one via billadvocates.com or claims.org. You’ll likely pay an hourly rate starting at around $50 or a fee of about 30% of what you’ll save. But that could be pocket change compared with what you’d owe otherwise, not to mention what a ding to your credit score could cost you.

Read Next: The Debt You Don’t Know You Have

MONEY Health Care

You May Still Have Time To Avoid the Health Law’s Tax Penalties

The tax-filing deadline may have passed, but it's not necessarily too late to get around the penalty for going without health insurance last year.

Even though the April 15 tax filing deadline has passed, you might be eligible for some health law-related changes that may save you money down the road.

•If you owed a penalty for not having health insurance last year and didn’t buy a plan for 2015, you may still be able to sign up for a marketplace plan, even though the open enrollment period ended Feb. 15. Many people who didn’t have insurance and didn’t realize that coverage is required under the law are eligible for a special enrollment period to buy a plan by April 30. If you sign up now, you’ll have coverage and avoid the 2015 penalty, which will be the greater of $325 or 2% of your household income.

•If you paid the penalty for not having insurance for some or all of last year and didn’t carefully check to see if you might have qualified for an exemption, it’s not too late. You can still apply for an exemption from the requirement by amending your 2014 tax return. It’s worth looking into since the list of exemptions is a long one. For example, if your 2014 income is below the filing threshold of $10,150—or $20,300 for a married couple—you don’t owe a penalty for not having coverage. Likewise if insurance would cost more than 8% of your income or if you’ve suffered financial hardships like eviction or bankruptcy.

•In February, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that 800,000 tax filers who received a federal subsidy to help pay their insurance premium and used the federal health insurance marketplace received incorrect 1095-A tax forms. These forms reported details about the advance premium tax credit amounts that were paid to insurers based on the consumers’ estimates of income. They were then used to reconcile those payments against how much consumers should have received.

If you filed your taxes based on information that was incorrectly reported by the government on the form, you generally don’t have to file an amended tax return even IF you would owe more tax. But you may want to at least recalculate your return, says Tara Straw, a health policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“You have the option to amend if it helps you,” she says. Unfortunately, the only way to figure that out may be to do the math on the tax form 8962 that you use to reconcile your income.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

MONEY money well spent

The Best $25 Gift I Ever Gave

pedicure illustration
Mark Matcho

It was just a simple pedicure, but its impact still resonates.

In 2007 there was little money could buy that distracted me from the central drama in my life: My husband was undergoing treatment for leukemia. That June my sister, Ann, drove from her home in Vermont to mine in New Jersey to entertain my 12-year-old daughter, Becky, so I could spend the weekend in Joe’s Manhattan hospital room. When I returned home, I wanted to offer a token of thanks. “Let’s get pedicures,” I said. “My treat.”

I expected Ann’s usual balking about any gift, large or small. Instead her answer caught me by surprise. “I’ve never had a pedicure,” she said.

Eureka! I drove Ann and Becky to my favorite nail salon and murmured a message to the proprietor: My sister is a pedicure virgin. Please, give her the best. After the three of us selected our polish, Ann and Becky were shown to the pedicure chairs at the back of the salon. I, meanwhile, settled on the bench, turning on my iPod to drown out my heartache as I waited for a chair.

Eventually, I noticed the owner at the cash register, and unplugged my music to go pay. That’s when I heard a familiar voice: “Oh, my God. This is heaven!” I looked down the row of chairs and there was my sister writhing in ecstasy. When I caught Ann’s eye, she shrieked my nickname. “Meus! I can’t believe how good this feels! Why didn’t anyone tell me? Oh, my… God…” There’s no other way to describe this: My baby sister was having a pedi orgasm. Her delighted cries had everyone in stitches. The staff. The clients. My daughter. And now, for the first time in months, me.

The bill for my sister’s pedicure was $25, plus tip. That modest tab would prove a gift that kept giving—for me. The following year, at age 49, Ann was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She leavened her chemo treatments with salon pedicures. Late in the summer of 2010, confined to bed, she called to say she was looking forward to her daughter giving her a pedicure. A few days later, 14 months after my husband’s death, Ann died.

Now, whenever I settle into one of the cushy chairs in my favorite nail salon, I close my eyes and hear my sister: “Meus! I can’t believe how good this feels!” Each time, every time, I smile.

Jill Smolowe is the author of the memoir Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief, and other books. Do you have a purchase you consider Money Well Spent? Email us about it and what it means to you at wellspent@moneymail.com.

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