Image: Woman with paperwork © Big Cheese Photo, Jupiterimages

You goofed. You just found a credit card bill tucked into your car's sun visor -- and it's due today. You neglected to file your tax return, and you're afraid to fess up to Uncle Sam. You got nailed for your lead-footed driving, and you're worried that the other shoe will drop when your insurance bill arrives.

These and other financial screw-ups can result in a hit to your credit rating as well as your pocketbook. But it often takes only a little effort to make things right.

Your best strategy is to come clean: Pick up the phone and call the people you've slighted. In most cases, you'll get a sympathetic ear and a reprieve.

Pay up at the 11th hour

Steven Cowen lifted a stack of papers on his desk in La Jolla, Calif., and discovered at the bottom a credit card bill that was due in a few hours. Fortunately, card issuers are usually just as eager to collect your money as you are to avoid credit-rating purgatory, so there are plenty of ways to pay at the last minute.

To avoid a black mark, Cowen called his MasterCard issuer, USAA, and arranged to make an electronic payment from his bank account. "They verified my identity and set up my checking account in their system, and now I can pay electronically either by phone or online in a matter of seconds," says Cowen, a financial adviser.

Delivering a check in person to the bank that issued your card is also a fine option for procrastinators. You won't incur any penalties, and you get the assurance of handing your money to a warm body.

If there's no bank branch nearby, call the number on the back of your card and ask about paying by phone or online. As long as you can transfer the funds by phone from a checking account with the same bank, you're in the clear.

Arranging to transfer money by phone from an account at another bank can be more cumbersome. And some banks charge a fee when you pay by phone. But with many banks now encouraging that services be done on the Internet, most will now let you pay online from any checking account without charge.

Setting up automatic payments guarantees you won't miss a deadline in the future.

Make Uncle Sam your friend

Death and taxes may be the only certainties in life, but each year millions of people try to avoid the inevitable by not bothering to file a tax return -- even when they're owed money. In March, the Internal Revenue Service reported that nearly 1.1 million people who were owed refunds for 2007 had forfeited $1.1 billion because they had failed to file a return for that year.

If you still owe the IRS a return for 2009 or earlier, get a copy of that year's Form 1040 and determine whether the feds owe you a refund. If so, you have three years to claim it, and you won't be charged a penalty. The process is similar if you filed a return but missed claiming a deduction in the past three years. "You just have to file an amended return," says Janie Strasser, a certified public accountant in Spokane, Wash.

If you owe taxes for a year in which you failed to file, you'll need to settle up. "It's always better if you make the first move," says Greg Rosica, a tax partner with accounting company Ernst & Young. Penalties accrue at a rate of 5% per month, up to 25%, and you'll also owe interest. If you filed a return but didn't make your payment, you should already be receiving bills. In that case, you'll incur a penalty of 0.5% a month, up to 25%, plus interest.

Coming clean may just work in your favor. John Bowen, a financial planner in Midlothian, Va., once advised a client who hadn't filed a tax return in four years and had just received a bill from the IRS for $140,000.