I didn’t know how expensive dental care could be until we moved to Florida five years ago. I took advantage of a $69 “new patient special” that included x-rays, cleaning and an exam.
Then the dentist entered the room with a list of what I needed done. It came to about $6,200. With no insurance I had no intention of spending that much on my teeth. Read the rest of this article to see what I did instead.
When I was younger I drove an hour in order to go to the cheapest dentist. He also gave me a discount for not using anesthetic when I had fillings done (true story). Fortunately there are less painful ways to save on dental care. Here are some of them…
1. Visit Dental Care Events
Dentistry From the Heart is an organization that provides free dental care around the world. In the U.S. they do this in various cities around the country, with dentists and dental hygienists from the surrounding communities volunteering.
Sometimes these are large-venue events where thousands of people are treated in the course of a day or weekend. You can get a free exam, cleaning, extraction, or other dental procedure. Check Dentistry From the Heart’s calendar of upcoming events to see if there is one near you.
2. Go to Dental Colleges
Dental schools need patients so their students can learn and develop their skills. Dentist trainees are supervised closely by licensed dentists, of course. What you get out of the arrangement is inexpensive dental care.
For example, the College of Dentistry at Ohio State University has dental clinics where “services often cost half of the Columbus average.” They say your visit may last longer than at a traditional dental office, but they do offer a full range of services, including crowns, fillings, implants, braces, whitening, and more.
There are more than 60 dental schools in the U.S. Check a state-by-state list of dental schools to find the nearest one.
3. Try Other Dental Training Programs
You can often get inexpensive or even free services from schools that train dental hygienists and dental assistants. For example, I once received free x-rays thanks to a dental assisting program at a community college in Michigan.
I was able to take them with me to my dentist, saving me the cost of having them done there. You can also get inexpensive teeth cleaning from dental hygienists in training.
The American Dental Association has a search tool for dental programs that includes dental assisting and hygienist programs. Once you locate programs near you, call to see what they offer and how much they charge.
4. Go to Dental Clinics
In many communities there are dental clinics where low-income patients can go for free or at reduced rates. To find one near you check the listings on FreeDentalCare.us.
You can also check online for free or sliding-scale medical clinics near you. Some of these offer dental care. If they do not do dental work at the clinic they might refer you to dentists who have agreed to provide free or reduced-fee services.
5. Use Coupons
I regularly get coupons in the mail from dentists, but you can also find them on Valpak.com. Search by zip code or city name for coupons in general, or narrow the results by adding “dentist” to your search.
I just searched “dentist Tucson” (where I live) on Valpak, and I found several good results, including a “New Patient Offer” of $48 for an exam, x-rays and cleaning. The coupons can be printed, and some dentists may allow you to just show it to them on your smartphone.
I’ve seen “three-service” offers like these go as low as $29 in Florida (where we used to live) during the off-season (summer). The best coupons are only for new patients, but if you live in a large enough city you could keep changing dentists.
6. Make a Deal
The Street reports a rise in the incidence of barter in health care in general, including dental care. Examples include a man who traded his website designing services for $1,000 in dental work.
Some dentists accept patients through formal networks like ITEX, getting paid in “barter dollars” rather than cash. A friend of mine traded painting and drywalling services for dental care.
If you have any skills that might be of use to your dentist, propose an exchange. To make the dentist more open to the idea offer to provide your goods and service first, and then receive the care.
7. Use Your FSA
If your employer provides a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) and you have money in it, use it to pay for your dental care. Thee accounts are funded with pre-tax dollars, so you effectively save whatever you would have paid in taxes on the money.
Before you go to the dentist check the government’s list of included services to be sure your visit will qualify. Teeth whitening, for example, cannot be paid for with FSA funds.
8. Use Your HSA
A Health Savings Account (HSA) is similar to a FSA. According to the IRS you can set one up if you have a high deductible health insurance policy. You fund it with pre-tax dollars. If you have a plan for just you the limit on contributions is currently $3,350.
You can use your HSA money to pay for any dental work that is considered a deductible expense under the rules laid out in IRS publication 502.
You won’t save a lot by paying with an HSA or FSA account. If you’re income is taxed at the 15% rate, for example, that’s how much you save. On the other hand, this strategy can be combined with others. For example, you can use a coupon and pay the bill using the pre-tax dollars from your account.
9. Use Online Reviews
Reviews of dentists will give you clues about their rates, but this isn’t the best way to use them. Instead use customer reviews to create a list of acceptable dentists, and then call the offices directly to ask about charges.
For example, on the Healthgrades.com dentistry directory click on your state and a city (try a few if they’re nearby). Use the ratings and patients’ comments to make a list of acceptable dentists. You’ll see many you’ll want to avoid.
Call the dentists on your list and ask about the cost of any specific treatment you need. If you’re just looking for a new dentist ask for their charges for a cleaning, an exam, and filling.
With this information you can safely choose one of the cheapest dentists because you’ve already excluded low-rated ones and others who aren’t right for you.
10. Ask About Alternatives
Dentists may not want to tell you about cheaper alternatives (imagine that). But if pressed, some will offer you options.
For example, I was once told a wisdom tooth needed a root canal. When I pushed the doctor for less-expensive alternatives and he admitted that a much-cheaper simple extraction would be fine.
That was thirty years ago, and I’ve never missed the tooth. I’ve also read that root canals might be dangerous. Ask about cheaper (and possibly safer) alternatives. If your dentist has nothing to suggest, you might move on to our next suggestion…
11. Get a Second Opinion
Five years ago I was told I needed $6,200 in dental work done. It was all laid out for me in the form of detailed treatment plan with payment options included.
If you go to a corporate dentist with a “new patient” coupon you’re likely to see one of these expensive treatment plans. Instead of going along with the plan I waited six months and went to another dentist.
He told me to floss more frequently. That seemed to do the trick, and I haven’t had any serious dental problems in the years since. The savings from a second opinion? Over $6,000 in this case.
12. Use Corporate Dentists Wisely
About five years ago my wife and I went through many dentists in a fairly short time period. We left some, moved and found new ones, and even got kicked out of one dental office (they hate it when you refuse to pay for work they did wrong).
Along the way we learned about the important differences between corporate and private-practice dentists. In corporate practices the dentists are employees, and their bosses demand they meet quotas and profit goals.
This explains some of the expensive dental treatment plans we’ve had put in front of us. We also discovered how difficult it can be to dispute a charge when the dentist who does the work doesn’t have the authority to make any monetary decisions.
Corporate dental practices can have lower prices, and even the best “new patient specials.” So you might want to go to a corporate dentist using a coupon, as a way to get a cheap check-up and cleaning.
On the other hand, you may not want a corporate dentist as your regular dentist. Even if the pricing is theoretically lower, our experience is that corporate dentists are less flexible about offering cheaper alternatives and they often push for more treatment than you need.
It’s also just a lot more comfortable to talk to the owner of a practice when discussing treatment and payment options.
13. Leave the Country
Dental tourism has become a common way to save money for people living near the Mexican border. Los Algodones, near Yuma, Arizona, is one of the most popular destinations, but there are others.
In Nogales, an hour south of my home here in Tucson, there are many dentists who cater to U.S. customers. How much can you save if you live near the border? That depends on the procedure and where you would have had it done in the U.S.
But, for example, the Dental Laser Nogales website says you can save 50% to 75% on a tooth extraction. And if you don’t have insurance, you can get a free diagnosis and x-rays. Their other products and services include implants, braces, veneers and crowns.
14. Buy Dental Insurance
Buying dental insurance can save you money if you know you’ll be facing a lot of dental care expenses in the near future. Just be sure you can wait for treatment until the policy is in effect, and verify that the care you need will be covered.
You can find hundreds of dental insurance plans listed on eHealth, but some of these are not insurance plans. Some are actually discount plans, which brings us to…
15. Get a Dental Discount Plan
Dental discount plans reduce the cost of various procedures and treatments at participating dentists. For example, Dental Care Advantage plans start at $5.95 per month and give you a discount of 15% to 55% on most dental services.
New Dental Choice says their plan ($8 per month) saves you 15% to 60%, and it’s accepted by 100,000 dentists. If you already have a dentist check to see which plans he or she accepts, or search your dentist by name on the websites of the various plan providers.
16. Participate in Clinical Trials
As a clinical trial participant you can get free care for a specific dental problem, possibly including the newest forms of treatment. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website lets you search for trials in which you can participate.
Of course, these are trials, so you might als have some risks, including the risk that the treatment simply doesn’t work.
17. Get Help From the Dental Lifeline Network
If your income is low enough, and you’re elderly, disabled, or “medically fragile,” you might qualify for free dental care through the Dental Lifeline Network.
Treatment is provided by volunteer dental professionals. On the state programs page click your state to see if applications are being accepted in your area.
18. Pay Cash Upfront
When my wife needed an expensive procedure done a dentist offered us a discount of hundreds of dollars if we paid cash. I’m not sure why he offered such a large discount, since we were paying in full by credit card in any case.
However, cash upfront does save a dentist some credit card processing fees, as well as fees and paperwork that come with various financing plans. So if you have the cash ask for a discount.
19. Get a Job With Dental Benefits
If you know you’re going to need a lot of dental work in the future, consider finding a job with health insurance benefits that include dental care. The advantage of getting insurance in this way is that employee plans do not normally exclude pre-existing conditions.
20. Use a Dental Payment Plan
There are many financing options for dental care. CareCredit, for example, offers zero-interest plans if you pay the balance within six months. Lending Club also has dental financing plans, with interest rates on extended-payment plans ranging from 3.99% to 24.99%.
And your dentist may already have an arrangement set up with a financing company. Of course, these plans only save you money if you’re otherwise going to pay for your dental care with a higher-interest-rate credit card.
21. Use a Cashback Credit Card
Sadly, “dental care” doesn’t seem to show up on any of those rotating 5% cash-back categories. But any good cash-back credit card, like the Citi Double Cash card (2% back), for example, will save you something.
You can also use your trip to the dentist as a way to meet the “spend” required for a credit card sign-up bonus. For example, a card might offer a $500 bonus if you to charge $3,000 on the card within 90 days — a tough requirement normally.
If you know you need a lot of dental work you can apply for a card like that and easily get the bonus. Cards with the best signup bonuses can be found listed on various websites.
22. Do Your Preventative Care
Taking care of your teeth and gums is perhaps the best way to save on dental care. Toothpaste and dental floss are cheap.
If you can add to this list, please comment below on what you do to keep your dental expenses low. Thanks for reading and happy frugaling!