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Sometimes, going to the dentist isn't about getting the perfect smile, it's about stopping the pain. Cavities, left untreated, can lead to severe toothaches. Infected gums make eating and drinking difficult. Going without treatment is literally agonizing, but treatment can get expensive.
For example, a root canal in Austin, Texas, could cost you around $1,600, according to health care data nonprofit FairHealth. In New York City, it could cost you upwards of $2,700. Plus, these prices might not account for every additional procedure you'd need if you go in for a root canal.
Because needed procedures can be so costly, you can often apply for a specialized dental credit card right in the dentist's office. They function like regular credit cards but can be used only for eligible medical purchases.
Should you apply for a dental credit card?
If you don't have the cash to cover a dental procedure, getting a dental credit card can make a tight financial situation even worse.
The medical credit card company CareCredit offers cards with promotional periods with 0% interest lasting anywhere between six and 24 months. As long as you pay off your balance before the promotional period ends, you won't have to pay interest. But with such an offer, also known as a deferred interest offer, interest isn't waived — it's just put off until later. If you don't pay the entire balance before the promotional period ends, you'll be on the hook for all of the interest — not just the interest on the remaining balance.
If you're absolutely sure that you can pay off the bill before the promotional period ends, taking out a dental credit card might be a good way to pay for your treatment. See our list of best credit cards for medical expenses here. But if there's any chance you won't be able to pay, consider other options first.
» READ: 3 medical debt mistakes to avoid
CareCredit also offers longer-term payment options with no introductory APR, but a reduced ongoing APR of 14.90% – 17.90%. This is a little cheaper than interest on many credit cards, but unless you have poor credit, you’ll probably get a better deal elsewhere.
Alternatives to dental credit cards
Before you schedule your dental procedure, ask your dentist if they offer any in-house payment plans or if they offer assistance to uninsured patients. If they say no, you might be able to find another dentist willing to give you a discount. You could also look into getting a procedure done at a dental school, where you'll often be able to get good care for a fraction of the price.
If you're still struggling to find the cash for a procedure, these options can help:
Cards with a true 0% introductory period
If you have good or excellent credit, you will probably be able to qualify for a credit card that offers waived interest on new purchases for a year or longer. Unlike the deferred interest you'd find on most medical cards, interest doesn't start to accrue on cards with waived interest until the introductory period is over. So if you're unable to pay off the entire bill before the promotional period runs out, you'll have to pay interest only on whatever is leftover.
Payment plans through your card issuer
If you already have a credit card through Chase, American Express or Citi, you might be eligible for a payment plan through your issuer. You'll be able to pay your bill off over time with set monthly payments, and instead of accruing interest, you'll be charged a small monthly fee.
If you have certain American Express credit cards, for instance, you have access to Pay It® and Plan It® options. Using the Plan It® feature, you can finance purchases over $100, and you'll have a choice between three different payment lengths. Each month your purchase is under this financing plan, you'll be charged a small fee based on your credit card's APR (for example, if your card has an APR of 14.99%, you'd have a monthly fee of up to 0.66%). Terms apply.
If you can't qualify for a card with a 0% APR period, the Upgrade Cash Rewards Visa® offers a unique solution. At the end of the month, your balance is turned into an installment plan with monthly payments and a fixed interest rate. You might get better terms elsewhere, but the monthly payments can make budgeting easier and keep your debt from spiraling out of control.
If you can't access financing through your dentist's office and you've exhausted your credit card options (or you can only qualify for a card with a high interest rate), a personal loan could help you pay for your dental care. Once you're approved, you'll receive a lump sum of money, which you'll need to pay back in monthly installments. You might be able to get a better interest rate on a personal loan compared to a credit card, but this option is a good idea only if you can comfortably afford the monthly payments.
» MORE: Best medical loans
Less painful payments
Oral health too often comes at the price of financial wellness, but it doesn't have to be that way. If you're on a tight budget, small preventive measures can help you steer clear of giant bills (and tooth pain) down the road. Instead of going to the dentist only when something hurts, seek preventive treatment. If you don't have insurance that covers this, look for coupons online for discounted teeth cleanings. These regular visits can improve your oral health and help you detect problems before they require expensive procedures.