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Guide to Paying for Dental Care: Credit Cards and Beyond

July 27, 2015
Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards
Guide to Paying for Dental Care: Credit Cards and Beyond
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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, throbbing gums make eating and drinking difficult. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you might turn to the next alternative presented — often, dental credit cards.

“The need for credit for dental patients is increasing,” says Dr. Matt Messina, a dentist and national spokesman for the American Dental Association. Even people with dental insurance find that procedures can quickly exceed the maximums, which are typically $1,000 to $1,500 after the deductible. Crowns, implants and dentures can run in the thousands. “Today, $1,500 doesn’t get you that far,” he notes.

For those without dental insurance — about 108 million U.S. adults, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration — lack of preventive care quickly leads to larger, more costly problems.

The downsides of dental credit cards

If your regular credit card limit is too low to finance a certain procedure and you don’t have the money in your emergency fund to cover it, getting another credit card — especially the one offered at your dentist’s office — can make a tight financial situation even worse. Here’s why:

You may end up paying more interest than you expected. Like many medical credit cards, this card touts its deferred interest plan to consumers as a low-cost financing option. You won’t owe interest if you pay within 6, 12, 18 or 24 months, depending on your terms. For more expensive procedures, you can pay a lower rate of 14.9% APR for 24, 36, 48 or 60 months.

Here’s the catch: if you take longer than that period of time to pay back your balance, you’ll have to pay months of back interest, as if the card had had an APR of 26.99% the whole time. If you’re struggling to pay for dental work at all, a few unexpected events could derail your repayment plan, and you could easily end up owing much more than you expected.

Your credit may take a hit. If you have a small income or a poor credit score, the limit assigned to you on a medical credit card may be low, making it easy to use too much of your available credit on a single, costly procedure. This could hurt your credit score.

You may be solving the wrong problem. If you can’t pay for a dental procedure, thinking about ways to access more credit may be your first impulse. But if you try looking for lower-cost care instead, you could save a lot more money and reduce your chances of over-borrowing and hurting your credit.

To be sure, there are times when paying with a credit card at the dentist’s office makes sense. If an expensive procedure on your card only uses up a small amount of your available credit, and if you can afford to pay off your balance at the end of the billing cycle, using plastic can be a convenience. But applying for a new credit card, especially one with high ongoing rates, because your dental costs are unmanageably expensive, generally isn’t a good idea.

» More: Check out NerdWallet’s best 0% and low-interest credit cards

Here are some ways you can save more on major dental work instead of paying with plastic:

1. Get dental work done at a discount

If you have a nagging dental problem, consider getting a procedure done at a dental school or a dental society. You’ll often be able to get quality care for a fraction of the price. Other times, dentists may be willing to give you a substantial discount if you pay in cash, or if you don’t have insurance. Some online price comparisons can also help you find more affordable options in your area.

Dr. Jaswinder Ghuman, a dentist who manages Blossom Dental in San Jose, Calif., notes that finding solutions for patients who are struggling to pay is part of the job. “I just help people when I can,” she says.

She offers a plan for people without insurance, which costs less than $200, covers basic preventive care and includes a 20% to 30% discount on dental procedures. Ask your dentist if he or she offers a similar alternative.

2. Ask your dentist about other financing options

If your dentist offers no-interest payment plans in house, with no deferred interest caveats, you may get more payment flexibility. These in-office plans usually aren’t reported to the credit bureaus unless you default on them, making them a less risky, less expensive way to take on medical debt. If you struggle to make a payment one month, you may be able to work out a new plan with your dentist; in contrast, if you couldn’t pay a credit card bill one month, it could damage your credit and cause your debt to balloon.

Before going trying a new dental practice, read reviews online to make sure the practice is reputable. Ask about whether payments are reported and make sure you understand the terms before signing any contract.

3. Invest in preventive care

Small preventive measures can help you steer clear of giant bills, and credit card balances, down the road. A filling may only cost about $100, for instance, but a root canal and crown could easily cost $3,000. Consider prioritizing a small procedure that could help you avoid a larger one, even if it’s expensive. Instead of going to the dentist only when something hurts, look for coupons online for discounted teeth cleanings. These regular visits can improve your oral health and help you detect problems early on.

Less painful payments

If you’re on a tight budget, dental credit cards can sometimes make things worse, not better. Instead of leaning on credit from the beginning, shop around and find a less expensive way to get the dental care you need, and negotiate until you find a solution. Oral health too often comes at the price of financial wellness, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Claire Davidson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @ideclaire7.

Image via iStock.