How to Keep Your Dental Costs Low

Health, Medical Costs
How to Keep Your Dental Costs Low

Avoiding dental care because of the cost can backfire, resulting in a big bill and lot of pain later.

Between 40% and 60% of Americans don’t go to the dentist as often as they should, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although many cite anxiety or fear, cost is the largest reason: The CDC reports that while 10% of Americans forgo dental care due to fear or anxiety, 42% do so because of cost.

You don’t have to be one of them. There are several ways to save money on dental care, and some may surprise you.

Dental insurance and dental savings plans

Because many employers don’t offer dental benefits, whether to buy dental insurance is often a personal choice. “If you need just two cleanings a year, I would suggest you look at the costs of those procedures and compare them to what dental insurance would be,” says Robin Gelburd, president of  Fair Health, a cost-lookup website that provides local estimates of dental and medical costs. Those costs may be similar to the costs of a plan, she says, but you still may come out ahead with dental insurance.

And if you haven’t been to the dentist in a while, or you’re having pain, chances are you’ll need more than routine cleanings, like some X-rays or deep gum cleanings. Unlike health insurance, which has specific open enrollment periods, you can sign up for dental insurance any time of the year. You may have to agree to a one-year commitment with a dental plan to get the lowest price, which is typically around $15 to $30 per month per family member, depending on your location.

While dental insurance can save some people money, others will find it’s not always a good deal. An alternative to dental insurance is a dental savings plan, which is like a dental membership club. In these plans, you pay an annual fee, usually much lower than the annual cost of dental insurance. Dentists who participate in the plan give you a 10% to 60% discount, though you pay more at the visit than you would with dental insurance.

Your traditional health insurance may not cover dental care, but you can pay the dentist with a health savings account or flexible spending arrangement. Using your HSA or FSA on dental care saves on taxes, and if yours has a debit card, it’ll feel like you’re not spending anything at all.

If you have Medicaid, it probably covers only the kids in your family. Adult Medicaid recipients in some states do receive dental benefits, but each state’s program is different. However, kids covered by the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program and children of Medicaid recipients are covered for dental care. Check your state’s Medicaid website for more information.

Free or low-cost dental care

Because preventive dental care is so important, there are a lot of free or low-cost services at community clinics or charity events for people of all ages.

  • Dental schools provide discounted care for those at any income level, in most cases. Check online for a dental school in your area, and don’t worry — dental students are always supervised by licensed dental instructors.
  • Dentists often volunteer at community clinics; you can search for one here.
  • Dental Lifeline provides support for medically fragile adults, such as the elderly and those with several chronic conditions.
  • America’s Tooth Fairy is a reduced-cost dental service for kids.
  • The American Dental Association has a resource page for children’s dental care, including a tool that finds discounted care in your area.

Work with your dentist

Just as with medical care, a little prevention goes a long way in avoiding big dental bills. Taking good care of your teeth at home includes brushing twice and flossing once per day, according to the American Dental Association. Preventive care also includes routine cleanings and checkups with your dentist every three to 12 months, depending on what he or she thinks you need.

But even when it comes to routine care, dentists’ fees vary, and going to a higher-cost dentist will add up in out-of-pocket costs. You can use a tool like Fair Health to look up the average and expected costs of most dental services so you know what the reasonable charges are in your area.

Don’t be afraid to talk with your dentist and the staff about costs when you are making the appointment and again when you get there. “While it’s changing, many people still don’t feel comfortable having conversations with their providers about cost,” Gelburd says. “There’s sort of an assumption that cost is not part of the dialogue when it comes to care, but it should be.”

If you have a costly procedure coming up, such as a root canal, be sure to talk to the dentist’s staff ahead of time about payment options. Some may be willing to lower the price if you agree to pay in a certain time frame.

If you find yourself dealing with a dentist whose prices are above the local range and who won’t work with you, treat it as you would any other financial decision and take your business elsewhere.

Lacie Glover is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: lacie@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @LacieWrites.