According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, around 108 million Americans go without dental insurance during any given year. And since paying the full weight of dental care is often out of the question for those living on low incomes, many people simply choose to go without or get by with as few cleanings and check-ups as they possibly can.
However, if you do have out-of-pocket funds with which to pay, you already know how quickly cleanings, fillings, and basic dental care can take a bite out of your budget. After all, a typical dental filling can cost anywhere from $100 to $200, a cleaning can cost upwards of $200, braces can cost $5,000 to $6,000, and so on.
Obviously, one of the easiest ways to save on dental care is to have a dental insurance policy for your family. The bad news is, many employers don't offer dental coverage to their employees, even at a cost, and the dental plans commonly sold on the open insurance market can be of questionable value.
The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, provided some relief in this respect. According to HealthCare.gov, “dental coverage for children is an essential health benefit.” Unfortunately, the law only extended this benefit so far, making it so that dental coverage for children was available if you wanted to buy it, but not making it mandatory.
8 ways to save money on dental bills
The bottom line: At the end of the day, a lot of us are completely on our own when it comes to paying for dental care for ourselves and our children. Here are some of the ways those of us without dental insurance have learned to save money on dental bills:
1. Open a Health Savings Account (HSA)
Health savings accounts were created so that individuals with high-deductible health insurance plans could save for their own medical expenses in a tax-advantaged way. To qualify, you need to have a high-deductible health insurance plan to begin with, which the IRS defines as a plan with a deductible higher than $1,300 for an individual and $2,600 for a family. The annual contribution limit for your HSA is $3,350 for an individual and $6,650 for a family, and your money grows tax-free until you need to use it for qualified medical or dental expenses.
2. Use flexible spending dollars
If your employer offers a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), you can fund it with pretax dollars and use that money for dental care. However, it is crucial that you take special care not to overfund your account. If your FSA funds lapse or expire each year and you cannot roll them over, you will likely end up losing money. Instead of taking that chance, only fund your FSA with money you know you can use — for example, enough money to pay for each family member to have two cleanings for an entire year.
3. Go to a dental school
If you are willing to be someone's guinea pig, you can save a ton of money on dental care by becoming a volunteer patient at an accredited dental school. Students at these schools work under the supervision of licensed dentists, so you are guaranteed to receive high-quality work at a discounted price. Your procedure may take longer this way, but the savings could definitely be worth it.
4. Pick a dentist with a payment plan
Some dental offices offer discount plans for families that include annual cleanings and X-rays, along with discounts on fillings and other procedures that may be required down the line. The only caveat with these plans is that they usually need to be paid up front, which can present a challenge for families who are struggling to pay dental bills to begin with.
5. Visit a retail dental clinic
According to the California Health Care Association, retail dental clinics are helping to fill the gap by offering low-cost, convenient care in neighborhoods, strip malls, and drug stores. Under this model, clinics “offer a limited set of clearly priced, high-quality services delivered by oral health professionals in a low-cost facility located inside a high-traffic retail outlet.” Whether you are shopping around for routine care or a specific procedure, it might pay to check out a retail dental clinic such as Gentle Dental, Aspen Dental, or Pacific Dental Care.
6. Search for coupons and discounts
Depending on where you live, you might be able to secure a discount with a local dentist that is trying to drum up business. Most often, those discounts come in the form of coupons you can find in mailers, newspapers, or direct mail. Coupons can be good for as much as 50 percent off a basic cleaning and X-rays, but they are usually only good for your first visit.
7. Buy a dental Groupon
Groupon isn't just for discounts on clothing and vacations; you can use Groupon to buy a discount dental coupon as well. Depending on where you live, you could even find Groupons for a full cleaning with X-rays for as low as $49. These coupons are usually only good for new customers, however, so dental Groupons shouldn't be part of any long-term dental savings plan.
8. Focus on preventive care
It is often said that dental care is not expensive, but neglect is. In other words, the easiest path toward lower dental costs is a good dose of preventive care. Not only does that include brushing and flossing frequently, but it also means paying for regular checkups that can catch problems early on. It may seem like avoiding the dentist altogether is the easiest way to save, but that strategy will probably only lead to even more expensive dental bills over time.
Almost no one enjoys going to the dentist or having dental work done, but it becomes even more painful when you are paying 100 percent of your dental expenses out of your pocket. Fortunately, a little planning, saving, and preventive care can go a long way to help you keep those pearly whites clean and healthy without breaking the bank.
Do you have dental insurance? What is your strategy when it comes to saving on dental bills?
Author: Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson is a credit card expert, award-winning writer, and mother of two who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting, and travel. In addition to serving as contributing editor for The Simple Dollar and writing for publications such as Bankrate, U.S. News and World Report Travel, and Travel Pulse, Johnson owns Club Thrifty and is the co-author of Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love.