How to save money on dental bills

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?

More about...Health & Fitness, Frugality, Insurance

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Beth
Beth
5 years ago

I’m grateful to have dental coverage, especially because I’m one of those people who is prone to cavities (through no fault of my own — I’m into prevention!)

What I don’t have is eye coverage, which costs me more in two years than dental bills. A lot of these tips apply — thank you!

NicoleAndmaggie
NicoleAndmaggie
5 years ago

Be careful with #5– frontline did a documentary a few years back showing they over diagnose the need for expensive procedures.

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
5 years ago

Inexpensive ones too! Every time I go to Aspen I tell them I don’t need x-rays. “It’s time” = “We are at the point where we can bill your insurance this charge again.”

Thanks for this thought, it reminds me that I chose Aspen just because I was new to the area and now it is probably time to use the insurance I am fortunate enough to have for a better quality of care.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

Exactly! I posted my experiences with them in #21.

Rebecca@TheFamilyFinder
5 years ago

As far as preventative care goes I bought myself one a nicer quality electronic toothbrushes. My teeth have never been in better shape. We bought them for everyone in the family because the kids seem to do a better job with them. The dentist always comments on how clean our teeth are. After the initial investment, replacement heads are the only cost and we get coupons for them when we go to the dentist for checkups.

scott
scott
5 years ago

the adage in my practice is a toothbrush, toothpaste or rinse is only as good as it’s used….

personal preference is the sonicare as it definitely does a better job with the same effort (and gets between the teeth better)

Kim
Kim
5 years ago

Have a friend who is a dentist. 🙂 My husband needed some work, His best friend is an experienced dentist. He could trust in the diagnosis, work and received a tremendous discount. Now this was a one time emergency type thing that would have cost an astronomical amount so he won’t be doing that again. I actually wrote the first sentence in jest because that’s not really a viable option. Cheers.

Michael
Michael
5 years ago

I don’t have dental insurance and haven’t for probably 10 years; in doing the math, had I had insurance, I would have paid way more for the insurance than I would have received in benefits (and I’ve had 2 crowns in that time from 2 separate dentists). I use HSA funds which blunt the costs, but the biggest thing I would say is to ask for a “pay by cash” discount (which is just a general “life hack”). My dentist’s policy is to discount 10% if someone pays by cash/check, which on a simple cleaning or cavity fill saves $10-20.… Read more »

JoeM
JoeM
5 years ago

I was in college and my parents lost their job, so I lost their insurance. I went a good 4 years between cleanings after starting my first job after graduation and ended up with a few fillings and an onlay (sort of like a half crown). Expensive, but got me back on track with my oral hygiene. I used to be the kid who just brushed his teeth and never got cavities, but I’ve learned that has changed. I grudgingly floss so I don’t need to spend $40-70 per filling with insurance. Costs maybe $7 for a two pack from… Read more »

scott
scott
5 years ago
Reply to  JoeM

interestingly our mouth’s acidity and flora changes as we age.
as do our eating and drinking habits…..
i see a lot of college age kids getting their first cavities and i would definitely attribute it to sports drinks, alcohol and beer…..which are sugar ladden and low acidity! not to mention late night munchies and not necessarily the most balanced diets (seems to be an overload of carbs)

not an indictment joem, just an observation in my practice……

Christy
Christy
5 years ago

We have never had dental insurance, even with two kids. I made them brush, floss and rinse twice a day. Until they were married they never set foot into a dentist. Probably should have, we just could not afford it. The grade school had a dentist come in one time to look at all the kids and he recommended that both my kids get braces at a young age. We didn’t have the money, the kids grew up, went to their own dentist after getting married and neither one needed braces. My kids still have very good teeth, but I… Read more »

Tina
Tina
5 years ago
Reply to  Christy

Yes, FSA accounts allow up to $500.00 to be carried over to the next plan year but only if your employer approves that option. They can offer a grace period, carryover or neither. Your HR administrator would be able to provide this information during open enrollment. In addition, 2015 FSA accounts have been indexed to offer COLA(cost of living)increase from $2,500 to $2,550 but again not all employers are offering the increase this year due to IRS’ late release of this information. Most employers already had enrollment meetings when it was released. Keep in mind that if you are married… Read more »

Brian @ Luke1428
Brian @ Luke1428
5 years ago

We don’t currently have dental insurance but are using a dental discount plan through a company. You buy a yearly subscription to their service for $90 and it gives you discounts on your dental care. With four kids going twice a year that certainly helps.

JS
JS
5 years ago

Our dentist does not participate in any insurance plans, but they have an in-office insurance-like plan where you basically pay for a year’s worth of preventative care up front in a premium-like payment (it actually works out to slightly less if you add everything up) and then you can save 20-30% on any procedures (crowns, fillings, sealants, etc.).

Their win is of course once you pay the premium you are unlikely to change dentists and you’re more likely to go every six months.

Paul
Paul
5 years ago

I am retired military and I have Tricare Prime for medical and Tricare Dental. Believe it or not, but Tricare Dental costs more than twice what Tricare Prime does ($107.16 vice $46.32), and there is a $50 deductable per person ($150 limit), whereas co-pays for medical appointments are usually $12. I know I probably won’t get a lot of sympathy because of the low costs, but it’s the relative costs I’m trying to emphasize. Also please remember that many retirees were promised free medical for life, a promise that our government has not kept.

Jarrod
Jarrod
5 years ago

Is it safe?

scott
scott
5 years ago
Reply to  Jarrod

cruel reference marathon man!!!

dentistry today should be painless….once you get over the mental!!

scott
scott
5 years ago

first my disclaimer: i am a pediatric dentist. holly, you address several important issues and are pretty spot on! i would only emphasize that for children in particular #8 is point #1!! prevention of caries is really simple, unfortunately it is more complicated than just brush, floss and rinse. there is a strong genetic predisposition to cavities and particularly periodontal (gum) disease. DIET goes a long way also….not just sweets and ‘hidden’ sugars, but frequency of eating. carbohydrates (bread, pasta and even fruits and veggies) break down to their sugar components if left in the mouth on the teeth (hence… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
5 years ago
Reply to  scott

Many autoimmune diseases like Sjogren’s Syndrome, where little saliva is produced, lead to serious decay issues as well. And meds that dry your mouth lead to additional need for dental care.

Grupapfi
Grupapfi
5 years ago

Serious dental school? I don’t have time 😛 And time is cash 😛

Stephanie Hagen
Stephanie Hagen
5 years ago

Cannot stress flossing daily enough! Even with 6 month check-ups, my gums were bleeding until I started flossing daily. Now I love it and my check-ups are a breeze!

Suz
Suz
5 years ago

Years ago my husband got work done at a dental school for just the cost of supplies-big savings, especially since we had no dental coverage. The student who did his work is now a “dentist to the stars” in NYC, very well respected. Our current dentist & the one before him (now retired) said the work was exceptional. And when my brother & I were kids, we used the local university’s dental school for braces! We had to be “accepted” as cases that would be good for the student orthodontist to work on. Our parents had no money for braces-the… Read more »

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

Please be careful with “retail”/chain dental clinics. I’ve had nothing but bad experiences with them. I went once years ago for a cleaning and x-ray and was told that I needed 4 root canals. I never went back. Two years later I went to a so-called celebrity dentist (that had a great reputation); my insurance at the time happened to cover him. He told me I needed no such thing and all I had was one cavity. The same chain dental clinic prescribed my ex-husband a drug he was allergic to. It was under a different name so we didn’t… Read more »

Bella
Bella
5 years ago

There is so much wrong with this article, I’m not sure where to start. All medical plans on our ADA exchange automatically include dental for kids under 18. Groupon/coupons? seriously? Do you really trust your mouth (your smile?) to the cheapest bidder? Yea, its expensive, but going to a bad dentist could definitely be worse than not going at all. Dental insurance is a crock, great if your employer is footing the bill but otherwise you would need to have to have numerous crowns (not fillings) to ever break even on the premiums of private dental insurance. Root canals and… Read more »

Holly
Holly
5 years ago
Reply to  Bella

Do you mean ACA plans in your state?

Unfortunately, dental coverage is not included in all ACA plans. It has to be offered, but it isn’t initially included. You can read more about it here at healthcare.gov:

https://www.healthcare.gov/coverage/dental-coverage/

M
M
5 years ago

Agree with #3. I teach microbiology and anatomy & physiology to dental hygiene students in Ontario. Our students spent a lot of time training in our on-site clinic and in the classroom they’re put through a rigorous curriculum to be successful on their board exam. The clinic is supervised by a licensed dentist.
I wouldn’t hesitate to trust them with my oral care. And the clinic consult is about $20. Very affordable for families.

stellamarina
stellamarina
5 years ago

I am sure all states run special clinics too for low income people….do not have to be so poor to qualify….where you can get your teeth fixed for a low cost. Just need to inquire with State Health dept.

Surprised nobody mentioned going to a dentist overseas. A ticket to Thailand and a root canal there will still be cheaper than a root canal at home and you have a fun trip thrown in.

Tricia
Tricia
5 years ago

Our family (mom and 4 kids…Dad had dental insurance at work)went to a dental school for about 10 years, until we moved from the area, where we had cleanings, xrays and sealants done as needed. We saved literally thousands of dollars and never had one problem. Cleanings were $5, panoramic xrays $10 and sealants $5 per tooth. For the few cavities we had, we went to a family dentist (whose mom worked at the dental clinic, so he was happy to work with us). This is such a great option, and was a huge time and money saver. Although the… Read more »

Tamara
Tamara
5 years ago

We had dental insurance but unfortunately, it was DMO (priced the same as all the other options, we just picked a not-so-great option). By the time we decided to get teeth cleaning, we couldn’t find any practice in the neighborhood that were willing to accept DMO. All the practices we found through the DMO’s website were really hard to book (some of the dentists weren’t even practicing anymore). Even worse, the total amount we paid for the DMO was greater than the out of pocket cost for teeth cleaning. The only service we need is teeth cleaning! This year, we… Read more »

Lisa S
Lisa S
5 years ago

I’d highly recommend the book “Cure Tooth Decay” by Ramiel Nagel if you really want to prevent tooth problems (and even the need for braces!). I’ve never heard anything like it from a dentist but it has changed our family’s dental health.

Linda Vergon
5 years ago

(This comment came from Barbara, a reader of our daily newsletter.)

Go overseas to a dentist, if you need a lot of dental work.

Trevor
Trevor
5 years ago

This is great! For the longest time, my family and I found a cheap dental office that staffed by local college students who were in a local dental program. Yes – their experience was lacking, but we found the price to be absolutely worth it. So, my advice is to try to find something connected with a dental school in the area. You’ll find cheap options!

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