"Happiness is your dentist telling you it won't hurt and then having him catch his hand in the drill," said late-night talk show host and comedian Johnny Carson. This joke works because it implies karmic retribution for a dentist with no concern for his patient's comfort. But what about the real pain of dentistry: that cramping pain you feel in your wallet at the check-out counter -- a pain that lingers for months and even years after you leave the office? Perhaps Carson's joke should be revised to read: "Happiness is your dentist telling you your visit will be cheap and then having him break his $20,000 drill."
Jokes aside, dentistry doesn't have to be painful, at least not financially. Well, OK, maybe it'll hurt a little. That's because, unlike the price of a gallon of gas, which varies only 3 cents in a 10-mile radius, dental care spans a range from pricey to frugal, sometimes (illogically) for the same procedure.
Keep reading to discover how you can stay on the cheap side of your teeth.
Prevention, Prevention, Prevention
If you're reading these tips, then the advice to prevent cavities and tooth decay before they occur might be like telling someone to lock the barn door after the horse has run away. Still, in the long run, prevention -- including regular dental cleanings -- is far cheaper than the alternative.
The American Dental Association recommends brushing at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, flossing once a day, eating a balanced diet without excessive sugary snacking, and visiting your dentist every six months for cleanings and check-ups [source: American Dental Association].
Are you thinking, "Yeah right! Every six months? Bring a toothbrush to work or school? It's not gonna happen." If so, you should consider the alternative: costly dental care.
In fact, if all you need is a cleaning, browse popular coupon Web sites where many dentists list deals as low as $19. Sites include Groupon, Coupons.com, or the recently launched Google Offers. Additional options for cheap, preventive care include dental and dental hygiene schools (you'll learn more about that in a few pages).
Insurance, Discount Plans and Negotiation
You don't have to pay the sticker price for dental care. Having dental insurance is a good idea, but as you've probably already discovered, if you don't have employer-sponsored insurance, it's rarely worth paying for. Basically, most dental insurance plans cost in the neighborhood of $600 a year, carry a maximum payout in the neighborhood of $1,200 a year, and only pay half for things like fillings and orthodontics, and nothing for cosmetic procedures.
Individual plans vary, but slide one of these terms up and you're likely to slide another down until you're back in about the same neighborhood as these terms [source: eHealthInsurance.com]. Consider this: A teeth cleaning usually costs about $75 to $150, which you might as well pay out of pocket, since a root canal will cost you $800, plus $450 for the follow-up tooth restoration, putting you over your yearly maximum [source: Dental Health Magazine, WebMD.com].
Instead of dental insurance, think about joining a discount plan. Like joining a shoppers club, a discount dental club earns you lower rates on procedures ranging from cleanings to root canals. Typically, in exchange for around $100 a year and agreeing to pay before you leave the office (rather than forcing a dentist to submit an insurance claim), you can cut your bill by 20 to 30 percent for routine procedures and up to 65 percent for specialized work. A quick online search returns results including Thedentalclub.com, AmeriPlan Dental and a list at Insurancecompany.com.
Finally, don't forget the power of old-fashioned negotiation. CNN's Money magazine reports that of the 10 percent of people in a survey who'd tried to negotiate lower dental fees, 64 percent were successful [source: Money].
Pick Your Procedures
Do you really need a porcelain crown, or could you make do with gold, porcelain-fused-to-metal or just a simple metal filling? Simply knowing that options exist before you open your mouth and your pocketbook can save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Ask about your options, ask their prices, and then pick the procedure that best balances your health, cosmetic and financial needs.
Likewise, be aware that unlike open-heart surgery, you may be able to have a dental procedure done in stages, paying per tooth or per process as your budget allows. This means using insurance wisely. For example, if your plan carries a $1,200 yearly maximum, consider working with your dentist to spread pricey procedures across two calendar years. The "when" can make as much difference to your wallet as the "what."
Or, consider paying for treatment with a tax-deductible flexible savings account. At least then you won't pay tax on the chunk of your salary that you use to pay the dentist. Be aware, though, that your health savings account is unlikely to cover cosmetic procedures.
Community Health Centers
The federal government and private donations fund dental care for qualifying adults and children, most often based on financial need. The National Association of Community Health Centers writes that its member clinics "serve the primary health care needs of more than 20 million patients in more than 8,000 locations across the United States" [source: Nachc.org]. In most locations, these primary health care needs include basic dental care -- for example, for cleanings, X-rays and fillings.
Note that because the best dental care is preventive, if your (low) income permits, you may be able to use the cleanings and check-ups at these sliding-scale community health centers to avoid costly repair procedures down the line (income requirements vary by clinic). Go early, go often, and your dental care can remain virtually free.
Check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services community health center locator page to find a health center near you. Private, grant- or donation-funded clinics also exist, many of which can be found with an Internet search for your state and the terms "dental foundation."
The downsides to these free clinics can include long wait times, paperwork hoops to jump through, and lack of specialized procedures. If in doubt, after using the search tool above and before scheduling an appointment, it's worth a quick call to the clinic of your choice to explore whether you're likely to qualify for the procedure you need.
Dental students need practice with real, human teeth, and if you're willing to offer yours, you can expect to cut your dental care quote in half, or maybe even more. There are two ways to give your teeth for training -- for students who need to practice tried and true techniques, or as part of a clinical trial.
First, dental schools offer all the care you would expect at a professional dentist's office, at reduced prices. And while students do the work, take heart knowing that they've practiced extensively before being allowed to poke around in your mouth and that instructors either supervise or check all procedures. In fact, most dental schools offer the most cutting-edge treatments with the best equipment and the most highly trained instructors you'll find anywhere. The American Dental Association maintains a list of accredited dental schools. If all you need is a cleaning, consider treatment at a dental hygiene school; you can find one via the American Dental Hygienists' Association Web site.
Clinical trials are the tests of new, promising techniques designed to prove their safety and/or effectiveness. Generally these trials are completely free and offer care by top-notch professionals. Some trials may even reimburse your travel expenses. That said, clinical trials usually seek specific conditions, and you may or may not be a match for dental clinical trials. Visit the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to look up current clinical trials; to see a list of all available dental clinical trials, visit Clinicaltrials.gov.
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- American Dental Association. "Oral health topics: Cleaning your teeth and gums." (Oct. 28, 2011)
- Dental Health Magazine. "The Truth About Teeth Cleaning and Deep Teeth Cleaning." Feb. 5, 2008. (Oct. 28, 2011) http://worldental.org/oral-hygiene/the-truth-about-tooth-cleaning-and-deep-tooth-cleaning/27/
- Fried, Carla. "Take the bite out of dental costs." Money Magazine. Jan. 25, 2006. (Oct. 16, 2011) http://money.cnn.com/magazines/moneymag/moneymag_archive/2006/02/01/8367525/index.htm
- Hanford, Emily. "Poor Struggle to Find Affordable Dental Care" National Public Radio. July 5, 2005. (Oct. 16, 2011) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4729469
- Kritz, Francesca. "Dental care on a budget." Los Angeles Times. Aug. 17, 2009. (Oct. 16, 2011) http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/17/health/he-yourmoney17
- National Association of Community Health Centers. "About Our Health Centers." (Oct. 28, 2011) http://www.nachc.org/about-our-health-centers.cfm
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. "Finding low-cost dental care." National Institutes of Health. July 25, 2011. (Oct. 16, 2011) http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/popularpublications/findinglowcostdentalcare/
- Romero, Ric. "Dental Schools Offer Affordable Care." KABC-TV Los Angeles. May 5, 2009. (Oct. 19, 2011) http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/7_on_your_side&id=6798043
- WebMD. "Dental Health and Root Canals." (Oct. 28, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/dental-root-canals?page=3#cost