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Is Going to the Dentist Too Costly? 6 Ways to Save

Going to the dentist can be expensive, and, for many people, downright scary. But if you're one of the millions of Americans delaying dental care out of fear of the costs, there are some solutions.

Among Americans with dental insurance, 57% have left a dental problem like toothache or bleeding gums untreated, many because of a lack of price transparency. According to the 2013 Dental Care Affordability and Accessibility study, that number is understandably higher for the uninsured, with nearly 70% avoiding treatment. Regardless of how long it's been since you've seen the dentist, follow these six tips for a cheaper (and therefore more enjoyable) trip to the tooth doctor.

1. Uncovered? Get insurance.
One way to help protect yourself from high out-of-pocket dental costs is buying dental insurance. Rates vary, but some plans on are available for around $15 to $25 a month for coverage, depending on carrier, location, and policy options.

Many dental insurance policies operate on a basic 100-80-50 plan, meaning that 100% of preventive and diagnostic costs are covered, approximately 80% of basic procedures including fillings and extractions are covered, and 50% of major services like crowns and dentures are paid for. Insurance plans also normally have a coverage cap, which means that you're covered for only a certain maximum dollar amount each year. A cap of $1,500, for instance, means that any charges incurred after the insurance carrier covers $1,500 in dental costs that year would be your responsibility entirely.

For someone without any major problems, a year without dental insurance complete with two exams, X-rays, and cleanings would cost around $370, according to American Dental Association figures. Though there's not a dramatic decrease when compared with annual insurance premiums, insurance breaks up those costs throughout the year and is good to have around if something more serious goes wrong, making it a better option for many people.

2. Consider a discount plan.
Dental discount plans are another popular option. With these plans, you pay an enrollment fee of about $80 to $120 each year to get discounts ranging from 10% to 60% on all of your dental visits and procedures. There are no annual limits, and exclusions vary by plan. Unlike conventional dental insurance, cosmetic procedures like whitening are typically included in discount plans.

3. Schedule regular cleanings and exams.
The latest research shows annual cleanings for the average dental patient may be just as effective as the twice-yearly cleanings that have been recommended for decades. Several studies have indicated that visiting the dentist twice a year has no notable benefits when compared with a single visit annually. But this single visit is important, as it helps to identify problems before they get serious and expensive. High-risk patients, like those with periodontal disease, may need more frequent visits.

4. Ask for a cash discount and negotiate.
For many dentists, accepting cash payments directly from patients is preferable to filing insurance claims. Some are willing to discount services for cash customers. Many automatically discount cash visits by around 5%, but depending on the clinic, you could get them down further.

Dr. Lawrence Wallace of Larell Surgical Consultants suggests asking the dentist to give you the same rates they give insurance companies, which typically negotiate a 10%-15% discount on the dentist's charges. Above all, recognize that you are the customer and the dentist ultimately wants your business.

5. Use an HSA to pay with pre-tax dollars.
Health savings accounts
allow consumers to set aside money into an untaxable account specifically for medical and dental costs. HSA accounts are used in conjunction with high-deductible health plans, with the HSA funds going toward copayments, uncovered procedures, and other out-of-pocket costs. Making an HSA work for you means estimating how much money you'll spend on dental costs and putting that amount away into your HSA. This can take some work. HSAs have been commended for teaching financial vigilance by encouraging thriftier medical spending, so using an HSA may decrease your overall health costs by teaching you to be a savvier health consumer.

6. Consider a dental school for treatment.
Dental students need practice, and those nearing their graduation date perform cleanings and other procedures for the public under the supervision of instructors. The American Dental Association offers a listing of all accredited dental schools across the country, many of which offer dental services at steeply discounted rates.

As with all major purchases and health-care expenses, doing your research can often save you the most money. Compare local clinics, based not only on how much they charge but also on what insurance and discount plans they honor. Finally, don't avoid the dentist because you fear the costs; waiting on dental problems will only make them worse and ultimately more expensive.

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Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2014, at 7:53 PM, helendds wrote:

    While these make sense, tips 1 and 2 are potentially he most frightening. If the plans steer you towards a select list of dentists, you can bet more treatment than is necessary will probably be recommended. Plans that let you see anyone will generally have waiting periods and only pay a percentage of the treatment all while you continue to shell out. The remaining suggestions are the best, but you may need to look around for a dentist who negotiates or school. Do the research. Not all dentists are equal.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2014, at 7:57 PM, mserang wrote:

    I am a general dentist who strives to provide quality care to my patients. I am sad when I see articles that have no value to the quality of care and level of customized service vs just finding cheaper ways to get medical or dental services. Coming from my side of things many insurance companies reimburse dental practices as much as 80% less on most procedures. I have spent 1 hour doing a large difficult filling on a patient only to receive $80 from an insurance for that procedure. The average office needs to make $200-$300/hr to stay profitable some of the management experts say. For this reason we are stuck figuring out how can we afford to accept insurances or in extreme cases will we succumb to temptation and start cutting corners at the expense of quality care. I do feel we need controls on how much we charge patients but I do feel insurances have gone beyond that point. We have many expenses and protocols we have to follow with OSHA, FDA, State Board of Dentistry, Radiation and Safety, and ADA guidelines and the cost to provide care seems to be going up yet our reimbursements are going down. I hope we can encourage people to ask themselves do we only want cheaper or do we also value quality and are willing to pay for it.

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2014, at 10:11 PM, mcw wrote:

    As a retired dentist, I think items 4,5, and 6 have merit. The first 3 will probably not save you money in the long run and may well cost you more. Insurance companies will not sell a policy if they don't make money, discount plans more often than not means discount quality, and if you can't afford a cleaning at least have an exam every 6 months. Most dentists are compassionate and will help you afford the quality care that is best for you.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2014, at 6:08 AM, ruthie62 wrote:

    I go to the community college and get a dental cleaning and x-rays from the dental hygiene school. It costs $5. They do an amazing job, but it takes 3-3.5 hours. I save a lot of money.

  • Report this Comment On May 19, 2014, at 7:48 PM, baponte wrote:

    Great article and great comments. For those in Southern California, be sure to check out Brighter. It's a free membership for those that are uninsured to get quality dental care. Through an innovative platform, members can easily search and book appointments with top dentists in the area. And prices are available for each dentist as well. That way, you know what each procedure costs before you go in. It's a new and innovative approach to dental benefits.

  • Report this Comment On October 31, 2014, at 12:32 PM, doublearies wrote:

    Dental schools pro and con:

    1. they are a SCHOOL!

    2. They close for school breaks and holidays.

    3. At the school I went to, one student did the treatment from start to finish. When that student wasn't there, I didn't get treatment. No other student or dentist was allowed to finish the work.

    But....I got wonderful care. Senior students/or Professors and students supervised/learned while every move was happening. Nothing was done without prior agreement from the head doctor.

    They had a payment plan. About 40% cheaper.

    Weigh the costs vs. time.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2015, at 11:31 AM, bryanflake1984 wrote:

    I have never heard of these dental discount plans. I am a bit low on the funds because I was recently laid off. Would this dental discount plan be between the dentist and myself? I'm feeling more encouraged by this dental plan thing, considering my specific situation.

    <a href='' ></a>

  • Report this Comment On April 07, 2015, at 8:52 AM, dentalcaredubai wrote:

    Nice post and well information about how to safe money. but it always not doing with us. There are some problems which never solved without doctors prescription therefore it need to be go to them. thanks.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2015, at 11:21 PM, correysmith321 wrote:

    You know Napala, it seems as though with the advance tools that dentists have it would end up being costly to go to the dentist. About twenty years ago when I was young the dentist has always been helpful in seeing any patient no matter their financial condition. Even going to their office was pretty cheap but that's all changed with new advancements and such.

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