It was my first year out of college, and I'd landed a decent job at a hedge fund with a respectable salary and modest benefits -- some vacation time, a retirement savings plan, and a health plan. That health plan, however, covered medical issues only. It did not include dental insurance, and because I was focused on paying off my student loans at the time, I was too cheap to buy some. As such, I made every effort to avoid the dentist -- perhaps to an unhealthy extreme.
My painful and costly mistake
One night, I was biting down on a hard candy when I felt a strange sensation in my mouth. I walked over to a mirror, and turns out, I'd managed to break off a chunk of one of my bottom teeth. I was annoyed, but not really in pain, so I did what I thought was the logical thing -- I spit out the chipped-off tooth chunk and called it a night.
Over the next few days, I started to have some pain in that tooth, but I turned to over-the-counter pain relievers to avoid having to deal with a dental bill. And my plan worked -- the pain actually started to subside, or maybe I just got used to living with it.
Then one day, several weeks later, I woke up in horrible pain, and I knew a visit to the dentist was inevitable. He took a look, and sure enough, my broken tooth had gotten infected to the point where I needed a root canal. I was extremely upset -- not just about the painful treatment, but the bills that would quickly ensue.
A very expensive lesson
All told, neglecting my tooth cost me about $1,600 in dental bills. Had I gone to the dentist immediately after I broke it, he probably could've filled it for under $200. By ignoring the problem, I not only cost myself a large sum of money, I also subjected myself to a more intense medical ordeal, complete with four separate appointments that also cost me time off of work.
Of course, I'm hardly the only person who has made this sort of short-sighted blunder. An estimated 54% of Americans delay medical care because of the costs involved. But putting off treatment can cause minor issues to worsen, and when that happens, they can become much more expensive and dangerous.
Ever since the dreaded "tooth incident," I've made a point to pad my emergency fund so that it holds extra money to deal with unplanned medical bills. I've also done a better job of factoring healthcare costs into my budget. But mostly, I've changed my mindset. If I'm being honest, I had the money on hand to deal with the problem the day that I broke that tooth. Instead of getting ahead of the issue, I only made it worse by being cheap.
Meanwhile, I'm grateful to now have a dental plan, which can help cover the cost of services like root canals should I ever need another one. Of course, I'm hoping that doesn't happen, but I guess you never know.