My Lucky Trip to the Dentist Without Insurance [Plus What a Dentist’s Recommends]

Dentist Without Insurance

Confession time. I haven’t had dental insurance in ten years. I said goodbye to it when I quit my corporate job. It was a while before I even visited the dentist.

I wanted to go a few times, but I either never found the time, or I was scared off by the fear of having to do a crown or something ridiculously expensive. So stupid, I know.

The lack of insurance is by choice. I could totally afford a small dental policy, but I just haven’t pulled the trigger.

From my limited research, you need to have dental insurance at least six months prior to going to the dentist if you want coverage. But you can always just book an appointment and ask about uninsured discounts or payment plans.

So, I always put off purchasing insurance because I thought I was about to go to the dentist anyway and it wouldn’t apply.

Additionally, I’m just not sure dental insurance is worth it. It made sense when I had an employer subsidizing half the cost of the plan, but now that I’m solo it’s not a clear financial choice.

I was caught in this crazy downward spiral of no dentist – no insurance – no dentist. About half of U.S. adults appear to be caught in the same spiral:

According to the Department of Health and Human Services,

“…56% of adults..had some form of dental insurance, compared to 86% who had medical insurance.”

Well, my teeth finally kicked me out of the spiral. Pain beneath one of my crowns forced me to head to the dentist for a cleaning and to check on the crown.

Getting Lucky Without Dental Insurance

I was prepared to drop a grand on a new crown, but I was hoping for just a cleaning charge from the dental hygienist.

When I arrived I told the receptionist that I wanted to go over costs before any work was done.

She passed this information along to the dental hygienist who quickly ignored it. I forgot as well because I started panicking about pain like I always do at the dentist’s.

One thing I was conscious enough to notice though was the technological advancements the dental industry has gone through in just the past year. For instance, after x-rays, the hygienist used a small digital camera to look around in my mouth. No more tiny little mirror (what will become of them all? melted down? sad).

Next, and pleasantly so, the hygienist broke out some sort of micro ultrasonic tooth cleaner vs the scraper-pick thing. While I enjoyed the luxurious experience, it made me start thinking about the bill. Surely this new technology was going to cost a fortune?

At the end of the appointment, the hygienist told me (based on the x-ray and cleaning) that nothing was wrong with my crown other than a small infection, which she said would clear up after the cleaning. She then told me she forgot to go over finances so she offered to waive the cost of the x-rays. Sweet savings!

So, at the end of the day, I owed $125 (less a $20 credit on my account) for the cleaning and the fluoride. Not that bad, right?

What Does Dental Insurance Cost?

I got lucky. It could have been a lot worse. Should I have dental insurance? I started looking around at dental coverage options and ran some quotes and here’s what I found:

  • I can get dental insurance for around $25 a month, or $300 a year. But it’s capped at $1,000 in coverage a year.
  • I can get a dental discount plan (which you can purchase last-minute) for around $7 a month, or $84 a year.

What I Do Now to Take Care of My Family’s Teeth

My wife and I purchase an annual “loyalty” discount plan with our dentist. This essentially allows us to pre-pay for our visits at a significant discount. It also gives us 20% off additional services.

We then save up funds to be used on regular dental visits as well as any orthodontist work. We stash our savings in a high-interest savings account (see our recommended accounts).

How to Take Care of Your Teeth Without (Insurance or) Spending Too Much

It’s a story that Marissa Miller, D.D.S., of Shelby, Ohio sees all too often.

Patients don’t go to the dentist until after there’s pain, a visible hole in the tooth, or even the chronic bad breath of tooth decay.

“At that point, it’s too late to do any of the simple and relatively inexpensive treatments that are available when you catch a cavity early on,” Dr. Miller stated.

Going to the dentist is one of those things no one really wants to worry about. It’s painful and costly. If you have kids, no matter how many Spiderman toys the receptionist offers your child, she’ll never jump for joy at the prospect of getting her teeth cleaned.

So, adults and kids alike go years without regular visits to the dentist, with pretty unpleasant results.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even with no dental insurance, it’s possible to take great care of your own and your children’s teeth. Here’s what you need to know about keeping those pearly whites looking great:

1. Visiting the dentist isn’t as expensive as you think.

One issue that Dr. Miller sees crop up over and over again is patients assuming that they must have insurance in order to afford dental care.

“There’s a definite perception that dental care is prohibitively expensive if you are uninsured,” Dr. Miller said. “But that’s really not the case.”

Dentists will often offer payment plans for major procedures, and you can also find dentists who specialize in uninsured patients, meaning they have sliding payment scales.

For various procedures, it’s also possible to have your work done for very little cost by a student at a dental college, although it can be more difficult to find dental students willing to work on kids.

Finally, it’s important to remember that basic teeth cleaning is inexpensive, especially if you have it done every six months. A visit to the dentist only really becomes expensive when you put off going until there is a problem.

2. Start bringing your children to the dentist while they’re young.

If you already have a dentist, you can have your kids sit in on your appointments before they need their own appointments. Dr. Miller recommends that patients bring their children with them while the little ones are babies or toddlers.

“The child can sit on Mom or Dad’s lap and get used to the idea of what happens during a routine visit so it’s not scary by the time they’re old enough to come.”

Since a big part of a dentist’s job is education and advice, this will give parents the opportunity to learn exactly what they need to do for their kids’ teeth as soon as those teeth arrive. According to Dr. Miller, many parents don’t know what they need to be doing at home—for themselves or their kids.

For instance, dentists recommend that parents supervise their children’s brushing until as late as age 8-10, partially because that is the age when appropriate hand-eye coordination has fully developed. Many parents are unaware of how important their supervision is even into elementary school.

While most family dental practices are well equipped to treat children, there are some special circumstances when kids will be referred to a pediatric dentist.

In particular, a dentist who specializes in children will better serve kids with unusual dental issues or potential behavior problems. But starting with your family dental practice will help you know what kind of care your child will need.

3. Don’t avoid orthodontists because of cost.

Of course, even if you take impeccable care of your children’s teeth, you may still be facing an expensive issue: orthodontics. Any parent who has heard the dreaded words “your son needs braces” knows just how expensive filling your kid’s mouth full of metal can be.

While many instances of orthodontic work are merely cosmetic, some kids need to correct overcrowding of teeth, which makes it difficult to properly clean between them, or a handicapping malocclusion (misalignment) which can cause pain or even difficulties with chewing.

If your child does need braces, you may be wondering how you will pay for it. However, Dr. Miller offered reassurance about affording the cost of tooth-straightening:

“Orthodontists have the most flexible payment options of all dental professionals. Most will offer free initial consultations and will work with patients in order to find the best payment plan. Orthodontists recognize both how important their work is and how much of a financial strain it can be.”

Considering the fact that there is no specific insurance for orthodontics—although it can be covered by some dental plans—these dental professionals will go out of their way to work with patients.

The Bottom Line

The facts about how a lack of dental care can negatively impact all Americans, from children through adults, are pretty eye-opening. Tooth decay is now the most common chronic illness among school-aged kids, and dental issues can affect everything from the ability to get a job to overall health.

People are much more likely to visit the dentist if they have dental insurance, but all patients and parents need to remember that dental insurance is not a pre-requisite for affording dental care.

Instilling good dental habits in children—including having them visit the dentist regularly—is an investment in their health and future.

How do you pay for your dental care? Does that affect how often you go?

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About Philip Taylor, CPA

Philip Taylor, aka "PT", is a CPA, blogger, podcaster, husband, and father of three. PT is also the founder and CEO of the personal finance industry conference and trade show, FinCon.

He created Part-Time Money® back in 2007 to share his advice on money, hold himself accountable (while paying off over $75k in debt), and to meet others passionate about moving toward financial independence.

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  1. Dental costs are on the rise and if you are like most you want to know should you purchase dental insurance. Many dental offices now offer great specials to first time patients for a full exam, x-rays, and most include a cleaning.

  2. I think dental care is something of which you are most likely to regret not having at any given time for many reason but most strikingly is purely that there is no greater pain than toothache. As with most things in life, the moment you neglect something, fate then has a way of coming to sting you. And when it comes to pain with teeth, there is little that stings more. I don’t have the figures at hand to do the math’s, but I sometimes wonder whatever people have to say about European style taxation, are they actually any worse off than Americans when you consider how much they get back compared to what the average American needs to shelve out on various health and dental care policies whether assisted and subsidized by employers or not. It would be a very interesting comparison. It could be an interesting feature for a future blog post comparing what the various citizens of different European countries pay in taxes and how much the individual American pays out for the same quality health and dental care. I think it results may be surprising and I often think we need to think, do the math’s and then judge.

  3. I have dental. Ive used my yearly limit and then needed a root canal. i have to pay out of pocket. about $2000. and they had not checked the ins. I checked and reallized I reached my yearly limit. They just assumed….But I have the money, dont want to part with it, but am and am almost done, hopefully, it takes multiple visits.

  4. Squeezer @Personal Finance Success says

    My work offers separate dental insurance.  However, it just so happens that my health insurance pays for 2 dental exams per year with a $25 co-pay, so i use that and would pay for any cavities or other work out of pocket.

  5. $84/year?  That’s worth signing up for just to discover the fine print.
     
    We ditched our dental insurance when we retired from the military.  But we seem to have good dental genes (and a lot of floss).  For the last decade I’ve been getting away with one visit every 2-3 years, which is almost as cheap as your $84/year bid.  No TV cameras, either… maybe I need to shop around for a new dentist.
     
    Our daughter kept making the usual semi-annual visits, but the office gave us a 20% discount for cash.  That was almost a wash against insurance.  We were able to negotiate a good cash deal with the orthodontist, too, since they didn’t have to go through an insurance company.
     
    While the price of dental insurance may be rising, the cost of the hardware & procedures seems to be dropping.  Maybe discount plans really are the trend.

  6. I am a federal retiree and although I can keep dental coverage and renew at open season, I opted out of it this year. I and my husband had two crowns done the previous year and our daughter can no longer be covered under the dental insurance as she is age 22 so we figured we would save approximately $900.00 in premiums 2012. Fortunately, we had no problems to speak of, just the regular cleanings and Xrays and I think that I may choose to enroll every other year rather than once a year.  Of course, we make sure to keep the good dental habits we both have so we don’t encounter any problems but there is never a guarantee that something may or may not happen.

  7. AverageJoeMoney says

    I have dental insurance, but over the years have had time when I haven’t had it through work. I’ve always opted for it because my smile has been my lifeblood. If I’m with a client, I can’t have horrible teeth that they’re wondering about instead of focusing on the topic at hand.

  8. I have dental insurance through my company.  Definitely worth it since I go twice a year.

  9. William_Drop_Dead_Money says

    How good is dental insurance any more these days? When I managed our previous company’s health insurance, the impression I got is that most plans these days are just discount plans, because true dental insurance has become very expensive.
     
    Did you ask your dentist if they offer either insurance or discount plans? Many dentists do (or at least did a while ago).
     
    Also, if you have a normal high deductible health insurance account with a Health Savings Account, the HSA allows you to pay dental costs from it. It’s still out of pocket but at least it’s pretax dollars.