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?