5 Tips to Save on Braces

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Braces can be embarrassing, but most of us don't have an embarrassment of riches to pay for the invisible ones. Learn how to take a bite out of the bill for your kids' teeth straightening – it may cost as little as $500.

Kids fear braces because their peers are judgmental. Parents fear braces because they’re expensive. According to The New York Times, braces can run up to $7,000.

And insurers often won’t foot much of the bill, even though treatment goes beyond aesthetics. But that’s no reason to shy away from necessary dental work. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson talks with a mother and daughter who paid only $500 for braces, thanks to a program called Smiles Change Lives. Check it out, and then read on for more about the program and other cost-cutting tips.

How the program works

Smiles Change Lives is a national program that pairs low-income families with charitable orthodontists. It can take up to a year to get into. To qualify, the family needs an annual household taxable income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family size of two, this is currently $29,420; for four, $44,700. Beyond that, it goes up roughly $8,000 per person: You can see if you qualify at this page of the Smiles Change Lives site.

In addition to income requirements, the applicant has to be 10-18 years old and have a dentist attest to otherwise good oral hygiene. The application also requires a $25 fee, and if accepted into the program, the family has to pay $500 for the entire treatment. If the family’s income is under 100 percent of the federal poverty level, some of that may also be subsidized – but this opportunity is much harder to come by and dependent on how many donations Smiles Change Lives is receiving from your region at the time.

There are other programs out there that may pay for dental treatment. The American Association of Orthodontists has been piloting a Donated Orthodontic Services program in five states: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. For a list of AAO member orthodontists, visit Braces.org.

The Dental Lifeline Network also has a Donated Dental Services program running across the country, although some states have an extensive waiting list and aren’t taking applicants now. Check NFDH.org for info about your state.

Other ways to save

If you don’t meet the requirements for subsidized programs or don’t want to get stuck on a waiting list, here’s more advice for drilling through dental costs.

1. Evaluate insurance. If you have dental insurance already, check your policy and see if orthodontics are covered, partially or at all. In rare cases, the insurer may pay up to half the cost, and more are willing to pay a quarter.

If you have a lousy policy or none at all, check out DentalPlans.com and Insure.com. For a couple hundred bucks a year, you can get discounts at participating orthodontists – but make sure you understand the policy’s limitations and that your dentist accepts it.

2. Dental schools. Many dental schools offer services similar to private practices, and some do it for a third less than local orthodontists. While the students are not the most experienced, they do have extensive training (orthodontics is a specialty that requires years of training beyond dental school) and are supervised by professional orthodontists. AAO has a list of accredited schools in every state.

3. Negotiate. Sometimes dental rates are fixed – the doctors do need to pay for the pricey specialized equipment and maintain a staff. But you won’t know until you ask, and you may find an orthodontist who’s more flexible than you expected, especially if you can explain your financial difficulties.

4. Payment plans. Where some orthodontists may not be flexible on price, they may be flexible on time frame. Ask about payment plans – monthly payment options are common.

Be sure to get the plan in writing upfront, and ask about any steps or charges that may not be necessary. Doctors sometimes recommend work that will produce the best result, but that goes beyond what the patient wants, needs, or can afford. While we’ve been talking mainly about children’s braces, it’s especially true for adults, who often have other dental problems that may interfere.

Also be wary of third party plans, which often charge big interest fees in comparison to arrangements made directly with your dental office. Finally, sometimes the office will assume you want a payment plan from the get-go – if you don’t need one, ask about a discount for paying cash up front.

5. Shop around. Braces are expensive, but prices do vary between providers. Ask for recommendations from family and friends, but don’t jump on the first offer you hear. Look up local orthodontists at Braces.org and get a few opinions.

Stacy Johnson

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