Prices for eyeglasses are falling like meteors as online retailers push the cost of a pair of stylish frames and single-vision lenses to as low as $6. At the same time, the options available to shoppers are growing so quickly it can be hard to know which way to go. Here are some tips to guide you through vision-testing options, online and traditional sources, and style considerations, all at a reasonable price.
Only 38 percent of Americans buy eyeglasses from an eye doctor or optometrist these days, says Consumer Reports. “Instead, they are turning to inexpensive places such as Walmart Vision Center and Costco Optical.”
Cheap eye exams
Below is a rundown of shoppers’ choices, new and older, in the fast-expanding eyewear market.
Before you get your glasses, however, you’ll need a vision exam. Here are six sources for savings on vision exams:
- Workplace plans. If you are lucky, your workplace insurance includes vision coverage. If you have it, use it. This may be your best option.
- Individual vision insurance. Consider buying your own insurance. One source for comparison shopping is eHealth.
- Low-cost individual plans for seniors. People enrolled in original Medicare can buy individual vision insurance policies at eHealth that cover routine eye care and eyeglasses for about $12 and $15 per month, according to the Savvy Senior at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (Be aware that changes to your Medicare plan must be made during Medicare open enrollment, Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.)
- Medicare Advantage plans. Seniors eligible for Medicare may find Medicare Advantage plans (instead of original Medicare) that include vision coverage. Find a Medicare Advantage plan here.
2. Flexible spending accounts
You can pay for eye exams, glasses and contacts through a flexible spending account. Set it up at work to put aside before-tax money for eligible health care expenses.
Healthcare.gov explains how FSAs work and which expenses are covered. The IRS says that eyeglasses and prescription sunglasses are eligible for coverage, as are contacts and even saline solution and enzyme cleaner, as long as you have a medical need for the contacts (thus, cosmetic lenses to change your eye color aren’t eligible.)
3. Chain retailers
Target, Costco, Walmart and other national retail chains offer reasonably priced eye exams. At Costco, you don’t have to be a member to get an exam from an independent optometrist at a Costco Optical Department. (To buy glasses or contacts, you’ll need to pay the $55 membership fee.)
Cheap is good, but free is even better. The America’s Best optical chain throws in a free eye exam for glasses when you purchase two pairs of single-vision glasses (frames and lenses) for a total of $69.99. Here’s the deal. An exam for contact lenses costs $79.
4. Discounts from clubs and organizations
Check with organizations you belong to, including clubs, unions, professional, religious and sports organizations, to find member discounts on eye exams. One example: AAA membership earns PearleVision customers 30 percent off eye exams at participating independent optimists and other discounts on contacts and glasses. Optometrists working with LensCrafters may have similar discounts for AAA members.
5. Comparison shopping
Shop around by phone to compare prices from local optometrists, eyewear specialty shops, chain stores and big box outlets.
6. Exams for low-income patients
All About Vision lists several sources for free or low-cost eye care for low-income adults and children, including Medicaid’s eye exams for children, the state and federal Childrens Health Insurance Program and philanthropic programs for low-income patients through the American Optometric Association Foundation.
A caveat: These exams may be intended to screen for medical issues and eye diseases and not to yield a prescription for lenses.
Using your prescription
Don’t leave your eye exam without asking for a copy of your prescription. Federal rules allow you to use it anywhere you wish to purchase your eyewear.
“Your eye care provider must give you a copy of your contact lens and eyeglass prescriptions — whether or not you ask for them,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Ask the doctor to include these basics:
- Glasses. Ask for your pupillary distance, the distance (in millimeters) between the centers of the pupils of each eye. Coastal Contacts, an eyewear seller, tells and provides a video showing how to take your own pupillary distance measurement. Eyebuydirect also has a video showing the process and others explaining how to read a vision prescription and how to shop for glasses online.
- Contacts. Ask the doctor to write down the type of lenses prescribed, their manufacturer, power, base curve and diameter.
Now you are ready to shop for a great deal on lenses and frames.
- If you use nonprescription reading glasses, don’t pay top dollar for them at drugstores. Instead, buy them by the handful at less than $10 a pair at hardware stores and dollar stores. Stash them in your car, your purse, at work and around the house so you are never without glasses when you need them.
- To save money, avoid high-fashion brands. Be your trendy self, but skip the big names. (Two ultra trendy sites are Warby Parker and Coastal.com.) Here’s the thinking: Manufacturers of frames for big, high-end brands also manufacture high-quality frames for less-exotic labels, says Consumer Reports.
- Luxottica, a manufacturer of frames for Chanel, Prada and Versace, also produces styles for LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, and Target Optical, CR says.
- In Consumer Reports’ 2013 survey of 19,500 readers, Costco won top honors for overall satisfaction. Costco Optical has some drawbacks, however:
- You may not always find the high-fashion frames you are looking for.
- It may take longer before you can pick up your finished glasses.
- Browse choices at stores and websites to discover the styles you like before you get down to serious shopping.