11 Ways to Save on Straight Teeth For Your Kids (or Yourself)

Braces can be costly and painful, but the payoff comes in oral health and confidence. And there are ways to take a bite out of the orthodontist's bill.

Kids fear braces because their peers are judgmental. Parents fear braces because they’re expensive. Metal braces cost $6,000 to $7,000 on average, with “invisible” (nonmetal) braces on the more expensive end, according to insurance company Delta Dental.

Insurers rarely foot the bill, even though treatment is often needed for health reasons in addition to aesthetics. But that’s no reason to shy away from necessary dental work. There are ways to cut the costs of this work, by a substantial amount in some cases.

1. Smiles Change Lives, for families with limited income

Smiles Change Lives is a national program that pairs low-income families with charitable orthodontists.

To qualify, the family needs an annual household taxable income that’s less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For example, for a family of two, this is currently $31,460; for four, $47,700.

If accepted into the program, the family pays $600 for the entire treatment.

You can see if you qualify at this page of the Smiles Change Lives site. (Note that qualifications are different for residents of Alaska and Hawaii.)

In addition to meeting household income requirements, the applicant must be 10-18 years old with no unfilled cavities and no braces currently. A dentist needs to attest to the child’s otherwise good oral hygiene. Applying carries a $30 fee, and it can take up to a year to be admitted.

For more detail or to download an application form click here. Here are frequently asked questions about the program.

2. Other subsidized programs

Smiles Change Lives isn’t the only subsidized program and, to be sure, not everyone qualifies.

Check out the American Association of Orthodontists’ Donated Orthodontic Services, which provides orthodontic care to underserved children who don’t have insurance coverage or can’t qualify for other assistance. It serves residents of nine states: Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan.

The Dental Lifeline Network’s national Donated Dental Services program gives free, comprehensive dental treatment to people who have a disability, are elderly or are medically fragile. Braces may be included. Here is information on eligibility and how to apply.

The AAO also lists other subsidized programs that may include orthodontics and provides a link to programs by state.

3. Evaluate your insurance

If you have dental insurance, 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.

4. Dental plans

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 (not dental insurance) at participating orthodontists. OrthoCare Orthodontic Discount Program is one example of this type of program. Make sure you understand the policy’s limitations — a lifetime cap on the amount of benefits, for example — and that your dentist participates in the network.

5. 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 dental schools in each state.

6. 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.

7. Payment plans

Where some orthodontists may not be flexible on price, they may be flexible on time. Ask about payment plans – monthly payment options are common. Be sure to get the plan in writing upfront.

8. 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.

9. Ask about cash discounts

If you don’t need a payment plan, go in the other direction and ask about a discount for paying cash up front.

10. Ask about procedures or charges that might not be necessary

Orthodontists sometimes recommend work that will produce the best results the quickest, but that can be beyond what you want, need or can afford. Be firm in asking what’s really necessary.

11. Be wary of third-party payment plans

Dentists’ offices may hand you a brochure for a payment plan, but these often charge big interest fees compared with arrangements made directly with the dental office. If your dentist doesn’t accept payment arrangements, visit a bank or credit union to discuss loans and compare the costs of borrowing.

What’s your experience handling dental and orthodontic work? Have you had any luck shopping around or negotiating? Share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Marilyn Lewis contributed to this post.

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