Kids fear braces because their peers can be judgmental. Parents fear braces because they’re expensive. A set of metal braces costs $5,000 to $6,000 on average, and “invisible” (nonmetal) braces run a little higher, 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, in some cases by a substantial amount.
1. Smiles Change Lives, for families with limited income
Smiles Change Lives is a national program that pairs low-income families with charitable orthodontists.
Qualifying for the program depends on your family income, number of people in your household and where you live — and can be determined through this short questionnaire. So, for instance, if you live in Missouri and have a household of two people, you would qualify with an income of $40,600 or less. If you had a four-person household in Missouri, you would qualify for this program with an income of $61,500 or less.
If accepted into the program, the family pays $650 for the entire treatment and the program matches the applicant with an orthodontist to proceed with treatment.
In addition to meeting household income requirements, the applicant must be 7 to 21 years old with no unfilled cavities, no braces currently and a “moderate to severe need” for braces. 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.
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 program, 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 orthodontic care and provides a link to programs by state.
3. Evaluate your insurance
If you have dental insurance, check your policy and see if orthodontic treatment is 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 savings 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. According to DentalPlans.com:
A dental savings plan functions a lot like a membership at a warehouse club. You pay an annual fee and get access to significantly reduced rates.
Make sure you understand the policy’s limitations — read the fine print — and that your orthodontist or 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. The AAO has a list of accredited orthodontic programs in each U.S. state and Canadian province.
Sometimes rates for orthodontic treatment 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
While 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 be unnecessary
Orthodontists sometimes recommend work that will produce the best results the quickest, but that treatment might be beyond what you want, need or can afford. Be firm in asking what’s really necessary in your case.
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.