Ask Stacy: The Definitive Guide to Slashing the Cost of Eyeglasses and Sunglasses

It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when you’re wearing the wrong glasses.

Here’s this week’s question:

I often see ads ” buy your first pair and get your second for half price or free.” I’ve always felt that when I’ve gone for these deals I end up paying much, much more than had we just purchased two pair of glasses. Where is the most inexpensive place to purchase prescription eyewear? Also, what’s the story with sunglasses? I’ve heard there is one company that produces 90 percent sunglasses that they then put their designer name on.
– Christine

These are topics we’ve covered before in articles like How to Get a Killer Deal on Eyeglasses and Are Those Designer Shades Worth the Price? But there’s no harm in taking another look.

Focusing on the best deals

When it comes to reading glasses, you might try what I do: Go to the nearest dollar store, buy 10 for $10 and stash them all over the house.

Granted, I’m a very casual and occasional user of reading glasses. And because I don’t often use them, I don’t care how they look. If you’re not like me, you may want to put a little more time and effort into the process.

When it comes to any kind of glasses, however, you’ll save an astounding amount by simply using the Internet and/or warehouse stores. But first, you’ll need your prescription.

Getting your prescription

People who examine eyes also often sell glasses. They don’t want to give you your prescription, because that will enable you to shop around. Tough: they’re required to. “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.

Shop around by phone to compare prices from local optometrists, eyewear specialty shops, chain stores and big box outlets.

Ask the optometrist to include these basics:

  • Glasses: Ask for your pupillary distance, the distance (in millimeters) between the centers of the pupils of each eye. (You can also take this measurement yourself.)
  • Contacts: Ask the doctor to write down the type of lenses prescribed, their manufacturer, power, base curve and diameter.

Now you’re ready to save yourself hundreds over traditional sources for lenses and frames.

Online stores

There are tons of places online for discounted frames and lenses, but here are five of the most popular, as voted by readers of LifeHacker:

If you’re worried about not being able to try on glasses to see how they look, don’t.

One of the nifty features offered by online retailers is the ability to upload a picture of yourself so you can see what you’ll look like with various frames. Some will send you several sets of frames to try on and return. In addition, all the retailers listed above offer money-back guarantees. So there’s no reason you can’t buy glasses from the comfort of your home.

Brick and mortar stores

Consumer Reports ranks the best reader-reported places to buy glasses, along with the median out-of-pocket price paid for a pair of eyeglass frames and lenses. Here are the top 5 ranked by price, along with the score, which ranges from 0 to 100.

  • BJ’s Optical: ($171) Score: 80
  • For Eyes Optical: ($181) Score: 82
  • Costco Optical: ($186) Score: 87
  • VisionWorks: ($200) Score: 72
  • Walmart Vision Center: ($204) Score: 78

Note these stores all offer eye exams as well, so even if you’re not buying frames there, you can still get your exam. And you may not need a membership to the warehouse stores to get it, although you may need one to buy glasses or contacts.

What about extras?

Wherever you buy glasses, you’ll be asked to choose among a dizzying array of extras at extra cost. If they seem like an easy way for a retailer to improve their profits at your expense, you might be right. Whether the extras are worth it depends on how you’ll wear your glasses. Drive a lot at night? No-glare might be worth it. Spend a lot of time outside? Might want to spring for Photochromic.

To learn more about what various options actually do, check out this page of The Vision Counsel’s website. Then you can decide if they’re worth paying extra for.

The best deals on sunglasses

“I’ve heard there is one company that produces 90 percent sunglasses that they then put their designer name on,” Christine says in her query. She’s right.

Luxottica, an Italian-based company, manufactures shades for a number of brands all over the price spectrum, including the $500 kind. The list on the company’s website includes: Anne Klein, Arnette, Bulgari, Burberry, Chanel, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, DKNY, Oakley, Polo Ralph Lauren, Ray-Ban, Sunglass Hut, Target Optical, Tiffany, Versace and Vogue.

Of course, just because one company manufactures all these brands doesn’t mean they’re alike. After all, Volkswagen also owns Bentley. Still, one wonders if a $500 pair of sunglasses can really be worth 20 times more than a $25 pair. Color me skeptical.

How to evaluate shades

Whether they’re designer or dollar store, here’s how to compare sunglasses:

1. Ultraviolet ray absorption — both UVB and UVA. This is the most important ingredient for sunglasses, since failure to protect your eyes can lead to eye damage and disease.

The Foundation of the American Academy of Opthalmology says:

Look for sunglasses that block 99 percent or 100 percent of all UV light. Some manufacturers’ labels say “UV absorption up to 400nm.” This is the same thing as 100 percent UV absorption.

WebMD adds that this is another indication of lenses that provides the UV protection you want:

Lenses meet ANSI Z80.3 blocking requirements. (This refers to standards set by the American National Standards Institute.)

2. Polarization. This is helpful because it reduces glare reflected from flat surfaces like pavement or pools of water, increasing your visibility while you’re driving, the foundation says. This has nothing to do with protecting your eyes from harmful rays.

3. The quality control test. To determine if nonprescription lenses are made well, the foundation recommends that you:

  • Fix your eyes on a tile or other object with a rectangular pattern.
  • Cover one eye. Hold the glasses away from your face.
  • Slowly move the glasses up and down and side to side.

If the lines in the rectangular pattern remain straight during the test, the lenses are fine. If they don’t, the lenses are likely made of cheap pressed plastic.

3. Frame design. The foundation says:

Studies have shown that enough UV rays enter around ordinary eyeglass frames to reduce the benefits of protective lenses. Large-framed wraparound sunglasses can protect your eyes from all angles.

WebMD says the next best choice is a really big lens that goes down to your cheekbones. You also want glasses that sit close to your face so that UV rays don’t leak over the top.

4. Lens color. You can minimize color distortion by picking gray, green or brown lenses, WebMD says.

Here’s what I bought

Because I’ve lost or broken virtually every pair of sunglasses I’ve ever owned, usually within weeks, I used to buy them at the same place I bought my reading glasses: the dollar store.

However, because I only have two eyes and spend a lot of time outdoors, I decided to invest in something better. After doing some research and reading reviews, I opted for JMarti sunglasses, which I bought on Amazon. In addition to meeting all the requirements above, they start at less than $20, have a lifetime warranty against breakage and offer a 30-day money-back guarantee.

I bought two pairs about a year ago. One I’ve already lost, but I really like the remaining one. While they may not have the same cachet as Gucci, they’re way higher quality than the dollar store stuff I used to wear (and still keep in my glove compartment) and I feel like I’m taking better care of my eyes.

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The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get way more questions than I have time to answer.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’ve earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

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