Can’t Afford Dental Insurance? Here’s How to Find Dental Care for Less

A woman gets her teeth checked at the dentist.
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Sure, going to the dentist is scary. 

Who wants sharp metal objects jammed inside their mouth? Or those suction things — yikes! It’s no wonder a lot of us avoid the annual appointment, despite common recommendations to regularly visit the dentist.

What’s worse, though? The cost of going to the dentist.

About 17% of children aged 5-19 years and nearly 32% of adults aged 20-55 years have untreated dental caries, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. 

Additionally, nearly 15% of children aged 2-17 and 36% of adults 18-64 had not seen a dentist in the previous year, according to 2017 data. 

What Are Your Options for Affordable Dental Care?

The average working-age adult spends just over $300 on dental care per year, according to the American Dental Association. 

That can quickly add up to thousands of dollars.

When the kids need braces, you’re looking at thousands of dollars more.

Your health plan or Medicaid may cover part of the cost of braces for children under 18. If you pay out-of-pocket, the cost could be tax deductible.

But when none of these options are available, what’s your plan? You may not be able to cover thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, but you still want the best dental care possible for your kids and yourself.

Dentists and orthodontists know this. They also know their services are often not well covered by insurance and are cost-prohibitive for many families. They’ve come together in a lot of ways to provide care to those in need.

Subsidized Care for Children

Though you’ll see some care for adults, most subsidized or free dental care exists to help children from low-income families. 

These services help cover major costs like braces or smaller ones like the semi-annual check-up your kids need to maintain healthy teeth.

1. Smiles Change Lives

Smiles Change Lives offers braces to children ages 7 and up. (People ages 19-21 can apply, but they should be aware that placement with a provider is much more difficult at that age.) You’ll be responsible for a non-refundable $30 application fee and an out-of-pocket $650 for the braces.

You can find out if you are financially eligible for Smiles Change Lives by using this tool

Applicants must submit a personal essay about why braces are necessary and how getting them will impact the child. Letters of support are optional but encouraged.

2. Donated Orthodontic Services

The American Association of Orthodontists provides a list of Donated Orthodontic Services. It’s limited to select states, but these provide care to children who don’t have insurance coverage or don’t qualify for assistance.

They serve residents in nine U.S. states:

  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia

3. Smile for a Lifetime

The Smile for a Lifetime Foundation is a non-profit, charitable organization that provides orthodontic treatment for underserved patients ages 11-18. Fees include a $20 for the application, as well as a $480 investment fee

To participate in the program, a child must meet all the qualifications on this page, including:

  • Having a family income that does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • Having had a dental hygiene check-up within the previous six months.
  • Being involved with the community through extracurriculars or volunteer services.
  • Letters of recommendation from teachers or community leaders.

Applications are available online in both English and Spanish.

4. Give Kids a Smile

Started in St Louis in 2002, Give Kids a Smile was adopted by the American Dental Association and became a national program in 2003. The organization brings volunteers and dental professionals together to provide care and education to underserved children. 

National GKAS Day is the first Friday of February each year. Services include screenings, oral health education and treatment. 

To find participating programs in your state, contact your local dental society.

5. A Smile for Kids

A Smile for Kids (ASK) aims to improve the quality of life for low-income, at-risk children in Oregon. 

The organization serves children in sixth grade to 11th grade who are “suffering from ridicule and low self-esteem due to severely crooked teeth” — kids who are being teased or bullied because of the way their teeth look.

This program is referral-only;there’s no online application. 

To encourage those receiving assistance to “pay it forward,” ASK requires that the child receiving orthodontic care volunteer in their community each month. The parent/guardian pays a monthly fee to the orthodontist.

6. Children’s Dental Health Association of San Diego

As its name suggests, these services are only available in San Diego. But they’re worth a look if you’re in the area.

The Children’s Dental Health Association funds a local Children’s Dental Health Center. Their School-Based Program also visits local low-income schools to provide exams, screenings and sealants to children on-site.

Subsidized Dental and Orthodontic Care for Adults

Many low-income parents simply opt out of dental care for themselves. Instead, they put their energy and dollars into finding assistance or paying out-of-pocket for their children’s care.

But your teeth need care, too!

Dental and orthodontic assistance for adults can be hard to come by, but it exists. Check for programs in your state, and see if either of these are a fit:

7. Dental Lifeline Network: Donated Dental Services

The Dental Lifeline Network’s national Donated Dental Services serves low-income people who have a disability, are elderly or are medically fragile. 

The donated services cover oral care, dentures, bridges, crowns and other tooth repair. Qualification requirements and availability of services vary by state. Check to ensure you qualify and that the organization is accepting applications in your state and county.

8. Discount Plans from :DentalPlans

If free services aren’t available in your area, or you don’t qualify for subsidized care, a discount dental plan could save you a lot of money.

For dental care without insurance, look at The site doesn’t provide free services or insurance coverage; instead it allows you to receive discounted dental care.

For an annual membership fee of $79.95, you’ll get a 10 to 60% discount on most dental services. You’ll pay out-of-pocket for the services, but much less than without the plan.

Programs by State

If you haven’t found what you need here, your state might offer additional programs. Check this list from the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) to find out what’s available in your state.

Dental Schools

When your only option is to pay out-of-pocket, you can visit nearby dental schools for discounted services. 

After years of training, students act as apprentices under the supervision of professional dentists and orthodontists to perform dental procedures, just like a private practice.

Find an accredited dental school near you.

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a former editor at The Penny Hoarder.