9 Insider Secrets to Save Money on Dental Care

A mother and daughter brush their teeth together.
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Going to the dentist can be expensive.

Each patient pays about $430 a year on dental expenses, estimates the American Dental Association. Think how quickly that adds up for a family of four!

Whether you’re just addicted to discounts or feel hopeless when it comes to affording care, here are nine insider strategies to help keep your cash without sacrificing that dazzling smile.

  1. Ask for a discount
  2. Sign up a dental savings plan
  3. Check out free clinics
  4. Reconsider your dental insurance
  5. Shop around
  6. Find a student volunteer at a dental school
  7. Go to a specialist only when necessary
  8. Get a second opinion
  9. Practice prevention

1. Ask for a Discount

Do you love your dentist, but wish you could pay less to see her? Ask for a discount or try to negotiate your bill.

Or put away the plastic: Some dentist offices will give you a small discount (around 5%) for paying in cash.

Has a true financial hardship come your way? Contrary to the cold and impersonal drill-wielding dentist stereotype often portrayed on TV, most dentists are compassionate human beings.

If you’ve lost your job or you’re battling a serious health condition, talk with your dentist and the billing department. They might reduce their fees accordingly. Or you might be able to work out a payment plan with the office.

However, if payment is due at the time of service, bustin’ out the good old credit card may be your best option.

You could use a Care Credit, which works like a regular credit card for medical and dental expenses but with 0% APR options based on your credit score.

Lastly, ask if you can receive a discount for referring a friend. Or, see if it’s possible to knock off a few bucks for an online review.

2. Sign Up for a Dental Savings Plan

Dental savings plans aren’t dental insurance, but they may still be able to save you money.

Here’s how it works.

First, you pay an annual fee for the dental savings plan of your choice. Then, you get a 10% to 60% discount on most dental services — yes, even that unexpected root canal.

Dental discount plans, like those sold at DentalPlans.com, charge an annual membership fee that ranges from $80 to $200. The average cost for plans in Orlando, Florida, for example, was $135 to $170 a year.

The plan contracts with dentists who agree to reduce their fees, then you pay the participating dentist directly using your discount.

You’ll still pay out of pocket for those services, but the idea is that you won’t pay as much as you would without insurance.

Crunch the numbers and see if it makes sense to try a dental plan, or if it’s better to find other discounts that make your office visit cheaper.

3. Check Out Free Clinics

Federally funded community health clinics provide reduced-cost or free dental care services to people with low incomes.

Many operate on a sliding scale system while others offer flexible payment plans.

Services are available to people with incomes that are 200% or below the federal poverty level.

Wait lists can be long, so it’s important to reach out to your local clinic early.

Follow this link to find the nearest community health clinic near you.

4. Reconsider Your Dental Insurance

If you work for a mid- to large-sized company, you can likely get dental insurance at a very affordable monthly rate through your employer.

But if you have to purchase coverage on your own — or you work for a company with lackluster benefits — dental insurance can be expensive.

You might be able to score a tax credit for a dental plan on HealthCare.gov. People who make between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level can qualify, and this tax credit could save you hundreds of dollars a year on monthly premiums.

In 2022, that’s about $13,590 to $54,360 a year for a single person or $27,750 to $111,000 for a family of four.

However, you can only receive the credit if you purchase an insurance plan through the HealthCare.gov marketplace.

Without employer insurance or a federal premium tax credit, purchasing dental insurance on your own can be costly.

It may even make sense to ditch your dental insurance altogether.

We know it sounds crazy, but consider this: You could end up spending more on dental insurance premiums than the cost of your dental visits.

Ask your dentist for the fees and frequency of services you’ve received, namely teeth cleanings, X-rays and exams. You may find paying out of pocket is cheaper.

If that’s the case, deposit that same amount into a health savings account or a regular bank account over time to save for your next dental visit.

Just know the no-dental-insurance-route works best if you don’t have a history of extensive dental work.

5. Shop Around

Many communities are flooded with dentists competing for your business. To attract new patients, dentists may offer steep discounts or services from free teeth whitening and exams to free X-rays.

Where can you find these killer deals? Try sites like:

Keep your eyes peeled for advertisements on signs or in community pamphlets around town to find other local discounts.

People do dental work on people at a dental school.
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6. Find a Student Volunteer at a Dental School

Dental schools across the country offer quality dental work for a fraction of the price.

You can save big by having a dental hygiene student clean your teeth. Students love volunteers, and the cleaning you receive during the exam is likely free.

Each volunteer patient typically receives a teeth cleaning, X-rays, oral cancer screening, fluoride treatment, an exam by a licensed dentist and more for the same price as a value meal.

Check this directory for your local dental hygiene program or look through this list of dental schools.

The students are generally eager to give quality care. Plus, licensed dental instructors help them every step of the way, so you’re in good hands.

Be aware that learning takes time, so your appointment will be a bit longer than usual.

7. Go to a Specialist Only When Necessary

You might need dental specialists for their advanced knowledge and skills … but they come with a high price tag.

Many people make the (costly) mistake of choosing a specialist when a more affordable general dentist will suffice.

If you’re a parent still taking your teenager to a pedodontist for a filling, or a patient opting to have your wisdom teeth removed by an oral surgeon, compare costs. It could save you a bundle.

If you need an extraction or other dental surgery, it might be worthwhile to find a dentist that can perform the procedure you need in-house — at a cheaper rate than a specialist.

8. Get a Second Opinion

So you showed up to your appointment with a toothache and left with a proposed treatment plan that’s going to cost thousands — what do you do?

There’s often more than one way to fix dental issues. Call another dentist for a second opinion.

When you schedule an appointment, ask for a free consultation to dodge the cost of another exam. Also, bring current X-rays to avoid paying for them twice.

On Medicare? Here are seven options to find free dental care.

9. Practice Prevention

Not getting a cavity is always cheaper than the lowest priced filling.

Not only do said fillings have a price tag, but time is money. Americans miss an average of 321 million hours of work and school for dental care each year, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Missing work alone can be a significant expense!

Prevent tooth decay and other harm to your teeth today. While brushing and flossing may come to mind, there are a few other options as well.

Having a dental sealant applied (especially on kids) is a great way to prevent 60% of decay at one-third the cost of filling a cavity.

Xylitol gums and candies are a tasty approach to halt cavity-causing bacteria in its tracks. Also, a night guard can assist in preventing wear on your chompers from grinding and clenching.

Take care of your oral health and help keep your hard-earned cash in your pocket.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. Kristen Brady, a registered dental hygienist, contributed to this story.