Spending Too Much on Dental Care? Here’s How to Fix Your Teeth for Less

A woman gets her teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist.
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When I was younger, I drove an hour to go to the cheapest dentist around. He gave me a discount for having my fillings done without anesthetic, either because it saved him money or maybe just because he liked causing pain.

Fortunately, there are some better ways to save hundreds of dollars on your dental care — which, considering the cost of dental care these days, could go a long way toward preserving your savings. Here are the best of them…

Go to Dental Schools

Dentists need to learn their professions, and at many of the schools where they’re trained you can get inexpensive or free dental work because students need the practice. For example, the College of Dentistry at Ohio State University in Columbus routinely offers cheap dental care, and regularly has events where they offer free dental work. Call the dental school nearest you to see what they offer. This list of dental schools will get you started.

It’s even more common to find free services in dental hygienist and dental assistant programs. For example, I went to a local community college once to get free x-rays, which I was allowed to take with me. That saved me the cost of having them done at my dentist’s office. Cleanings can be free or very inexpensive through these schools as well. To locate the programs near you, visit the American Dental Association website and use the ADA search tool to find all of the dental assisting, hygiene and lab technology programs in your state. Call the nearest ones to see what they offer.

Is it safe to let students work on you? Well, the woman who did my x-rays did have to try twice on one side of my mouth, but that’s happened to me at a dentist’s office, too. In any case, the instructor was there the entire time to make sure she didn’t make any major mistakes. I’m not sure I would want a student doing a tooth extraction, but for exams, cleanings and x-rays I trust the training and supervision is sufficient.

Free Dental Work from Volunteers

If you really can’t afford to go to a dentist (as opposed to just wanting to save money), there are ways you can get dental work done for free. A dental hygienist friend of mine volunteers for an annual event in Tampa, Florida, where hundreds of people get extractions, fillings or cleanings for free. It’s organized by a group called “Dentistry From the Heart,” and they do this in dozens of cities around the country each year. You can check their upcoming event list to see when they’ll have one near you.

You’ll also find community dental clinics around the country where low-income patients can access reduced rates or even free services. The website FreeDentalCare.us lists many of these by state. Also, free or donation-based medical clinics will sometimes refer you to dentists who will do free or reduced-fee work.

Use Coupons

Here in Naples, Florida, dentists send out great coupons during slow season, which is typically May to October. For example, a recent coupon offered a dental exam, x-rays, and cleaning, which would run almost $300 normally, for $29 total. These are always for new patients only, although there are so many dentists here and so many coupon deals that I’ve considered just changing my dentist every year.

The offers come in the mail and in local newspapers, but the easiest way to find them is to go to Valpak.com and enter your zip code to see if any of their coupons are for local dentists. Check back if you don’t see any on the first try, because they add new coupons frequently. You can print them from the site.

Use Online Reviews

Just about every business is reviewed online now, and that includes dental practices. You can enter your zip code into the search box on the Healthgrades.com directory to see what others have said about the dentists in your area.

Make a list of those who have decent ratings, and start calling them one-by-one. Ask what they charge for an annual exam and a cleaning. That should give you an idea of how they compare. As long as you’ve excluded the low-rated dentists, you can safely choose the cheapest from your list.

Ask about Alternatives

Dentists tend not to volunteer alternatives that don’t make them as much money, but they will sometimes tell you about them if you ask. For example, I was once told I needed a root canal for a wisdom tooth, but when I pushed him, the dentist acknowledged that simply removing the tooth would be much cheaper and wouldn’t create other problems (25 years later, it hasn’t). I have since read that root canals may be dangerous in any case (who would have guessed that leaving a dead tooth in your mouth might cause problems?).

More recently I was told I needed $6,000 in dental work (perhaps that is why the dentist offered the $69 coupon deal). I went to another dentist and discovered that the alternative was just to floss better and more frequently. Maybe, if I don’t do a good job, I’ll need a $600 procedure in a year, but that’s still a 90% savings over the recommendation of the first dentist.

There is often more than one solution to your dental issues, and sometimes an alternative is better and cheaper, so be sure to ask.

Your Turn: Have you used any of the suggestions here to save on dental care? Help out other readers by sharing your experiences below…