How to Combat the Crazy Cost of Dental Care

How to Combat the Crazy Cost of Dental Care - picture of little girl in dentist chair

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I distinctly remember paying $129 for an annual dental cleaning and X-rays at the dentist in our old town.  I wasn’t happy about it, but I suppose that’s the price I pay for being self-employed.  Actually, I have never had dental insurance before- even when I worked at a regular ol’ 9-5 job.  The point is, I’m used to paying for our basic dental care out-of-pocket and I’m generally happy to do so…within reason.

But we moved this winter and needed to find a new dentist.  I hadn’t thought much about it until Greg mentioned he’d like to go and said it was time to make an appointment for our oldest daughter as well (he keeps track of all appointments).  I told Greg to ask friends at work for a recommendation and to make an appointment for both of them, but only after finding out how much it would cost for each of them to have a new patient exam, X-rays, and a dental cleaning.

A few days later, I got this phone call from Greg:

Greg: Ummm…..I made our dental appointments and it’s not looking good.

Me: What do you mean it’s not looking good?

Greg: Well, it’s expensive around here…..<awkward silence>

Me: How much?

Greg: $375 for me and $333 for Lydia…..


<more awkward silence>

First of all, is that normal?  I’m not talking about my fit of expletives here (of course that’s not normal).   I’m talking about paying $708 for a five-year-old and an adult to get their teeth cleaned.  Have you ever heard of a dentist that charges that much?  I certainly haven’t, so we decided to shop around.

Combating the Crazy Cost of Dental Care

First of all, I’m sure most of us know someone who works in the dental industry and this post wasn’t written to disparage them.  Those who work in the dental industry work hard and likely deal with a whole lot of crap from all kinds of people.  But, $708 for two people?  Seriously.  That means that my family of four would have to pay $1416 for cleanings every six months.  That’s ridiculous.

Here’s what we did instead:

  • We looked beyond our neighborhood- We live in a pricey little pocket of suburbia, and I suspected that might have something to do with the price of dental care.  After some research, we quickly found that dentists got cheaper the further we got from home.  It’s totally worth driving twenty minutes to save hundreds (and possibly thousands) of dollars per year, am I right?
  • We shopped around- Experts say you should always shop around for the best prices on routine healthcare, and it’s true.  After calling a few dentists right outside of our immediate area, we found several who charged less than $150 for a new patient exam with X-rays and a dental cleaning.
  • We looked for coupons- After looking online for a few minutes, we found several coupons for new patient dental care.  Yes, I’m serious.  Dental coupons are a thing A few of them were for a $99 new patient exam with X-rays and a cleaning and another was the same offer but for $129.
  • We researched family deals.  After hearing of my sticker shock, a high school friend suggested I check out the family plan at the dentist she works at.  I’m so glad I did, as it gave me hope for the future.  They offer a family plan for four which includes dental cleanings and X-rays twice per year for all of us for a total of $599.  Isn’t that insane?
  • We got on Groupon- One of my friends suggested I check out Groupon for dental coupons, and I’m so glad I did.  On the Groupon site, I found a $39 Groupon for a new patient exam, dental cleaning, and X-rays.  You seriously cannot beat that.  More good news: the dentist offering this deal is only about 20 minutes away.

Other people I know have turned to short-term lenders in order to finance needed dental work.  However, I’m pretty sure you already know which option I went with.  Of course I couldn’t resist the allure of a $39 dental groupon!!!  Sue me.  However, the Groupon is just a one time deal.  After that, we’ll have to commit to a dentist with reasonable pricing or continue to shop around for coupons, or even Groupons.  As we all know, there are usually deals if you’re willing to look hard enough.  And fortunately, I’m always willing to spend time finding ways to save.

Do you have dental insurance?  If not, how much do you pay for a dental cleaning?

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  1. That is insane! Here un Canada we work under a feww guide issued by the Canadian Dental Association. Though it’s only a “guide” I don’t know n of any non-specialist charging more that recommend fee guide. Specialist (endodontists etc) will sometimes charge a percent up but still on par with whatever the guys down the street is charging. Also in NS where I live kids are covered by the province until 16 years of age. No wonder so many Americans (according to stats) dont go or have secondary complications. I would expect an adult to be NO more (super max guess) than $200 here. Which if you’re going 1-2x per year depending on oral hygiene situation, is often cheaper than paying into insurance. …

    1. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Our healthcare/dental system in the U.S. is a total joke.

  2. My old dentist only charged about $80 if you didn’t have insurance to do a cleaning. I am sure it would cost more if you had to get xrays, but I was an existing patient, just didn’t have insurance anymore. $708 is insane! When I had to pay for a crown out of pocket I only had to pay like $700 and that is a little more indepth that two sets of x-rays and a cleaning!

    We have to find a dentist for our little guy. Our current dentist doesn’t do pediatric dentistry so he gave us a couple referrals… We will see how they work out. The good news is my little guy loves brushing his teeth.

    1. My kids do too! And since we don’t have dental insurance, we’re pretty serious about dental care in this house!

  3. We pay nothing for cleanings on our insurance BUT I sure did rack up a $3400 bill for my sons braces yesterday. That is after the insurance company generously paying $300. I don’t know if that’s normal but I plan to shop around today for sure.

    1. $3,400 sounds like a lot but I have never paid for braces before! =/

      1. My daughter’s braces cost a total of $7000 and the was a deal.

    2. If it makes you feel better, my mom paid something like $1,500 for my top-only braces. That was . . . 17 years ago. So, the pricing seems fairly stable.

      Make sure that cost includes all the follow-up visits expected over time to adjust the braces and get the mouth to where it needs to go. Mine did, and I think mine even included my retainer. I could drive by then, so I went on my own, and I never paid for anything more.

      1. Wow! Thanks for the tip Leah, I’ll be making that phone call today. I had no idea!

  4. Impressed!!!

    I did something similar when I hurt my knee a couple years ago. I called a number of clinics to find the cheapest MRI. The prices varied from $400 to $3,000. Guess which one I chose. With my insurance plan I am responsible for 20% of medical costs (up to my max out of pocket), so I saved $520.

    1. Nice! It really does pay to shop around for that stuff. What sucks is when they won’t give you any pricing. I remember when I had to do physical therapy a few years ago and NO ONE would give me any sort of pricing. It was nuts.

  5. Wow, that’s just crazy! We used to have dental insurance when I was in my day job, but it really didn’t do much for us. When I left we started looking for dental insurance and it’s more freaking expensive than our dental insurance…NO thanks! That said, my wife and daughter just went last week and it was like $200, but that did not include X-rays as they wanted something like $250 more for those. We paid it all up front, which got us 15% off, so we do what we can to try and save a little bit.

  6. Today’s MY cleaning day. Luckily, we have awesome dental insurance and the cleaning is $35. The dental business isn’t one I’d want to be in. I read that dentists have the highest suicide rate of all professionals.

      1. Because we’re all here talking about them and how shitty they are for charging so much 😉

        Honestly I don’t know. I love my job haha!

  7. My one note of caution: I also shopped around to find an affordable dentist, and I went with the cheapest one in town. He seemed good. My mouth felt fine, I got my 6 month appointments, etc. I was ambivalent about the dentist.

    I finally got dental insurance last year, and I went to the fancier place where my husband goes, since he really loves his dentist. What did he find on my first set of x-rays? 8 cavities! 8!!! That cost $1,200 (that wasn’t covered by insurance) and erased all my thriftiness. He also looked at my x-rays from the previous dentist and said “why didn’t he tell you that you had soft spots? You could have worked on those with fluoride rinse.”

    So, my reason for this is not to tell you to spend more. I have no idea how much an appointment is with fancy dentist, since insurance covers it. But do make sure your dentist is pointing out soft spots (or ask about them) when you get x-rays. Do make sure your dentist is well-rated. I’m hoping mine was an isolated incident, but I wanted to share in case it was not.

    1. Leah,

      Se my comments and post below.

    2. Sounds crazy! Sorry that happened to you.

      On the other hand, I don’t buy the idea that more expensive dentists are always better. I plan to do more research before we choose a permanent dentist but I definitely do not believe that the most expensive dentist is always the best.

      1. I am a dentist and I can tell you that all the “research” patients do amounts to very, very little in determining the quality of dentist they select.

        1. Another way to say the same thing.

          Patients do not have the skillset to accurately evaluate the skills, ability, and quality of dentistry they are receiving.

        2. Mark,

          I’m confused on what exactly you’re suggesting I do. Should I go to the most expensive dentist (which I cannot afford) and believe blindly they are best?

          I can only read reviews and ask friends for recommendations and go from there. I’m not going to pay $1400 every six months for my family’s teeth to be cleaned. It doesn’t make sense.

          1. I am not suggesting see the most expensive. I am suggesting recognizing that research a patient does with online reviews is a complete waste of time. If you can, ask a family friend you trust to recommend you to a good dentist. If not an option, do not see the least expensive dentist and avoid any chains. Look for a dentist with advanced residency training such as a gpr (big difference than taking a few courses after graduating. Avoid Las Vegas institute trained dentists. Find someone who has been in the practice for 4-5 years. I will take residency trained over an ancient dentist but avoid anyone 2 years out or less. And again. Avoid the cheapest and the coupon docs, generally speaking.

  8. If I were a dentist with a thriving practice full of patients with insurance, I would charge what the insurance company reimbursed for x-rays. The margins for running the machine for a few seconds must be great.

    On the other hand if my practice were new or I needed more patients, cheaper x-rays might be the way to go.

  9. Reading blogs from the US make me realise how lucky we are in the UK to have the NHS. Our family is registered at a NHS dentist and the little one has all her dental treatment for free (all children under 16 have dental care for free) and myself and hubby pay £18 ($30) for a check up, £45 ($75) if we need x-rays or fillings and about £300 ($500) for any major treatment like crowns.

  10. We have dental insurance but a lot of the “extra” work like for fillings is only covered 50%. The extra work tends to be extra expensive too. It’s crazy. We’ve spent a lot on dental care this year.

    1. We didn’t spend much last year or this year, thankfully.

  11. Wow, that is crazy! My dental insurance is really cheap (under $100 per year) and that covers two cleanings per year and one x-ray per year. It also has pretty reasonable coverage of cavities, but not of anything else. I calculated whether it was worth paying cash for cleanings instead of the insurance and my insurance would have to cost at least 4x more for it to make more sense to just pay cash.

    I’m going to be very surprised when I go to another company and don’t have the awesome health/dental benefits that I do at my current company!

  12. Oh Holly so feeling your pain. What a coincidence yesterday we came from the dentist with an extra fee of $180 but that’s because my 4 year old had her first exam and cavities! Not only do I feel like a horrible mom but now I have to fork up an extra expense. Yes I have great insurance but I also have a tight budget. Next week it’s my oldest’s first appointment with the orthodontist to “talk” about braces. Needless to say I had a martini last night.

    1. I’m terrified of the cost of braces! I know we’ll do them if we need to but I would like to avoid it. Hopefully my kids won’t need braces for too long =)

  13. You have to be careful. There considerable skill in the diagnosis and something patients often do not realize there is considerable differences in skill and attention to care between one dentist and the next. Not all dentists are equal. So just because you are getting a $125 checkup compared to down the street’s $326 checkup that does not mean you are getting the same service.

    Sometimes the less expensive checkup can cost you far more in the long run with dental procedures (cavities, root canals, ect) of missed diagnosis.

    1. Unfortunately, we simply cannot afford to pay $1418 every six months for cleanings. I simply cannot imagine how much a cavity would be at that dentist…let alone a crown or something more serious.

      It’s a balance for sure. For this visit, I’m not worried. My husband is 34 and has never had a cavity (his mom is a hygienist) and my daughter is only 5 with perfect little choppers! I agree that a cheap dentist isn’t a long-term option. However, I can’t afford to pay 3K per year just for cleanings.

  14. The dentist I’ve been going to since I was 4 recently passed away. Okay, like 2 years ago. My Dad would kill me if he knew I haven’t been to the dentist in several years! Anyways, that dentist always charged me around $79 for a cleaning, with X-Rays, since I usually didn’t have insurance. I’ve been in total sticker shock since. I keep getting the “$129 new patient” coupons, but if you read the fine print you find the regular cost is $300+. Ouch! I’d like to find a dentist I can stick with long term, and not jump from deal to deal.

    1. I think we’ll probably do the $599 per year family plan we found with 2 cleanings/Xrays each. That seems like the best option.

  15. Ouch! I have a newfound respect for my dental insurance. I think we pay $10 per month and get two free cleanings with x-rays per year. Although it doesn’t necessarily sound like that would beat your Groupon!

  16. Luckily we have dental insurance! Great coupon/discount detective work!

  17. The $599 sounds fair for your whole family, though I would check Angie’s list for reviews, too. The first dentist I had when I moved here seems fine, but would try and upsell me at every turn. I also “magically” had cavities at every cleaning the 18 months I went there even though I’ve only ever had 1 other cavity my entire life. I don’t think I actually had any since they were ones you couldn’t see on an x-Ray and needed a fancy “laser tool” to measure them because they were so small.

  18. I have dental insurance, but I need an additional cleaning (beyond insurance coverage) every year. I ask for and get the (insurance) schedule price. You can also ask for the cash price and usually get a discount. No harm in asking.

  19. Fortunately I have good dental insurance. I have seen Groupon deals with seem pretty affordable. Also I once got a free teeth cleaning by participating as a patient for students studying to be dental hygienists. Don’t worry, their professors were there supervising.

  20. I have dental insurance and I STILL feel like I pay a crazy amount for my dental payments. Plus, my hubby has some sort of root issue that needs to be regularly monitored. I am convinced they are making it up and frequently curse my mother-in-law for not making her children take better care of their teeth. 🙂 The worst too is that it is impossible for us to find a pediatric dentist in our area that takes insurance, so my son’s visits end up coming out of pocket. Dental care is one of the reasons we max out our HSA.

  21. That does seem crazy. I have gone with the groupon thing a couple of times but in the end I always go back with my original dentist because she is so good. Luckily their price is reasonable enough for the standard stuff. I really having dental insurance!

  22. That first office seems very expensive for routine dental checkups. I know they charge an arm and leg in Telluride, but you can drive 30 mins and get the same exam for about a third of the cost. I would certainly check out all the offers. Sometimes coupons are only for the exam, but the cleaning is an extra $100 or something like that. You could also call the expensive office and ask them what they do in their exam that makes it so much more expensive. They should be able to explain it without getting huffy. Maybe it includes some fancy thing you can decline. I still probably would not pay that much, but I’d be curious how they sell it.

    1. Of course I read the offer- this ain’t my first rodeo! The $39 Groupon does indeed include an exam, cleaning, and X-rays for new patients only.

      I bet the dentist down the street charges more just because where we live. Everything costs more in our immediate area- hair appointments, daycare, etc.

  23. I didn’t have insurance when I had to get a wisdom tooth pulled last year, but I was covered when I went for x-rays and a cleaning. According to my insurance, the total cost just for the x-rays was $220. That panorex machine seems to cost a bunch. I’m honestly considering visiting a dentist near my parents, as everything is cheaper where they are, and they had a good experience.

  24. Hmmm I guess that’s another benefit of being employed. I never even think about the cost of regular cleanings because they are covered 100%, and our dental premiums are dirt cheap.

    I would think ~$150 would be reasonable and “normal.” One thing to keep in mind is that most dental offices have contracts with insurers, so the insurance company gets a discount for letting their customers go to the dentist. Dental insurance might be worth it for self-employed to look into.

  25. We have dental insurance so I have to plead ignorance when it comes to out-of-pocket costs, but I wouldn’t have been pleased with those initial costs either. Glad you did your research and found some good, low-cost options. And yes, when you live in nicer areas, the prices always seem higher, which is really unfair because the quality is not necessarily better.

  26. I’ve found that dental providers are a bit like optometrists in one regard: they seem to have one set of prices for people with insurance, and deals for people who don’t have insurance. The deals, if you can shop, are often good enough to come out ahead of insurance.

    FWIW, we do use dental insurance as it’s subsidized by my employer, and the small fees we pay are deducted from our taxable income.

  27. What thieving thieves they are!!! I couldn’t just if handing that amount over. Seriously? I get what you mean, although I have many dentists within my vicinity, I still travel 30 mins to a cheaper one.

    I don’t have a dental plan because the one I got to is £50 for a clean so not bad.

  28. HOLY CRAP. I’m glad I have dental insurance because that is really expensive. If I didn’t have insurance, I think I would be willing to pay up to $150 for a cleaning. Any more than that seems like a lot.

  29. Great tips for those without dental insurance. I took full advantage of dental coverage in my early 20s and had a lot of things taken care of- wisdom teeth, cleanings, xrays, fillings. Without the insurance, I couldn’t have afforded it all. We have it now through my husband’s work, but haven’t used it yet because of the $200 co-pay, yuck.

  30. Dental care is absurdly expensive, as is all medical care. Even with insurance it still costs me a lot in copays and deductibles.

  31. Before my wife and I had dental insurance, we used coupons like you said. We had several come in the mail and they gave us some great deals!

  32. I wrote a post about our dental discount plan. We don’t have dental insurance but our health insurance offers a dental discount plan – nearly half off most prices. The other factor that we discovered is that new patients are charged more than existing patients – the rates are higher and the number of procedures is higher. So my recommendation is to stick which whereever you go next and not necessarily choose it based on a Groupon.

  33. I have dental benefits through my employer, so cleanings etc are 100% paid for. That seems really expensive to me, but I live in a different country from you so I actually have no clue whether that’s a normal cost! I definitely don’t think it sounds fair that you’d have to pay that much.

  34. I believe prevention is better than cure because dental costs are real pain in the ass. I also took the dental insurance for my family which is nice relief from dentist fees.

  35. What sucks is when they won’t give you any pricing. I remember when I had to do physical therapy a few years ago and NO ONE would give me any sort of pricing. It was nuts.

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