Note from the editor: It’s estimated that 60% of Americans don’t visit their dentists due to costs. In our never-ending pursuit to provide you with all of the information to become FREE (Financially Resiliant and Empowered Early), we brought dentist Brittany Vacura on board to tackle costs and guide you through dental care.
By Brittany Vacura | 14 July 2020
Dental care can be one of the most neglected aspects of our health yet it is arguably one of the most important. There are many factors that impact our perceptions of dental health and our teeth, but the majority of public misconception is from lack of education. People don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s often easy to ignore the problems you don’t know you have. I’m here to address all of this and help you shake the fear of the unknown so you aren’t left feeling vulnerable in the dental chair.
Even for a healthy person, fear can be a barrier to health that can create physical and financial problems.
Regardless of your age, you should be going to the dentist every 6 months for an exam and cleaning.
This is because plaque builds up on our teeth over time and cannot be completely removed with our toothbrush. It hardens and turns into tartar which then can only be removed by dental instruments. It takes an average of about 6 months for tartar to build up to the point where it becomes visible and begins to cause problems.
Another reason you should go to the dentist bi-annually is because it takes about 6 months for a new cavity to form.
If you are going to the dentist regularly and keeping your teeth clean, you are less likely to have cavities. Despite your tireless efforts of brushing and flossing, going to the dentist regularly can allow cavities to be caught early enough to prevent significant damage.
The cost of significant damage is typically much more than the cost of prevention in the first place.
Dental cleanings can cost about $85. That’s about $200 annually. Side note: it costs more for dogs to get their teeth cleaned.
Exams and x-rays can range from another $100-$200 a year.
Neglecting your dental routine care for 5-10 years, developing periodontal disease, requires a deep cleaning at $800-$1000. Then maintenance cleanings are every 4 months as opposed to every 6 months.
If those numbers aren’t convincing enough, you should also know that getting a deep cleaning does not “cure” you of periodontal disease. You are forever at risk of continuing to lose the bone around your teeth, which could eventually lead to losing your teeth altogether.
Now that I’ve scared you about gum disease, what about cavities?
A small cavity may need a small filling, costing around $150.
But a large cavity may extend to the nerve of the tooth, causing pain and infection, requiring a root canal and then a crown ($2500).
If the cavity is so large that the tooth is no longer savable, the tooth would then be extracted ($250), have bone grafting placed ($300), then an implant with a crown ($3000).
As much as we strive for restoration, nothing can replace the function of your natural teeth.
It is always better for your health and your wallet to participate in preventative dental care by going to the dentist regularly and taking care of your teeth at home.
Although routine dental care and maintenance is almost foolproof in preventing dental issues, people don’t go to the dentist twice a year usually due to cost. Many people will only go to the dentist if they have dental insurance, which typically covers routine or preventative care like exams and cleanings.
The results can be devastating. By age 50, the average American has lost an average of 12 permanent teeth. This is something that is completely preventable.
One Measure to Reduce Your Financial Liability: Dental Insurance
My biggest advice is if you have dental insurance offered to you through your employer, make sure you use it!
What good is an employee benefit if you aren’t benefiting from it? Have your teeth examined and cleaned every 6 months, and if you are in need of additional care make sure to have all of it completed in a timely manner.
However, dental plans are covering less and less – to the point where dentists are questioning whether to even participate in accepting them. Dental insurance deductibles have remained the same for the past 20 years despite the cost of materials and labor increasing with inflation.
I like to educate my patients that having dental insurance is really like paying for a coupon – it’s just a discount of the overall price tag. Because of these changes (or lack of changes) in the insurance world, the average dental insurance plan may barely cover the cost of one crown.
This means that those with insurance aren’t necessarily off the hook for a large dentalbill.
While dental insurance plans offered through your employer may offer some benefits, you’re often required to pay out of pocket for copays, deductibles, and any non-covered charges. Your most cost- effective solution might be searching for a dental school, joining a private membership, or going to a FQHC.
If you don’t have dental insurance, or if your dental insurance covers very little, you’re probably wondering what options you have for seeking affordable, high quality dental care.
It’s important to recognize that dental care can be evaluated by its cost, speed, and quality. It is rare to find high quality, affordable dental care that is quick. It’s also rare to find high quality, quick dental care that is affordable.
I educate my patients regularly to make sure they understand that you’re lucky to achieve one or two of those three categories, but it’s impossible to receive quick, cheap, and high quality dental care. Having realistic expectations is extremely important when searching for a dental office that you can trust.
There are many options out there for people who don’t have dental insurance.
If you have all the time in the world and want to find the best quality dental care with the lowest price tag, seek dental care at an educational institution such as a dental school or hygiene school. Students and dental residents are supervised and their work is scrutinized by multiple professors. I would argue you receive the best fillings and cleanings from dental students and dental hygiene students. The trade off is your time. Oftentimes, you will find yourself in the dental chair for hours at a time, for a procedure that could have been done in 30-60 minutes in a private office. But remember that you are sacrificing your time for a discount.
Another resource where you can receive quality dental care at a more affordable price would be at a federally qualified health center (FQHC)
These clinics are funded by the government to accept patients on medicaid. They have the ability to discount treatment based on your income and family size. Their discount program is usually called “Sliding Fee.” Here, you are sacrificing your time for a discounted fee. FQHC’s tend to be high volume offices that see many patients a day. Your provider often may only have enough time to do one filling in a visit, or only the exam but not the cleaning. However if your focus is on saving money while still receiving quality dental care, this could be a good option for you.
If you are interested in quality dental care but don’t have the ability to take time off from work or the flexibility to sit in the dental chair for 3 hours at a time, my next recommendation would be to find a private office with an in-office membership plan.
Because insurance companies are not paying for as much treatment as they used to, many dentists are transitioning from private insurance to creating their own custom insurance plan. These memberships vary and typically have a monthly fee that includes your routine dental care each year, plus a discount of any treatment needed. Much like a gym membership motivates you to continue going to the gym, a dental insurance membership encourages regularly going to your dentist while still receiving affordable care.
If you have not been to the dentist in 5, 10, or 20 years and find yourself in the dental chair being told you need a deep cleaning and 10 fillings, don’t panic.
Although you may have known you needed to get an appointment sooner and feel guilty or embarrassed, there’s absolutely no need to shame yourself.
Understand that recognizing and accepting the problem is the first step, and you are not alone.
Dental decay and gum disease is extremely common, and you may have had a genetic predisposition as well. The biggest step is making that appointment and showing up! Let’s do something about it. Now that you’ve come this far, let’s do something about it. It’s important to gain momentum towards becoming healthy again. Continue to make your appointments and show up. I promise we’ll take good care of you.
When it comes to teeth, bad news can quickly become worse news if it’s ignored. This can impact not only your smile, but also your wallet.
We’re changing the narrative around money but change can’t happen with a one-sided conversation. That’s why we’re excited to bring different voices and experts to share their wisdom. Send us an email and let us know what you think. And remember the nav.it money app offers you free tools for checking in and managing your money moves.
Brittany is a general dentist currently practicing in Sacramento, California. She prides herself in her ability to strategically plan out treatment in a way that makes it affordable for her patients. She also loves educating and coaching dental students on how to tackle their student debt. On her quest to becoming debt free herself, she enjoys reading about personal finance, going to CrossFit with her fiance, and home improvement projects.