I originally published this post last year after having my first experience of going to the dentist without insurance. It was a much different post than I usually write for M$M, and after asking for your experiences with and without dental insurance, I wanted to turn this into a more comprehensive look at the question of “Is dental insurance worth it?”
The thing about that question, though, is that health care costs are so wildly different from person to person that it's probably hard to come to any kind of solid conclusion.
So is dental insurance worth it?
Again, I’m updating this with your experiences and some more information about dental insurance to answer that question, but first…
My choice to go without dental insurance
I used to have dental insurance when I was a teacher. I honestly can't remember how much it cost per month anymore, and it was a total afterthought anyway. It was just one of those random line items that got taken out of my pay every two weeks.
When I finally quit my job to run M$M back in 2015, I started shopping around for healthcare.
As a side note: in my experience so far… healthcare kinda sucks when you're self-employed, well that was until I found a health sharing ministry for health insurance, which I will talk about more in depth in another post. If you are looking to start your own business soon, start looking at healthcare now.
I opted to go without a dental insurance policy in that first year of self-employment and have ever since. The biggest reason was that I valued the savings and didn't want to spend the money. I'm embarrassed as hell to admit this to tens of thousands of people because it seems a little gross, but not only did I make the decision to start seeing the dentist without insurance, I just didn’t even go to the dentist at all that first year.
That's just the reality of being self-employed in the beginning; you kinda give up essential things like that because you’re afraid you’re going to run out of money. But don't worry, I do brush twice a day, floss, and use mouthwash probably two or three times a day. Gotta stay married after all 🙂
My first experience going to the dentist without insurance…
It started when my dentist’s office called to check on my insurance status because they tried to contact my old insurance company and found out I wasn't on a plan anymore. I said no and that I was going to pay out of pocket, to which I received a super awkward “Oh wow… well… OK. We'll see you at 10:40 am.“
I got to the dentist's office and checked in. Again, they asked if I had dental insurance. And again, I said paying out of pocket was the plan, another awkward response.
Then I sat down in the chair, and the hygienist asked if I had dental insurance as she was going over my file. Same awkward answer and response. I was starting to feel like the only person who had ever gone to the dentist without insurance.
The dentist came in and immediately found a crack in a filling I had done when I was about 12. He said I would need a crown (which sucks and I will get to that later), but then he mentioned dental insurance.
Same. Freaking. Awkward. Interaction. Followed.
He left, and then the hygienist showed me pictures of the crack in my tooth so I would know they weren't ripping me off or anything. After that, she cleaned my teeth and told me my teeth and gums were in great shape other than the crack.
Then she called in someone from the office to work out a payment plan with me for the crown because I didn't have dental insurance. I guess they just assumed that I wouldn’t be able to afford the procedure because I was a 20-something and dressed like… well… a blogger. I can't really blame them for not seeing my latest income report 😉
The crown would have cost $2,000, but since I told them I didn't need a payment plan and would pay out of pocket in full, they dropped it to $850. They said the dentist was “doing me a favor.”
*shrug* I feel like I was doing him a favor, but I digress.
After that, I got up from the chair and went to pay for the cleaning and schedule my next appointment. They asked if I had dental insurance again. AGAIN. So, the same weirdness followed. That totals six different times in one visit, a little excessive guys. I had no freaking clue that choosing to see my dentist without insurance was basically going to be a constant interrogation, I would have just shown up with a sign that said, “I’m self-employed, I don’t have dental insurance, stop asking.”
What are the numbers on dental insurance?
Thinking that I must be the only human being willingly seeing the dentist without insurance, I decided to look up some data. I was happy to see I wasn’t alone.
Here are the interesting stats I found about dental insurance:
- 205 million Americans have dental plans.
- 114 million Americans don't have dental plans.
- The majority of people who have dental insurance are covered through AARP or a plan through their employer.
- The average cost of a cleaning in the U.S. is $85.
- Average premium prices for employee-only plans range from $223-$288 per year.
- Average premium prices for employee and family plans range from $445-$865 per year.
But, what does dental insurance actually cover?
The average dental insurance provides what is called 100/80/50 coverage. Again, this is this typical plan. Don’t yell at me if yours is different, but you can calmly share your dental insurance coverage in the comments.
This 100/80/50 split means:
- Preventative care, like cleanings, exams, x-rays are covered 100%, and most plans let you go for these check-ups twice a year.
- Basic procedures are covered around 70-80%, and those are things like fillings and extractions. It’s also typically the same coverage for periodontal work (aka stuff with your gums).
- Major procedures are covered at 50% or less. These are crowns, root canals, bridges, implants, dentures, etc.
If you’re trying to figure out is dental insurance worth it for you, the “worth it” part will depend a lot on the condition of your teeth, how well you care for them, and how much dental work you think you'll need during the year. If you take great care of your teeth, you may not necessarily come out ahead with a dental insurance policy.
But… there's always the chance that something weird happens (like a cracked filling or your tooth breaks while you're eating potato chips) that could make dental insurance a valuable tool.
From everything I can find in terms of research for this question, there really doesn't seem to be a definitive answer to the question of is dental insurance worth it to your very specific situation. For some, affordable dental insurance is a real thing, for others, not so much.
The bottom line on dental insurance
Like I said in that last paragraph, your situation is probably the most informing factor in how you approach dental insurance. If you think it’s a good fit for you, then you’ll need to think about what type of plan to choose, and there are lots out there, especially if you go outside of your employer.
There are indemnity/fee-for-service plans, PPOs, HMOs, insert more capitalized letters here. You get it, there are lots of options, and they can be expensive.
If you aren’t self-employed, hopefully your employer is at least paying part of the total cost, otherwise you may be better off going to the dentist without insurance.
If that made you clutch pearls or blackout for a second, going to the dentist without insurance isn’t actually a horrible idea…
Some of my readers shared the cost of their dental work even with dental insurance, and I nearly blacked out. Those are the experiences that make me wonder how even is dental insurance worth it, seriously?
Choosing to see the dentist without insurance
Disagree with me if you will, but I’m still pretty happy with my decision to go without dental insurance.
Say you take good care of your teeth at home, have a reasonable emergency fund, and are willing to go to the dentist at least once (averaging $150-$200 for exam, cleaning, and x-rays), that’s a total yearly out-of-pocket cost of just $150-$200.
Now, compare that to the average yearly individual policy, which averages $350. $100-$200 is a decent amount to save, and you know I can help you come up with a dozen or so things to do with that extra money (put it towards debt, stock that emergency fund for when you do need more expensive dental work, invest for retirement, more avocado toast for you crazy millennials).
Remember how I said my dentist gave me a “discount” for going in without insurance? That’s a thing they do, for a lot of people, not just the ones who regularly dress like bums. They’re saving money by not processing things through insurance. I’m not sure if this is the same as using the self-checkout at the grocery store, but you are saving them something, and they pass that onto you.
Help for the dentally uninsured millennials out there
The other thing about going to the dentist without insurance is that there are options for those major incidentals.
Hello emergency fund. I’m so glad I put you aside for a root canal one day. I don’t actually need a root canal… knocks on wood… just making a point about emergency funds.
Besides an emergency fund, or in addition to one, there are still more options for paying for work instead of seeing your regular dentist without insurance and leaving with a $2,000+ bill, like:
- Dental schools- Visiting a dental school is an option for anyone facing costly dental work. Don’t worry, highly trained dentists supervise the students as they work, and you do get a hefty discount. Every program is a little different, but you can find ones near you from CODA (Commission on Dental Accreditation).
- Dental tourism- Similar to medical tourism, traveling for dental care (Latin America is a popular dental tourism destination) is a growing trend right now. I haven’t tried it, but lounging in Costa Rica for a week while recovering from a root canal doesn’t sound that awful. I have got to stop talking about this hypothetical root canal before it becomes a thing.
I also found this cool tool from Fair Health Consumer that takes where you live, the procedure you may need done, and then it gives you an idea of what it would cost to have work done at the dentist without insurance. You can also just call your dentist and ask.
Is dental insurance worth it to my readers, let’s see…
“Many dental costs actually are negotiable, especially if you pay cash. It means the dentist gets his money upfront instead of dealing with insurance… we actually save money with insurance. But if you don’t have dental complications, and especially if you’re self-employed, it probably makes more sense to forgo the insurance.”
“Right now, being in Thailand, dental work is A LOT cheaper here than back in America. I got a dental cleaning for $28, having no insurance. Then I got some crowns put in and it cost $1,430. If I had gotten the same dental work in the U.S., it would have cost around $5,000. Yikes! Dental tourism at it’s finest, haha.”
“I had similar experiences with my dentist when I had no dental insurance. I don’t remember exact costs, but the premiums looked like more than two cleanings a year, so I opted out. My dentist was great and gave me frequent discounts for years because of my lack of insurance.”
“They charge insurance companies more for procedures than they would a person directly, so the ‘favor’ was simply to charge you normal rates… I live in Arizona, a couple of hours from the border with Mexico, where I have lots of families I visit often. Dental work is much cheaper there and since I visit often, I plan my visit to the dentist for my wife and I during those trips. It saves me a ton of money.”
“I am a dentist who owns an office, so I definitely have a few insights into this topic… First, I think it is important to note that most dental ‘insurance’ is really more of a discount plan. Depending on where you live, many maximums on dental plans have not appreciably changed in 30 years, while the costs of dental care certainly have! If you need more than a few fillings, chances are really good your coverage will be maxed out, even if you have it.”
“I had very expensive dental work done last year that included 2 cavities and 6 veneers. I had to get the veneers for more than just cosmetic reasons, there was no avoiding it but I was also not expecting to have to get it done so soon. That’s when I found out my dental insurance would only pay $1200 to cover my cleanings, X-rays, cavities and veneers. I was out of pocket over $6800 for the year. It really sucked. I had the money to pay for it outright, and I got a discount from my dentist but I had no idea my insurance sucked so bad.”
Should you drop your dental insurance today?
I choose to forgo dental insurance not because I’m broke or an idiot, but because I realized that I will save money in the long run.
Before you follow me off of that proverbial cliff, my main point in writing this post is to help you understand that having dental insurance isn’t always the way to go. There are lots of instances when it’s probably an awesome idea, and other times when the answer to the question I started with, “Is dental insurance worth it for me?” a big fat “no.”
Take some time to look at your plan if you have one, think about how you could cover a major dental expense if it came up, and go from there.