I left my full-time job to work freelance eight months ago, and since then, have been playing fast and loose with my dental insurance. Without a company-supplemented plan, I thought traditional insurance was out of my financial reach, and I know I’m not alone — some 114 million Americans go without dental insurance too.
What I uncovered is that dental insurance is more affordable than I thought; I found plans less than $20 a month. My top pick, Delta Dental, has a huge provider network and a barebones HMO plan that would cost me less than $12. (Prices vary by ZIP code.) I also discovered dental savings plans, insurance alternatives that can be even cheaper if you don’t need a lot of dental work. I would pay less than $9 a month for both my top picks Cigna Dental Savings and Humana. Ultimately, you’ll want to run the numbers for both options with your dental needs in mind.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks for Best Cheap Dental Insurance
- Best Cheap Traditional Insurance: Delta Dental
- Best Dental Savings Plans: Cigna Dental Savings & Humana
I looked at 28 dental insurance providers total and narrowed the list down to my three top picks. Ultimately, the quotes I received were based on the best deal for a single female under 40 (that’s me!), so if you have a spouse or dependents to cover, you’ll want to see how much it might cost to add individuals to your personal plan (most plans will allow you to add additional members for a lower per person premium).
Dental insurance is nothing like medical insurance.
There’s a reason it’s cheaper: dental plans are just not meant to cover very much. According to Steffaney Prince, an insurance coordinator at a dental office in Sacramento, “Dental insurance needs to be thought of more like an assistance plan, not a full, comprehensive plan.”
“Most plans typically only cover $1,000 to $1,500 per year,” says Prince. “That goes very fast with two continuing care appointments (cleanings, exam, X-rays) and a few fillings. You’d better hope you don’t need a root canal, crown, or deep cleaning. And, let’s not forget wisdom teeth: that’ll wipe you out your max in one shot.”
Dental savings plans aren’t insurance at all.
Costs for kids add up too
- The ADA recommends that children visit the dentist no later than their first birthday. And, the CDC reports that 23% of children age 2-11 have untreated cavities, which has led to an estimated 51 million missed school hours. So early dental care is key. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides free or low-cost coverage for more than 7 million kids under the age of 19. Check to see if you’re eligible.
You’re simply paying a monthly premium for access to a group of dentists who have agreed to discount their rates. You’ll pay less for each cleaning, filling, or procedure, and you’ll pay the dentist directly.
There are only two people who know what kind of insurance is best for you, and neither one is an insurance agent. Next time you visit your dentist, spend five extra minutes discussing your dental history and insurance options.
“It’s important to have what we call a ‘dental home’ — a dentist who knows your history and the problems you’ve had in the past that can help you predict your future dental needs,” says Dr. Sally Cram, a Washington D.C.-based periodontist. “For example, if you have a lot of old fillings, it’s more likely you’ll need crowns later, which could be expensive and would be reason to get more comprehensive insurance.”
Once you have this conversation with your dentist, it’s up to you to do the research into your insurance plan. “Be a good consumer,” says Cram. “Know what is covered under your plan, whether you have a copay, and what your deductible is. Many people don’t realize their coverage has a maximum. Ask these questions before purchasing insurance and certainly before going to the dentist.”
How We Found the Best Cheap Dental Insurance
First, I looked at the basics. I made sure each top pick was strongly rated by Standard & Poor and/or A.M. Best — meaning each have a solid history of paying claims out accurately and in a timely manner. I also didn’t want to recommend a top pick with limited access, so I sliced away any providers that didn’t operate in at least 40 states. Other guys that got the chop? Providers offering group plans that are only accessible through an employer, since those didn’t fit my needs, or the needs of anyone else without a company-supplemented plan.
Next, since the priority here is affordability, I cut any insurance provider that wasn’t able to offer a comprehensive plan for less than $20/month. If you have deeper pockets, there are more expensive plans that offer more flexibility and broader coverage over a variety of treatments, but those aren’t for us. Also, each provider had to offer a variety of plans (from HMO to dental savings) with multiple pricing tiers. Truthfully, there’s not a ton of difference in the top-tier companies working in this space: most of their differences show up in the various price models they’re able to provide in different states. It’s often a difference of just a few dollars, so you’ll want to look at each of our picks to see who can give you the best deal.
Plans had to have a minimal to no waiting period between when you purchase coverage and when it kicks in for preventative care, like cleanings or x-rays, and no waiting periods for oral surgery. I cut any insurance company that was going to make you wait over a year for treatment — having to pay to wait around before your coverage goes into effect wasn’t going to fly.
Then, I jumped on each provider’s website. If a provider didn’t have an easy, online quote tool, it got the boot. I also spent a few afternoons calling automated phone services, often getting re-directed to dead air or full mailboxes. Starmount Dental, for example — which met all of the initial criteria — gave me three different phone numbers, all of which took me to automated voicemail boxes that asked me, politely, to please leave a message.
Best Cheap Dental Insurance
At first, I looked at “traditional insurance” — we’re talking HMO or PPO plans. You’ll pay a monthly or annual premium and, subsequently, receive either free or heavily-discounted services. You may have a deductible and an annual maximum, and generally, to get the largest discounts, you’ll have to see a dentist in your insurance network. Also, keep in mind that pricing varies dramatically from state to state. A basic plan from United, for example — a good all-around provider, but one I eliminated for being too costly to classify as “cheap” — would run you $26.62/month in California or $67.77/month (plus a $50 deductible) in New Jersey.
Delta Dental — Best Cheap Traditional Insurance
I looked closely at five major providers — Cigna, Delta, Humana, Starmount, and United — that offered affordable plans on a national scale. Delta Dental quickly bubbled to the surface. Its reach is extensive, so it’s highly likely you’ll be able to easily find a dentist who accepts its insurance within easy distance from you. As a major player in the game, it’s also developed a solid reputation for financial strength, with an A from A.M. Best and an A+ from Standard and Poor.
As for price, it can’t be beat. A bare-bones HMO plan, like its basic Care Dental Insurance plan, which I was quoted, is $123/year, plus a $15 enrollment fee for a single, 32-year-old female in New York. That breaks down to about $11.50/month for the first year, and less thereafter. That’s literally pennies a day.
Impressively, there’s also no deductible and no maximum on this particular plan, which is rare for dental insurance. That means your benefits kick in right away and you won’t be capped on coverage if you end up needing a lot of work in one year. Additionally, it advertises no waiting period for any service, including serious dental work. That gives it a major leg up on the competition, many of whom want you to wait at least 6 months for non-preventive treatments such as fillings. For example, Guardian Dental’s PPO Plus plan has a two year waiting period on orthodontic work.
Delta Dental has the largest network of any of the providers we looked at; in fact, almost 30 percent of Americans are covered under Delta.
Now, some drawbacks. You will have to choose a primary care dentist and stick with him or her to avoid additional charges. If you receive emergency services at a dentist other than your primary care provider, insurance will only cover $100 before you start paying out of pocket. Additionally, unlike some of the other top choices I considered, such as Starmount Dental, Humana’s HMO, or United, you’re on the hook for more co-pays (with other, more expensive insurance, you’ll often get all preventative care covered in full). There’s a $5 co-pay per office visit, and $20 for a cleaning, although your annual x-rays and comprehensive exams are fully covered. Still, even with these co-pays, the low monthly cost makes it worth it.
Costs for specific care procedures vary: I was quoted $37-$110 for a filling, which is a wide range that will depend on multiple factors, such as which state you live in (like all things, dental work will cost more in major cities) and where your filling is located (certain spots require more careful and time-consuming work). And don’t expect a low-cost plan like this to cover any major procedures in full: a major root canal might run you $600 with insurance — not free, but less than the $1000+ average out-of-pocket cost you’d pay for a root canal in New York, for example.
Best Dental Savings Plans (and Why You Should Consider Them)
When researching cheap dental insurance, I kept coming across dental savings plans — something that was brand new to me. As it turns out, if affordability is your goal, these plans may actually be a better bet than traditional insurance. Some don’t cover specific procedures, or only cover the bare minimum in terms of care, though — the cheaper silver fillings, say, instead of the “tooth-colored” alternatives. That said, there’s no maximum, no deductible, and far less paperwork since you aren’t dealing with an insurance company.
I found two national dental savings plans that were very similar in cost (whichever one is cheaper will depend on where you live) and had strong reviews across the board. Essentially, these two are tied in my book: You’ll have to look at both to determine how the savings compare in your neighborhood.
Cigna Dental Savings
You’ll pay $96 a year for individual access to the Cigna Dental Savings program, which promises an average saving of 37 percent on dental services. Cigna also offers savings programs for families and seniors, at $144 and $156 respectively. These programs also come with bonuses like Identity Theft Protection, discounts on vision and hearing care, and prescriptions. It’s worth looking into these bonuses to see if they might save you more on other required medications or services.
The Cigna website doesn’t provide quite as much information as Humana provides (minus one point), so I decided to call its customer service line to get a quote on particular services in my neighborhood. That said, I was connected to a friendly and knowledgeable Cigna representative with less than a minute of wait time (plus one point). For my ZIP code in Brooklyn, my representative found a dentist who charges $100 for a cleaning for patients paying out-of-pocket. With the savings plan, I’d only pay $54, which is a savings of $46. So, if you were to get two cleanings a year, you’d basically recoup the premium in savings. Similarly, she quoted me $185 for a filling out-of-pocket, versus $71 with the savings plan.
Cigna’s Dental Savings Plan is available in 37 states (look to another plan if you live in AK, CA, ID, IA, MT, ND, OK, RI, SD, UT, VT, WA or WY), and its dental network includes over 92,000 dentists.
Basic individual access to Humana’s Dental Savings’ Plan is $8.99/month, plus a $15 enrollment fee for New York City residents. (I also looked at it for a few different ZIP codes, and found some variation. For example, in Florida you’d pay a dollar less: $7.99/month.) For New York, that averages out to $10.24/month, making it slightly more expensive than Cigna.
That said, your upfront costs might be higher, but your savings are seemingly stronger. For example, the average cost of a dental cleaning in Brooklyn is $67; with Humana’s Dental Savings Plus, you’d pay $25. While a filling would be $81, versus the average of $118 out of pocket. Again, remember that these prices aren’t guaranteed: they will vary by region and by the dentist you choose.
Like Cigna, Humana’s Dental Savings Plan offers additional discounts on services like vision and hearing, and claim to provide an average savings of 37 percent on prescriptions at more than 62,000 pharmacies nationwide. Humana’s Dental Savings also provides discounts of up to 30 percent on some acupuncture and massage therapy treatments at participating providers, so, you know, get in line.
I found Humana’s website easier to navigate and more transparent in pricing than Cigna’s, and it provided more upfront information about costs.
Dental Insurance Costs At a Glance
|Yearly Enrollment Fee||$15||$0||$15||$0|
|Cleaning||$20 + $5 co-pay||$54||$25||$100|
Pricing was calculated for a single, female, under the age of 40 living in Brooklyn, New York, and assumes two cleanings and one cavity per year.
Looking for Dental Care on the (Very) Cheap?
Insurance and dental savings plans aren’t the only options for inexpensive dental care. Maybe you’re a student who moves frequently, don’t have the resources to research insurance options, or are experiencing a dental emergency and don’t have a primary dentist. If so, here are some other ways to obtain cheap dental treatment.
- State Coverage. Certain states have assistance programs to assist in dental care for lower income families. Check this site to see if you’re eligible.
- The Affordable Care Act. In 2014, the Affordable Care Act gave 1.1 million Americans dental benefits through health insurance marketplaces. This is especially worth checking out for families: 35.7 percent of medical plans now have provisions for pediatric or family dental benefits.
- Local Dental School. In grad school, I frequented the Aveda hair school for cuts at $20 a pop. My mom swears by the dental care she used to get at the dental school at her university. You can usually get discounted dental procedures at a school clinic.
- Oral Health America. If you’re over 60 (or caring for an older adult), check out ToothWisdom.org for low-cost dental care options for seniors.
OK, so do I REALLY need insurance?
Let’s say you’re in great dental health: you took advantage of comprehensive family coverage when you were a kid, have continued to get regular (twice yearly) cleanings, practice impeccable home-care (and yes, that means flossing), and are not a smoker or sugar addict. Should insurance be on your radar?
A Note for Smokers:
- Unsurprisingly, you’ll pay more for your coverage if you’re a smoker. Why? Because you’ll need more care. Smoking (or, chewing) tobacco causes issues from stained teeth to gum disease, and nearly doubles the likelihood you’ll need a root canal. The average cost of a root canal: around $1,000.
Maybe not. Prince says that since many people don’t understand what they’re getting when they purchase insurance, a better strategy for someone with great existing dental health could be to put the money they would spend on insurance (say, $20 a month) in a savings account to be used to pay for out-of-pocket preventative dental care.
I used myself as a test case with Dr. Cram: a mostly healthy 32-year-old female with solid preventative care (I floss, I promise!) and a history of twice-yearly cleanings. Might the upfront costs of two cleanings and checkups a year with periodic x-rays be less than what I would pay in annual premiums and co-pays?
“Actually, yes,” says Cram. I tried it out with one of our top picks for Dental Savings Plans: Humana charges $122.88/year and $25 for a cleaning, meaning my yearly cost for just the two cleanings plus the membership fee would be $172.88. That’s actually more than the $134 I’d pay out-of-pocket for two cleanings
So why would I pay more for the dental savings option? Well, once you start to add on procedures such as x-rays or the odd filling, that’s when you see the savings start to add up.
I’m certainly not going to say you don’t need insurance, but if overall savings are your goal, you should talk to your dentist before moving forward. If you have hallmarks of gum disease or have had dental problems in the past, you will absolutely want to look for insurance that is more comprehensive. Periodontal patients, for example, need to have cleanings every three months, and those costs will pile on quickly. Since I also have bridges and residual issues from my own metal-mouthed history, I need to look for insurance with more provisions for extended care.
Did You Know?
Preventive dental care can lead to cost savings in the future.
Most people don’t consider their dental health until a crisis occurs. Dr. Cram says: “I’m seeing more and more young patients who haven’t been to the dentist in a few years and that’s where the problems really show up.” In other words: preventative care matters, and that means seeing your dentist regularly.
Other reasons why dental care is important:
- The cost of going without dental insurance can result in spending more on other health issues.
- Studies show that individuals without dental benefits are more likely to have extractions and dentures and less likely to have restorative care or receive treatment for gum disease.
- Those without dental benefits report higher cases of other illnesses, specifically cardiovascular and heart diseases (so, the fact that dreams about teeth are traditionally interpreted as dreams about death might not be that bananas).
The Bottom Line
Dental care should be a priority. Your teeth need you, but they may not need traditional dental insurance. Talk to your dentist and figure out what kind of care or issues you should expect in years to come, and attack your insurance accordingly. If your care needs are likely to be minimal, and you have enough savings to cover the cost of a pricier procedure in case of emergency, you may be better off going it alone — as long as you are still able to afford your annual preventative care. If you’ve neglected your teeth or are likely to need a lot of care in the future, look into insurance, starting with our Best Overall pick, Delta Dental. Concerned about price? See if a dental savings plan, including those offered by Cigna Dental Savings and Humana Dental Savings Plus might best meet your needs. Either way, comprehensive preventative care matters, and it’s not as far out of reach as you might think.