How to Afford Your Kid's Braces or Expensive Dental Care

At their six-month dental checkup earlier this year, both of my sons received the dreaded diagnosis: Each one had a cavity in a baby tooth that would need to be filled.

In addition to feeling like a terrible parent, I was also not looking forward to having to pay for their fillings. Our family dentist wasn't set up to handle fillings for two squirmy young patients, and the pediatric dentist she referred us to did not accept our dental insurance.

Thankfully, my husband and I have an emergency fund for such an occasion, but not every parent is as fortunate. Taking care of your kids' teeth doesn't have to bankrupt you, even if they do need costly dental care or treatment.

I talked to Marissa Miller, DDS, of Shelby, Ohio, to find out what parents need to know about affording expensive dental care for their kids.

1. Preventive care is always cheaper than treating problems

According to Dr. Miller, "To mitigate the costs of dental procedures, my first piece of advice is have kids see the dentist early and regularly." There are two reasons for this. First, kids who get used to seeing the dentist early in their lives are less likely to develop phobias that will keep them from seeing the dentist later on.

This leads to the second reason why it's important to get your kids used to seeing the dentist early and often: It's much less expensive to have biannual tooth cleanings than it is to deal with an entrenched problem.

Even if your child does have a dental problem that will need treatment, finding it sooner rather than later will generally be easier on your wallet. "Having your kids come to the dentist at regular intervals also gives us a chance to catch any problems — such as tooth decay, narrow palate, etc. — early on," Dr. Miller says. "And catching problems in an early stage almost always leads to less costly treatment."

2. Some common pediatric dental procedures can be surprisingly expensive

Most parents are well aware of the fact that orthodontics (i.e., braces, retainers, and other tooth-straightening tools) are expensive. According to the 2013 Survey of Dental Fees, comprehensive orthodontic treatment for adolescents ranged in price from $4,685 to $6,500.

However, parents may not be aware of the fact that other common dental procedures can also cost a pretty penny. Specifically, when there is a great deal of tooth decay in baby teeth, the treatment can be expensive. According to Dr. Miller, "When deep cavities occur in children between roughly three and nine years of age, the costs of restoring those teeth can add up quickly. Fillings, stainless steel crowns, and pulpotomies (similar to root canal therapy but usually just for primary or 'baby' teeth) can all be called for in order to keep those teeth in working order." (See also: How to Handle a Massive Medical Bill)

3. Don't let cost keep you from getting treatment

Parents might assume that dental care for their kids is more cosmetic than necessary. After all, baby teeth will eventually be replaced with adult chompers, and orthodonture is an expensive procedure that just provides a straight-toothed smile. The high cost for something that feels unnecessary might tempt some parents to put off the treatment while they get their financial ducks in a row.

Dr. Miller warns against that: "The whole point of trying to keep these primary [baby] teeth until they're ready to exfoliate naturally is that they are the placeholders of the adult teeth. If primary teeth are taken out early, it is common for the adult teeth to erupt in severe misalignment, resulting in a more urgent and comprehensive need for orthodontic care."

Similarly, while straightening adult teeth for cosmetic reasons is part of the rationale for orthodontic care, it's hardly the whole reason. Properly aligned teeth promote good oral health overall — which is necessary for whole body health.

4. Your dentist wants to help you find a payment plan

Despite what you may remember from Steve Martin's portrayal of Dr. Scrivello in Little Shop of Horrors, you can rest assured that real dentists get into their practices because they truly want to help people. That means they want to see their patients get necessary treatment — and they will try to find a way to work with you on a payment plan. (See also: 7 Ways to Negotiate Medical Bills)

According to Dr. Miller, a lot of dental offices offer a variety of payment options. In particular, she recommends asking about the following:

  • Cash discounts. If you're prepared to pay the full case fee up front, ask about this option, especially if the cost of the procedure is over $1,000.

  • Third-party financing. With third-party financing, you can use something that works basically like a dental care credit card to pay for your procedure. Many of these financing companies offer you interest-free payment periods of up to 12 months. Dr. Miller describes third-party financing as "nearly universal," so feel free to ask your dentist about which company they use.

  • Payment plans. Some dentists will allow you to split payments over several months interest-free, although you will generally be expected to have a credit card on file and a history with the practice for your dentist to agree to this. Orthodontists offer payment plans more often than general dentists due to the nature of their treatment plans and fees.

5. Financial assistance is available

Families who simply do not have the financial ability to pay for their children's dental or orthodontic care can apply for financial assistance. The National Children's Oral Health Foundation (NCOHF, but also known as America's ToothFairy) offers access to dental care to underserved children. If you are unable to afford a specific dental treatment for your child, you can apply for funds from NCOHF through their In the Gap program.

In addition, Donated Orthodontic Services, sponsored by the American Association of Orthodontists, offers pro-bono and low-cost orthodontic services to children of families who cannot afford the regular cost of orthodonture. The nonprofit program Smiles Change Lives also offers low-cost or free orthodontic services to kids in need.

Neglect is more expensive than dentistry

Watching your children undergo dental work is no one's idea of fun — and having to pay big bucks for it can feel like adding insult to injury. But making sure your kids' pearly whites stay healthy and straight will put them on the road to good oral health for years to come.

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