Going to the dentist can be scary.
Not because of the high-powered drill or that suction thingy.
It’s the cost.
The average American spent $430 on dental care in 2020, according to the American Dental Association.
It’s no wonder 37% of American adults reported skipping their yearly dentist appointment, according to CDC data.
You may not be able to cover a big out-of-pocket expense — but you still want the best dental care possible for your kids and yourself.
In this guide, we break down affordable dental care options, including nonprofit programs for kids, discount dental plans and Medicaid coverage.
1. Community Health Clinics
Federally funded community health clinics provide reduced-cost or free dental care services to people with low incomes.
Many operate on a sliding scale system while others offer flexible payment plans.
Wait lists are often long, so reach out to your local clinic as soon as possible.
Here’s how to find a community health center near you.
2. Dental Schools
When your only option is to pay out-of-pocket, you can visit nearby dental schools for discounted services.
Dentists need to learn their trade, and at many of the schools where they’re trained, you can get inexpensive or free dental work.
For example, the College of Dentistry at Ohio State University in Columbus routinely offers cheap dental care, and regularly has events where they offer free dental work.
Call the dental school nearest to you and see what’s available. This list of dental schools will get you started.
Visit FreeDentalCare.us to find free and affordable dental care near you. Search results include universities, community clinics, churches and dental schools.
3. Charitable Organizations
Several nonprofit programs offer braces and other professional dental services for kids.
Finding and qualifying for similar charity programs for adults, however, can be much more challenging.
Subsidized Care for Children
Several subsidized or free dental care programs are available to help children from low-income families.
These services help cover major costs like braces or smaller expenses like the semi-annual check-up your kids need to maintain healthy teeth.
Nearly all of these programs require you to submit an application and pay some type of fee if your application is accepted.
Smiles Change Lives
Smiles Change Lives offers braces to children ages 7 and up. (People ages 19-21 can apply, but they should be aware that placement with a provider is much more difficult at that age.) You’ll be responsible for a non-refundable $30 application fee and an out-of-pocket cost of $650 for the braces.
You can find out if you are financially eligible for Smiles Change Lives by using this tool.
Applicants must submit a personal essay about why braces are necessary and how getting them will impact the child. Letters of support are optional but encouraged.
Donated Orthodontic Services
The American Association of Orthodontists provides a list of Donated Orthodontic Services. It’s limited to select states, but these providers cater to children who don’t have insurance coverage or who don’t qualify for assistance.
There’s an application process, and some potentially lengthy wait times. Your total family income must be 200% of the federal poverty level or less to qualify.
If your child is accepted into the program, you’ll owe a $200 administrative fee.
Smile for a Lifetime
The Smile for a Lifetime Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides orthodontic treatments for underserved patients ages 8-18. Fees include $20 for the application, as well as a $480 investment fee.
To participate in the program, a child must meet several qualifications, including:
- Having a family income that does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty level.
- Currently not wearing braces.
- Have “good” dental hygiene practices.
- Be enrolled in school with a C average or above GPA.
- One letter of recommendation from a teacher or community leader.
Applications are available online in both English and Spanish.
Give Kids a Smile
Started in St Louis in 2002, Give Kids a Smile was adopted by the American Dental Association and became a national program in 2003.
The organization brings volunteers and dentists together to provide care and education to underserved children.
National GKAS Day is the first Friday of February each year. Services include screenings, oral health education and treatment.
Call the American Dental Association at 844-490-4527 to see if there’s a registered Give Kids A Smile program near you.
Give Kids A Smile programs often take place on only one day during the year. Be sure to inquire about the date of the program and which services are offered.
Subsidized Dental and Orthodontic Care for Adults
Many low-income parents simply opt out of dental care for themselves so they can afford their children’s care.
But your teeth need care, too!
Dental and orthodontic assistance for adults can be harder to come by, but it does exist in some areas.
Dental Lifeline Network: Donated Dental Services
The Dental Lifeline Network’s national Donated Dental Services program serves low-income patients who are:
- Over 65 years of age.
- Permanently disabled.
- Need medically necessary dental care.
To qualify, you must have no other means to afford or receive dental care.
The donated services from dentists cover oral care, dentures, bridges, crowns and other tooth repair. Qualification requirements and availability of services vary by state.
You can use this tool on the Dental Lifeline Network website to learn about the specific program details in your area.
Heads up: Due to long wait lists, several states and counties are no longer accepting new applications for the program, including in Texas, California and Nevada.
4. Use Coupons and Discounts
A quick search on Groupon for dental services in Houston, Texas, showed numerous X-ray, exam and cleaning packages for $25 to $50. One office even offered $700 toward dental implants for just $40!
Check back if you don’t see any deals the first time. Both Groupon and Valpak add new coupons frequently.
If you live in a high cost-of-living area, driving to a less expensive area is another smart way to save money.
5. Talk to Your Dentist
If you’ve lost your job or health insurance, talk to your dentist and the billing department.
Dentists may reduce their fees, offer a less expensive treatment, help you set up a payment plan or provide a sliding scale option. Some dentists offer a discount for paying cash, too, instead of having to bill insurance.
Ask if you can receive a discount for referring a friend. Or see if they’ll reduce their rate if you leave a stellar (and truthful!) online review.
If payment is due at the end of your visit, consider using a CareCredit card, which works like a regular credit card for health and dental expenses but with 0% APR options based on your credit score.
6. Discount Plans from DentalPlans
If free services aren’t available in your area, or you don’t qualify for subsidized care, a discount dental plan could save you some money.
For dental care without insurance, look at DentalPlans.com.
The site doesn’t provide free services or insurance coverage. Instead it allows you to receive discounted dental care.
For an annual membership fee of $80 to $200, you’ll get a 10% to 60% discount on most dental services.
You’ll still pay out of pocket for those services, but the idea is that you won’t pay as much as you would without the plan.
7. Government Insurance Programs
Several government subsidized health insurance programs provide affordable dental care to children and adults.
Medicaid is available to adults and children with low incomes, while Medicare is available to all adults ages 65 and older.
You may also save money by purchasing a dental plan through the Health Care Marketplace or the VA Dental Insurance Program.
Affordable Care Act Marketplace
The Affordable Care Act Marketplace is required to offer dental coverage for children, and many states also offer coverage for adults.
People who make between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level can qualify to receive a tax credit for a dental plan on HealthCare.gov.
In 2022, that’s about $13,590 to $54,360 a year for a single person or $27,750 to $111,000 for a family of four.
Use this online tool from HealthCare.gov to see if you qualify for a federal health care premium tax credit.
Qualifying for a tax credit could save you hundreds of dollars a year on your dental insurance premiums.
However, you can only receive this credit if you purchase an insurance plan through the federal HealthCare.gov Marketplace.
Check out this page on how to choose a dental plan on the Marketplace from MouthHealthly.org — a branch of the American Dental Association.
Medicaid and CHIP
If you meet Medicaid low income requirements in your state, you may be able to receive free or low-cost dental care for certain procedures and services.
But dental coverage isn’t guaranteed for adults on Medicaid. While most states provide at least some emergency dental services, only 36 states and Washington, D.C., offer limited or comprehensive dental benefits for adults, according to the National Academy of State Health Policy.
Even if your state Medicaid program includes dental for adults, it may not cover much. Of the 36 states with routine dental care coverage for adults, only 23 states offer an annual expenditure cap of $1,000 or more.
To find the Medicaid office contact information for your state, click here.
If you must pay out of pocket for a large dental expense, the cost could be tax deductible.
If you’re a U.S. military veteran, you may qualify for dental benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The VA provides dental care to qualified veterans at over 200 dental clinics across the country. In 2021, more than 500,000 veterans received dental services from the VA.
Not every veteran qualifies for full VA dental benefits. Here are the eligibility requirements.
If you think you qualify, you can submit an application. Once it’s processed, you’ll know exactly which benefits you qualify for.
Even if you don’t qualify for full VA dental coverage, you may still be able to buy dental insurance at a reduced cost through the VA Dental Insurance Program. If you’re enrolled in VA health care, you’re eligible for this program.
Medicare is the federal health insurance program for people ages 65 and older as well as some younger people with long-term disabilities.
Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) doesn’t provide routine dental coverage.
However, Medicare Advantage plans — which are administered by private insurance companies — usually provide some dental benefits.
Nearly all Medicare Advantage plans that include dental offer coverage for oral exams, cleanings and X-rays.
But coverage for more advanced dental services like root canals, implants and dentures can carry substantial copays, depending on the plan.
You can use the Medicare Plan Finder tool to compare different Medicare Advantage plans with dental coverage in your area. Enrollment takes place during certain times of the year, including Medicare open enrollment, which runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.
Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. Former editor Dana Miranda contributed.