I have health insurance through my employer, but that coverage does not include dental insurance. That's unfortunate, because I recently started experiencing some pain in one of my teeth, plus my whole family is overdue for a professional teeth cleaning.

Unfortunately, private dental insurance plans can leave your family with an lighter wallet, and short of coverage for the more involved dental procedures. There is a dental plan offered through the same insurance company my employer uses, but I would have to pay $138 a month out-of-pocket for my family of four. This doesn't make sense for us, because we certainly don't use $138 a month in dental services. My oldest son has already had his braces, so we're really only looking at something that will cover cleaning, possible x-rays and perhaps a filling (hopefully not).

I also looked at other private plans, and the cost was similar. On top of that, nearly all of the private plans I looked at have a maximum annual benefit of $1,000 per person, so if you did have some type of dental emergency the insurance would likely still not cover all of the cost. If you don't have employer-sponsored dental insurance, and private dental insurance doesn't cover your needs, what are the other options?

If you determine that the cost of private dental insurance outweighs the benefits, look into dental discount programs. These programs are not insurance, but can offer discounts of up to 50 percent for certain procedures with participating dentists. Your dentist may already participate in one of these discount programs. If you don't have a regular dentist, you can check before enrolling to see which dentists in your are participate. The cost is much lower than dental insurance, because it is not insurance. I found plans that started at $79 per year for an individual, and $99 per year for a family plan. You still pay out-of-pocket for dental procedures, but you receive a discount through the the plan ranging from 10 to 50 percent, depending upon the dentist and the procedure.

In addition to the discount plan, consider opening a savings account specifically for your dental needs. I recommend one of the online banks like Emigrant, ING or WaMu, which have high-interest savings accounts. You can set up these account to automatically transfer funds from your checking account each month. Rather than make premium payments to private dental plans, earmark a certain amount of money each month to be deposited into your "dental savings plan". If you only use it for routine cleanings and checkups, you should be able to sock away more than enough money using this method to be able to pay for you dentist visits in cash. If you have kids an anticipate they may need braces, you can put more into this account each month to prepare for that expense.

If you don't have a dental savings account or a discount plan, and you need a cleaning, crown or filling, check to see if your area has a dental college. Dental colleges are always looking for patients on which their students can get some practice. The students in the college clinics work under the direct supervision of an instructor, and the colleges on this list are accredited by the American Dental Association. Procedures at these schools are low cost, and in some cases, free. The pros: you are helping a future dentist get an education, you are receiving quality dental care under the watchful eye of an instructor, and you are receiving cheap dental care. The cons: the person working on your mouth is a student, procedures take two to three times longer than usual, and you may not always be able to make an appointment for the day or time you want. You are working around the school's schedule, not yours.

With some pre-planning and creative thinking, it is possible to have a beautiful smile without putting a frown on your face when you get the bill.


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