Do you really need dental insurance?

Lindsay VanSomeren

By Lindsay VanSomeren
Lindsay VanSomeren is a personal finance and science writer. Check out more of her writing at Notorious D.E.B.T.
Posted on 01/16/2018

When I first switched over to full-time freelancing in 2017, I was on my own for dental insurance. I knew I had good oral health (my dentist told me so), and so I decided to purchase a bare-bones dental plan for my husband and myself.

Then, we found out that he was in dire need of a $2,500 root canal that wasn't covered with our dental plan. Today he has a healthy tooth, but it wiped out all of our health care savings at the time.

This got me thinking: how do you choose a dental plan that fits your needs? I decided to interview a couple of dentists who work with patients every day to see what their take was on how (and if) you should choose a dental insurance plan.

How to choose a dental plan

There are three main things that everyone needs to take into account when sussing out all of the options available for dental insurance, says Dr. Rachel M. Sanyk of Smile Hilliard.

The most important thing is which dentists are in each network. This is especially true if, like me, you have an irrational fear of dentists and you've finally found one you like. A quick and easy way to narrow down your search is by cutting out any plans that don't include your favorite dentist.

Second, consider any waiting periods for different dental services. “These are designed to ensure that the insurance company makes some money before they are obligated to pay for any of your oral care needs,” says Dr. Sanyk, especially if you may need those services soon. “This means that you are paying your monthly premiums to the insurance company, but they are not paying a dime for your care.”

Finally, “taking into consideration your own dental health is an important factor when choosing a plan,” says Dr. Saynk. Still, you have to be careful here. “Oral diseases can go unnoticed for a long time before any symptoms are perceived. For example, most people don't feel that they have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, but these are very important to diagnose and treat. The lack of symptoms is never a good indication of a lack of disease, so getting regular check-ups is very important.”

Don't forget about discount plans and dental memberships

Another money-saving idea is to find a dental discount plan. “These are not dental insurance plans at all,” says Dr. Sanyk. “Yes, they will save you money, but your oral health costs are not shared between you and the insurance company. You bear all of the cost for these plans.”

“An alternative of mulling over the decision to purchase your own dental plan is to find a dentist that has an in-house discount or membership club,” says Dr. Sanyk. “This is especially beneficial if your beloved and trusted dentist already has a plan like this and the thought of switching dentists is too worrisome.”

How to do the math to see if a dental plan will save you money

With all the dental plans that are available out there, it's impossible to get a good feel for which one is right just by glancing at them all. That's where it helps to do the math.

Estimate your costs without insurance

Here's what I did to compare plans. First, I opened a spreadsheet (it's my go-to for getting organized) and listed out in the first column what services my husband and I would possibly need for the next year. In the next column, I listed out what those procedures might cost if we didn't have insurance.

If you've been going to the dentist regularly you might have a good idea of what services you might need. Everyone needs cleanings and Xrays, you may need cavities fixed, or even crowns and root canals as we get older (gulp). My dentist was even able to provide me with a list of services I'd need and a cost estimate.

If you're not in that situation, you may be able to call up a dentist you might be going to see, or even just google the average cost of each dental procedure in your area. Delta Dental has a good out-of-network dental cost estimator by location.

Estimate your costs with insurance

Now, for each dental plan you might be interested in, calculate what those services might cost you if you did have that insurance.

This will be a bit tricky since you'll need to know the insurance lingo, like deductible, copay, and coinsurance, to calculate what those services might ultimately cost you.

Make sure to add an extra row in the table for how much your premium will cost you each year (just multiply the monthly premium cost by 12 to get the annual cost).

Compare plans to see which is cheapest

Now for the final drumroll: add up all the costs in each column using the SUM function. This will tell you how much you can expect to pay in total for your dental care for the upcoming year for each plan (and for no plan, in the first scenario you ran).

Did any plans stick out as more or less expensive in the long run? Were you surprised by how much more you might spend with a fancy dental plan vs. a bare-bones dental plan, or vice versa?

“For some people, dental insurance costs more money per year than they spend on their annual checkup and cleaning,” says Dr. Jennifer Silver of Macleod Trail Dental. “If this is the case, you may still want to consider getting a plan that covers dental emergencies — which can run thousands of dollars without insurance coverage.”

Dental care isn't cheap, unless you've got a top-notch employer-provided dental plan. According to the Health Policy Institute, 59% of Americans who don't regularly visit dentists cite the high cost as a factor. But if you run the numbers to find the right dental plan for you and find a way to fit it in your budget, you can have healthy teeth. Even if you need a root canal.