How to Stretch Your Dollars in Dental Care

Getting routine dental care can keep down costs and prevent pain.

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It doesn't take a whole lot to derail people from keeping a date with their dentist. Even if you have dental insurance—and about 100 million people don't—it generally maxes out after just a few thousand dollars. With the economy uncertain and prices high, it's easy to put off making time to pay someone to poke around in your mouth.

But instead of avoiding your dentist entirely, do yourself a favor and keep up with your regular preventive care. As in so many things, you'll save yourself pain and expense if you prevent dental problems from occurring in the first place, experts say.

What that means: Get your teeth cleaned regularly, usually every six months, although people with gum disease may need more frequent attention. Keep up on your X-rays as well; a full set typically needs to be made only once every three to five years, so you may be able to slide for a while on that. But you should get less comprehensive "bitewing" X-rays more frequently, on whatever schedule your dentist recommends.

As for that thousand-dollar crown that you need, your dentist may be able to stabilize your tooth so you can delay the work temporarily, says Matthew Messina, a Cleveland dentist who is a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association. That may buy you a few months to hoard some cash or hold you over into next year so you can stash the money in a flexible spending account and pay for it on a pretax basis. But it's a stopgap measure only; you still need to get the work done.

Unfortunately, there are no stopgaps when it comes to dealing with tooth decay or infection. If you've got cavities, get them fixed now or risk injuring the nerve of the tooth. That could force you to get a root canal or an extraction down the road.

Messina allows that patient procrastination is one of the "challenges" of dentistry. No matter how unwelcome those checkup reminder cards may be—and no matter how unwanted the bite out of your wallet—make the appointment. "By the time something hurts, it's usually far more severe than it would have been had we addressed it earlier," says Messina.

For more on advice on keeping down dental expenses, see "Taking the Bite Out of the Cost of Dental Work," part of U.S. News's 2008 guide to a healthy smile.