Looking Good: How to Get a Killer Deal on Eyeglasses
By Marilyn Lewis
Prices for eyeglasses are falling like meteors as online retailers push the cost of a pair of stylish frames and single-vision lenses to as low as $6. At the same time, the options available to shoppers are growing so quickly it can be hard to know which way to go. Here are some tips to guide you through vision-testing options, online and traditional sources, and style considerations, all at a reasonable price.
Only 38 percent of Americans buy eyeglasses from an eye doctor or optometrist these days, says Consumer Reports. "Instead, they are turning to inexpensive places such as Walmart Vision Center and Costco Optical."
Cheap eye exams
Below is a rundown of shoppers' choices, new and older, in the fast-expanding eyewear market. Before you get your glasses, however, you'll need a vision exam. Here are six sources for savings on vision exams:
- Insurance. If you are lucky, your workplace insurance includes vision coverage. If you have it, use it. This may be your best option. Or you can buy your own insurance. One source for comparison shopping is eHealth. People enrolled in original Medicare can buy individual vision insurance policies at eHealth that cover routine eye care and eyeglasses for about $12 and $15 per month, according to the Savvy Senior at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Be aware that changes to your Medicare plan must be made during Medicare open enrollment, Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. Seniors eligible for Medicare may find Medicare Advantage plans (instead of original Medicare) that include vision coverage.
- Flexible spending accounts. You can pay for eye exams, glasses and contacts through a flexible spending account. Set it up at work to put aside before-tax money for eligible health care expenses. Healthcare.gov explains how FSAs work and which expenses are covered. The IRS says that eyeglasses and prescription sunglasses are eligible for coverage, as are contacts and even saline solution and enzyme cleaner, as long as you have a medical need for the contacts (thus, cosmetic lenses to change your eye color aren't eligible.)
- Chain retailers. Target, Costco, Walmart and other national retail chains offer reasonably priced eye exams. At Costco, you don't have to be a member to get an exam from an independent optometrist at a Costco optical department. To buy glasses or contacts, you'll need to pay the $55 membership fee. Cheap is good, but free is even better. The America's Best optical chain throws in a free eye exam for glasses when you purchase two pairs of single-vision glasses (frames and lenses) for a total of $69.99. Here's the deal. An exam for contact lenses costs $79.
- Discounts from clubs and organizations. Check with organizations you belong to, including clubs, unions, professional, religious and sports organizations, to find member discounts on eye exams. One example: AAA membership earns PearleVision customers 30 percent off eye exams at participating independent optimists and other discounts on contacts and glasses. Optometrists working with LensCrafters may have similar discounts for AAA members.
- Comparison shopping. Shop around by phone to compare prices from local optometrists, eyewear specialty shops, chain stores and big box outlets.
- Exams for low-income patients. All About Vision lists several sources for free or low-cost eye care for low-income adults and children, including Medicaid's eye exams for children, the state and federal Childrens Health Insurance Program and philanthropic programs for low-income patients through the American Optometric Association Foundation. A caveat: These exams may be intended to screen for medical issues and eye diseases and not to yield a prescription for lenses.
Don't leave your eye exam without asking for a copy of your prescription. Federal rules allow you to use it anywhere you wish to purchase your eyewear. "Your eye care provider must give you a copy of your contact lens and eyeglass prescriptions -- whether or not you ask for them," according to the Federal Trade Commission. Ask the doctor to include these basics:
- Glasses. Ask for your pupillary distance, the distance (in millimeters) between the centers of the pupils of each eye. Coastal Contacts, an eyewear seller, provides a video showing how to take your own pupillary distance measurement. Eyebuydirect also has a video showing the process and others explaining how to read a vision prescription and how to shop for glasses online.
- Contacts. Ask the doctor to write down the type of lenses prescribed, their manufacturer, power, base curve and diameter.
- If you use nonprescription reading glasses, don't pay top dollar for them at drugstores. Instead, buy them by the handful at less than $10 a pair at hardware stores and dollar stores. Stash them in your car, your purse, at work and around the house so you are never without glasses when you need them.
- To save money, avoid high-fashion brands. Be your trendy self, but skip the big names. (Two ultra trendy sites are Warby Parker and Coastal.com.) Here's the thinking: Manufacturers of frames for big, high-end brands also manufacture high-quality frames for less-exotic labels, says Consumer Reports.
- Luxottica -- a manufacturer of frames for Chanel, Prada and Versace -- also produces styles for LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sears Optical, and Target Optical, CR says.
- In Consumer Reports' 2013 survey of 19,500 readers, Costco won top honors for overall satisfaction. Costco Optical has some drawbacks, however. You may not always find the high-fashion frames you are looking for, and it may take longer before you can pick up your finished glasses.
- Browse choices at stores and websites to discover the styles you like before you get down to serious shopping.
The shopping options are many:
- Online eyewear sellers.
- Local independent eyewear shops.
- Optical departments at discount stores like Target Optical, Sears Optical and Walmart Vision Centers.
- Optical chains, including LensCrafters, Pearle Vision and America's Best. Look for coupons for lower prices or half price on a second pair.
- Warby Parker, which began online, now has stores or showrooms inside boutiques in 13 U.S. cities. Its frames are designed in-house.
- This survey from Vision Monday, an ophthalmic industry magazine, lists the top American 50 eyewear retailers.
If you can wrap your head around buying eyeglasses online, you'll find astonishing prices. For example:
- Coastal.com has $49 glasses, including prescription lenses and free shipping.
- Most of Costco's frames are less than $100.
- Warby Parker glasses start at $95, including single-vision prescription lenses and free shipping and returns. Progressive lenses are more. Warby Parker's "buy a pair, give a pair" program contributes to nonprofits that distribute eyeglasses to people in developing countries who need them.
- Eyebuydirect.com has many frames for less than $20 and many more for less than $10, including the cost of single-vision lenses.
- Zenni Optical, SimplyEyeglasses.com, LensesRx.com and Glasses.com are other online retailers with rock-bottom prices.
Are these low-cost glasses for real? And is buying glasses online a good idea? Dr. Glenda Secor, communications chair for the American Academy of Optometry, offers reassurance at Today Money: "With proper, unexpired prescriptions in hand, ordering online is a safe option."
Online eyewear is not for those with complex prescriptions, says Consumer Reports, adding: "Online retailers can't adjust frames or provide other in-person services. One option is to buy frames online and lenses locally. Walmart fills prescriptions for frames purchased elsewhere for $10 plus the cost of the lenses; Costco charges $18." Look for:
- Vendors licensed in the United States, where safety standards and optical quality are high.
- A return policy, warranty or guarantee.
- Online reviews and articles discussing consumers' experiences with an online company you're considering.
- Discounts: Search online for "promo code" and a store name.
- Coupons, sales and weekly deals on eyewear websites.
How can you know if you'll look good in glasses found online? Merchants now offer some intriguing solutions:
- Do a photo "try-on." Sites may let you upload a photo of yourself so you can "try on" frames. You'll typically find shopping instructions and videos on eyewear sites and phone numbers for reaching salespeople.
- Order sample glasses. Warby Parker will send five sample pair free to your home; Target will send four; and Coastal.com also sends you samples.
- Shop for -- roughly -- your size. "If you already wear glasses, take a second to look at the arm, and you can see the size noted in small numbers," says Eyebuydirect.