Smile pretty: How to find dental care on a budget

I used to have twice-yearly teeth cleanings when I had a full-time job with great health benefits. Now that I'm self-employed with a not-as-great healthcare plan, dental insurance is an unaffordable luxury right now. I've postponed the $125 cleaning this year as other bills are more pressing, but my teeth are really looking worse for wear -- and then there's that crown my dentist tells me I can't put off getting for much longer.

Luckily, writers from the New York Timesand The Los Angeles Times recently wrote how-to guides for getting dental care on a dime. A few good tips:
  • Dental schools and dental-hygiene schools: Many offer cheaper, or free dental care as students will be the ones with their hands in your mouth (with an experienced professor standing over them). They also offer free community clinics and dental vans. To find the nearest school of dentistry or dental hygiene to you, call your state dental society or association. The American Dental Association keeps a list of dental schools, and the American Dental Hygienists' does the same for dental hygiene schools.

  • Community clinics: Services are free or low-cost, but often depend on your income levels. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists 1,200 clinics in 50 states, and the Association of State Dental Directors also lists states' oral health clinics, but you'll have to call up to find out what services they offer, and whether you qualify to get them.
  • Affordable dental plans: There actually may be a few out there. The New York Times' Walecia Konrad recommends checking out discount networks on
  • Talk to your dentist: Before you get any work done, ask what the cost is first. You have the right to say no, ask for a second opinion on heavy-duty work, and shop around to see if another dentist charges less. You can also ask your dentist if you can space out treatments and negotiate payment plans -- I was a reporter at a dental convention this past spring and many dentists said they were more than willing to work with their cash-strapped patients to keep them on-board as happy customers.
  • Floss: "Just two minutes with the string a day keeps the drill away," my dentist always tells me. If you keep your teeth clean and flossed, you'll save yourself thousands of dollars -- and dentures, too.
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