How to Save on Eye Care

Eyeglasses and/or contacts are a necessity for most of us--a necessity that can be quite expensive. Here are some tips for keeping your vision care costs down.

Don't assume that national chains or mall stores are cheaper. The most expensive eye experience I ever had was with Lens Crafters. The cost of my exam, contacts, and glasses exceeded $600 (by contrast, I could have gotten the same thing at Costco for closer to $300). I have also heard that Pearle Vision is expensive, though I haven't used them myself. Though you might expect an eye shop in a mall to be less pricey than an eyedoctor who has a private practice, mall shops can be just as, if not more, expensive.

However, sometimes national chains can bring you major savings on eye care. If you have a Costco with an optical center in your area, the cost of joining Costco (about $50/yr.) will be more than offset by the money you'll save on eye exams, glasses, and contacts. My last eye exam at Costco was $45, with optional additional fees for things like having my eyes dilated or photographed. Most eyedoctors don't give you any options on what services they include in your exam, and the default seems to be the most thorough and most expensive exam possible. A thorough exam is good for your eyes, of course, but for many people these high costs prevent them from visiting the eye doctor at all. Having the option of a less thorough but more affordable exam helps more people keep their eyes healthy. Even if you choose all of Costco's services, your total exam bill will only be $75.

Do a time/money analysis before going with the cheapest option. Costco may be one of the cheapest options out there, but you may also end up spending an above-average amount of time waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting. Depending on your situation, you might be better off visiting a private eyedoctor and/or optical shop. If you need your glasses in time for an upcoming trip, for example, you might want to get them made at a one-hour place. Even if Costco promises to have your glasses back in two weeks and your trip isn't for three weeks, if the glasses come back and the prescription is too strong or too weak, you'll have to get them redone and there won't be enough time to get them back by the date you need them. Costco will re-do your glasses for free if the prescription ends up not suiting you, but it can be a real hassle because the turnaround time is two weeks and there is almost no way to speed up that timeline. Costco's eyedoctors are considered independent from Costco's labs, so if the eyedoctor makes a mistake with your prescription, the store won't put a rush on your glasses re-do order. They'll only put in a rush order if it's their lab that made the mistake.

Buy your glasses online. This option can save you a ton of money, though it's not for the even remotely image conscious (how many frames did you have to try on last time before you found a pair that didn't look utterly ridiculous, let alone good?). EyeGlassDirect, Zenni Optical, Goggles 4 U and 39 Dollar Glasses are some of the most popular sites for getting glasses made. Some of these discount eyeglass websites even include in their low prices (or charge a very low fee for) things that other stores make you pay a lot of extra money for, like anti-glare or scratch-resistant lens coatings, sunglasses tinting, and thinner lenses.

Many sites also give you the option of mailing in your existing frames, which avoids the whole "will they look good on me?" problem. You could even go to a store, pick out frames you like, and just get the lenses made online.

One excellent use of online glasses stores even for someone who has a hard time finding frames she likes would be for prescription sunglasses. Personally, I don't wear my glasses enough during the day to justify the expense of $90+ prescription sunglasses from a brick and mortar store, but if I could get them cheaply online, even if they didn't look perfect, at least I wouldn't be blinded by sunlight on days when I had to wear my glasses. Again, I could send in a pair of old frames that I already like and get the sunglasses made from those. You can find more online glasses sites (with reviews, commentary, and even discount codes) at Glassy Eyes.

If you wear contacts, don't wear daily disposable lenses if you can avoid it. If you're wearing daily disposables because your eyes won't tolerate anything else, great, but if you're wearing them for the convenience of not having to clean your contacts, you may be spending a lot of extra money just to avoid a task that takes no more than sixty seconds a day. Also, the extra contacts probably cost more than the cleaning supplies you'll need for reusable lenses. These days, there are contacts that you can wear for a day, a week, a month, two months, or more. The options are such that you can retain some of the flexibility of disposable contacts (like having extra pairs around for emergencies) while achieving some of the savings of longer-wearing lenses.

Use saline instead of eye drops. If you find yourself needing to moisten your eyes during the day, keep a travel-sized bottle of saline at your desk and use that instead. Basic moistening eye drops are incredibly expensive per ounce compared to saline, and both products accomplish the exact same thing. Travel products are a rip-off per ounce, too, but they're still less expensive than eye drops, and you can easily refill that travel bottle with less expensive saline.

Forego contacts. People with contacts still need to have glasses, but people who only wear glasses don't need to buy contacts. Guess which is cheaper? Even with the possible added expense of prescription sunglasses for those who choose to avoid contacts, the fact that glasses can last much longer than any pair of contacts can result in significant savings.

Keep your most recent pair of old glasses when you get new ones. This way, if you need a spare for any reason, you already have one. They may not be as stylish or effective, but they don't cost you any extra, and they'll be better than nothing in a pinch. For glasses that are too old to do you any good, look for charity donation options in your area. I've seen bins at optical stores and grocery stores for this purpose.

Open a health savings account (HSA). Using a health savings account to pay for your eye care expenses means that you're using pre-tax dollars, which can stretch your paycheck quite a bit further. Keep in mind that HSA's must be used in conjuction with high deductible health plans, which means that they aren't the best money-saving option for everyone. You can learn more about HSA's here.

Don't expect laser surgery to save you money in the long run. If you have this procedure done, all those ongoing glasses, contacts, and contact supply expenses disappear, saving you a ton of money, right? The checkup expenses won't go away, though -- you'll still want to visit your eye doctor regularly to make sure your eyes are healthy, just as you'd visit any other doctor regularly to catch and potential problems before they've had a chance to get serious. And of course, the surgery is so expensive that, unless your insurance is covering it, you really won't save any money in long run. On the other hand, if your insurance is covering it, this option could save you a few bucks.

Know when to skimp and when not to. For years, I "cleaned" my contacts by storing them in a case in saline (which is really just soaking your contacts, not cleaning them at all). My eye doctor was horrified when I told him. "How often do you clean that case?" he asked. Realizing that I washed my car more often than I washed my contact case (and the ramifications of a dirty car are far less severe than the ramifications of putting dirt and bacteria in your eyes), I switched to Clear Care (no affiliation or endorsement implied), which is a more expensive solution than saline ($9 - $11 per bottle) and puts your contacts out of commission during the six hour cleaning process, but, unlike saline, really cleans your lenses by fizzing up and removing all the protein, bacteria, and other debris that your contacts accumulate throughout the day. It also helps my two month disposable lenses last for about four months since they get really clean each night and feel comfortable to wear for longer. Though I may spend more on contact solution than I used to, I spend less on contacts, which is a greater savings.

Taking proper care of your eyes has bigger implications than the cost of contact solution or even the cost of contacts, of course. The health of your eyes, and consequently your ability to earn a living and continue living your life as you know it, is what's really at stake. Like most precautionary measures, I will probably never know if using a better contact cleaning method saved me from terrible eye infections or even blindness, but then, that's not the kind of thing I want to learn the hard way.

I still save money on contact supplies by purchasing Target's house brand of saline for $2 a bottle (for those times when I need to rinse my contacts midday or take them out for just a couple of hours). Costco actually has free saline at their optical centers, but dispensing saline from their gigantic jug that's kept out in the open where kids can run their grubby fingers all over it doesn't seem very sanitary or safe to me.

Though managing your eyesight can be expensive, there are ways to decrease your costs. Don't neglect your eyes in the name of saving money -- use these tips to keep eye care affordable and your eyes healthy.

Photo by Daniel Y. Go


Anonymous said...

You're actually wrong about the saline. Tears, particulary those without the BAK preservative, are much different that saline. Also, some tears have a lipid replacement that decreases natural tears from evaporating as quickly.

Anonymous said...

My eye doctor has a drawer of cheaper frames that look very nice but don't make it to the "designer" wall display. You may have to ask for them, but I paid only $30 dollars without any insurance on my frames and when I accidently stepped on them 2 years later (after the warranty) it was only another 30 for the lens to get popped into a new frame!