It's easy to take that selfie-perfect smile for granted, but Americans spend tons of money to keep their teeth bright, straight and healthy. In 2016, the American Dental Association reported that total dental expenditures across the country amounted to $124 billion.
According to Humana, about 4 million of the people spending those billions of dollars wear braces. About a quarter of them are adults. In the United States, the ADA and the Health Policy Institute estimate that 10.3 percent of children and a staggering 33.6 percent of adults did not have any sort of dental benefits or coverage in 2015, which amounts to about 74 million people without insurance. For this huge swath of the population, knowing the cost of braces without insurance – and being able to budget for that cost – might be crucial for their developing and long-term dental health.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
While Humana estimates the average cost of braces at $5,000 for those without dental insurance, plenty of variables come into play that affects the price.
Average Cost of Traditional Braces
Most commonly, dental braces are made of a series of brackets held together by a horizontal wire and affixed to the teeth, applying pressure to slowly and gradually move the teeth into proper alignment, close gaps and correct crooked growth.
In this case, Humana says that on average, the price of braces without insurance is roughly $5,000. This aligns rather closely with estimates from Oral-B, which places the average cost of traditional metal braces at $3,000-to-$7,000 for uninsured patients. Estimates from the Consumer Guide to Dentistry reflect this general range of price points as well. This makes traditional braces the most affordable option for uninsured patients in most cases.
However, the cost of the appliance may not include additional charges, such as a $100 or $200 fee for a consultation. On top of that, X-rays may run $25-to-$250. After you complete treatment with braces – which usually takes one-to-two years – you'll need a retainer, which comes at the cost of about $150-to-$1,000.
Average Cost of Alternative Braces
In practice, ceramic braces work the same way as old-school metal braces, but they feature a few cosmetic benefits. Clear or tooth-colored brackets and, in some cases, tooth-colored wires help make the appliance far less noticeable than metal braces. This cosmetic perk comes at a cost, though, with average prices ranging from about $4,000-to-$8,000 sans insurance.
At a similar average price range – roughly $4,000-to-$7,400, according to Oral-B's projections or $3,500-to-$6,000, as per the Consumer Guide to Dentistry – clear plastic aligners offer an alternative to the traditional format of dental braces. Made by companies such as Invisalign, these mouth guard-like aligners come in a series of molds (about 18-to-30 for a full set) that the user replaces every two weeks. This gradually shifts teeth into alignment in phases, is virtually invisible to the naked eye and allows wearers to eat and drink as they normally would, unlike traditional braces that impose some dietary restrictions on sticky and crunchy foods. But the plastic aligners are not always an option for serious dental problems.
Lingual braces reside at the high end of the cost spectrum. These metal braces are composed of wires and brackets just like normal braces, and they work on the same pressure-applying principles. The key difference is that lingual braces are placed on the inside or backside of your teeth. This means that no one but your dentist is likely to see this appliance once its installed. However, lingual braces are more complex to apply and adjust, driving their costs up to an average of about $8,000 on the low end to $10,000 on the high end. Authority Dental estimates that some lingual braces may even reach costs of up to $13,000.
Similarly, Damon braces cost about $8,000 on average, according to figures from Colgate. This type of dental appliance uses rubber guides, and they are self-ligating, which reduces the amount of necessary dental appointments and their associated cost.
Save on Braces
If you need braces, are uninsured and struggling with the potential cost, visit Medicaid.gov to see if you qualify for Medicaid insurance, or for CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program). If your dentist deems braces medically necessary, Medicaid may cover the cost. Unfortunately, for uninsured seniors in need of dental braces, Medicare does not cover braces.
When your coverage options are exhausted, you may be able to help mitigate the upfront costs with a payment plan for braces without insurance. It's common for orthodontists to offer payment plans – ask for info at the office. These plans often have no down payment and offer flexible interest rates. Invisalign clear plastic aligners are also available on a payment plan, with prices of about $50 per month on a 36-month plan or $125-to-$200 per month on a 24-month plan.
Paying a portion of the cost in advance can also help, as it often qualifies you for a discount on the total cost. As an alternative to a payment plan, you may be able to set aside pretax dollars in a flexible spending account, such as a health savings account, health reimbursement account or flexible spending arrangement if you're enrolled in a high-deductible insurance plan.
Although free-braces programs for adults are a rarity, the non-profit Smile for a Lifetime program operates across the U.S. and strives to give free braces to financially challenged children aged 11-to -18. While it might not be free, many universities with dental or orthodontic schools offer braces at a reduced cost, as a training tool for budding orthodontists. Don't worry, though – the orthodontic teaching staff fully supervises the services provided by the students. When you're on the hunt for braces, always do your research and find a dentist that offers a free consultation.
Remember that medically necessary dental costs, including braces, are tax deductible. Just make sure the amount you spent on braces during the taxable period adds up to at least 7.5 percent of line 37 on your Form 1040.
Is Dental Insurance Worth It?
On average, the National Association of Dental Plans estimates that the cost of dental insurance ranges from $166-to-$325 per person, per year when offered through an employer. For family plans, that figure is closer to $325-to-$667 per year.
The choice of whether or not to invest in dental insurance is ultimately up to you and your budget to decide, but keep these braces-related caveats in mind before you put your money where your mouth is.
Often, dental insurance for adults doesn't extend to orthodontic coverage. Average plans have an annual limit of about $1,000-to-$1,500 for adults, which doesn't begin to cover the cost of even traditional braces on the low end of the price scale. For children, it's common for dental plans to offer 50-percent orthodontic coverage up to a maximum lifetime cost of about $1,500 per child. For clear plastic aligners, insurance may cover up to $3,500 of the cost.
- American Dental Association: U.S. Dental Expenditures, 2017 Update
- Humana: Dental Braces: Facts and Benefits
- American Dental Association: Dental Benefits and Medicaid
- National Association of Dental Plans: Who Has Dental Benefits Today?
- Colgate: How Much Do Braces Cost for Kids?
- Consumer Guide to Dentistry: Bite Correction with Dental Braces
- Invisalign: How Much Does Invisalign Cost?
- Authority Dental: How Much Do Braces Cost?
- Smile for a Lifetime: Home
- Connected Benefits: What is the Average Cost of Dental Insurance?
Dan's decade-long experience as a freelance writer and small business owner has seen him contribute to financial publications including Chron.com, Zacks.com, MSN Money, Fortune, Motley Fool and others.