Whether it’s for themselves or their children, many people are at some point forced to decide if braces are a worthy investment. The American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) recommends that children have their first orthodontia checkup by age 7.
Orthodontic treatment is becoming increasingly more commonplace, leading to industry growth, more patients and more money for practitioners. Worldwide, the industry has reached $11 billion in revenue, according to a 2016 market research report by IbisWorld. (Though this represents only a modest pace of revenue growth, demand is soaring, the report found.)
An estimated 5.41 million patients in North America sought orthodontic treatment in 2014, according to the most recent data from the AAO. Annual salaries for orthodontists in the United States have increased to $228,780 annually in May 2016, up from $186,320 in May 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor.
Still, the debate over braces remains largely a financial one, as parents have to consider if the long term effects justify the expense, or if their their children’s dental problems aren’t severe enough to warrant the cost.
How expensive are braces?
Comprehensive treatment for children ranged from $4,685 to $6,500, and adults ranged from $4,800 to $7,135, according to data from the American Dental Association cited by the AAO. BracesInfo.com offers a free calculator tool that lets you estimate prices based on location
Still, prices can vary widely based on location, with practices in larger cities tending to charge more. Rates are also dependent on the length of the treatment itself, which on average lasts about 24 months. With these variables in mind, ValuePenguin, a financial site, estimates the entire process could range from $3,000 to $10,000.
Dr. Nahid Maleki, president of the AAO, says many orthodontists offer initial consultations for little to no cost.
Learning the costs beforehand is the only way to make a truly informed decision, says Dr. Dawn Pruzansky, the administrative director of the Arizona School of Dental and Oral Health postgraduate orthodontic program in Mesa, Ariz.
“When you look at the overall price, it does seem to be a bit daunting,” says Pruzansky, who owns a practice in Glendale, Ariz. “Just go get the consultation and don’t automatically think that it can’t be done.”
When are braces worth the price?
While some parents may want to take a “wait and see” approach to braces, Maleki says there are certain dental problems that should be resolved before a child gets too old, as many irregular bone structures can’t be fixed after a person gains all their permanent teeth. Additionally, an improper bite can cause permanent damage to the teeth, making some damage irreversible after adolescence.
“We can prevent problems from developing fully,” but a child cannot “un-grow” undesirable growth in their bones, says Maleki, who has a practice in Washington, D.C.
However, there are problems that may not require immediate action. While Pruzansky notes that issues such as overcrowding won’t resolve themselves, she says dental problems that don’t inhibit a person’s ability to speak or eat properly — for example, minor spacing flaws — don’t normally justify braces.
In these cases, it may be feasible to wait until adulthood to re-evaluate the situation. Pruzansky says holding off on treatment can be beneficial because adults can be more compliant, meaning they’re usually more likely than children to do what it takes to get the most out of having braces.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get kids to understand the importance of braces,” she says, “or to get them to wear their retainers afterward.”
This decision to wait seems to be growing in popularity. The number of adults receiving orthodontic care throughout North America increased by 67 percent from 1989 to 2014, the most recent data available, and 27 percent of all patients — 1.46 million people — were adults, according to AAO estimates from its membership of 19,000 orthodontists. The increase may be due in part to the price difference between age groups, as ValuePenguin estimates that, on average, braces for adults cost only about $150 more than they do for children.
What if I can’t afford braces?
There are a number of payment plans available, most of which involve making consistent monthly payments on a low-interest loan, typically giving you around five years to pay off the total.
There also are no-interest plans, typically in the form of medical expense credit cards that have to be paid off in less time. CareCredit, which has financing options ranging between six and 24 months, is a popular example. Just watch out for deferred interest clauses, which can result in hefty fees if you don’t pay off the debt before the 0 percent intro period is over.
Pruzansky says she also has seen patients use their Health Savings Account (HSA) — a special pretax account — to pay for braces. HSAs can typically be used to pay for orthodontic treatment, but check with your bank.
Additionally, getting braces through a dental school could help save on certain fees, as some schools will charge only for materials and equipment.
While the most cost-effective solution may differ from situation to situation, Pruzansky says people are often surprised by the number of affordable options they actually have at their disposal.
“I never want someone not to start simply because they can’t afford it,” Pruzansky says. “I don’t know any private practice that doesn’t offer some kind of interest-free financing.”