As one of the 45 million Americans who wears contact lenses, I’ve spent a lot of money on vision correction over the years. Unfortunately, I never really considered I might be overspending. Instead of shopping around for contacts, I simply ordered and re-ordered lenses from my optometrist’s office whenever I needed them without any regard to the price. I just figured it was the easiest and most practical option. And besides, how much would I even save by buying them elsewhere? A few dollars, maybe?
How about $70 per year?
I typically go through four boxes per year (two boxes per eye, to be specific) and my optometrist charges $50 per box or $200 for a one-year supply, which I paid for out of my Health Savings Account. Recently, I decided to shop around for a better price and I was able to purchase the same lenses for $32.46 per box. That comes out to only $129.84 for a one-year supply. Wow — I just saved $70.16! That’s money to put toward new frames, prescription sunglasses, or other medical expenses. Lesson learned.
The cost of glasses can also put a serious dent in your budget if you are among the 159.2 million Americans who wear them. According to VSP, one of the nation’s largest provider of vision benefits, the average out-of-pocket cost for lenses and frames together is $541. And that can be even higher, depending on where you shop (think $400 and beyond for frames alone at independent optical shops). Add in premium features like anti-scratch coating or photochromic lenses and, before you know it, you’ve spent $600 or more on one new pair of glasses. Chances are your vision benefits will only cover a small portion of that price. My plan, for example, contributes just $119 toward the most basic of lenses plus $130 toward frames — and this is even with my $25 co-pay!
Here’s how I saved 35% on a year’s supply of lenses. After checking the optometrist’s price, I comparison shopped online. First, I checked out 1-800 CONTACTS. Their initial price was virtually the same as the optometrist’s, but they did offer me a 17 percent new customer discount and free shipping. Other perks, which I didn’t take advantage of but made note of for the future, included a 5 percent subscribe-and-save discount and manufacturer rebates. Cost per box: $41.49.
Next, I shopped a few other online sellers. Some had better prices on lenses, but shipping wasn’t free and they didn’t offer any additional promos or discounts. I also checked a few national retailers, like Walgreens. Walgreens had a 20 percent off deal going plus free shipping. Cost per box: $39.19
Finally, I looked into Costco prices. This was the best deal — $33.12 per box and free shipping. I placed my order, but then I realized that 1-800-Contacts beats competitor pricing by two percent as long as it can be verified. I cancelled the Costco order, and went with 1-800-Contacts at $32.46 per box ($9.03 less than the original quote). I also vowed to never take the easy way out of buying contacts again. Shopping around was worth it.
Here are five tips for finding the best deals on contact lenses and glasses:
- Beware of high markups. A recent LA Times article on the high cost of glasses called the markup one that would “make a luxury car dealer blush.” Knowing this won’t necessarily help you find a great price, but it can equip you to proceed with caution, especially when you gasp when presented with a cost estimate for your new glasses.
- Compare prices. Whether you are buying contact lenses or glasses, taking the time to scour the internet or call around is like money in your pocket. Check initial prices for sure, but then look for specials, coupon codes, incentives and any other promos that could save you money. This is just as true for glasses as it is for contact lenses. If you find a frame you like at one store that seems pricey, call a competitor and ask if they can do better. Remember: Many stores carry the same brands and styles.
- Ask for discounts. Just because a price is listed doesn’t mean it is set in stone. Don’t be shy about asking your optometrist if they can match or beat the price you found for a box of contact lenses through an online vendor. The answer might surprise you. And even if they say no, well, at least you tried.
- Consider online-only options. Warby Parker and Zenni Optical are just two of the many online prescription eyewear companies that sell fashionable prescription specs at more affordable prices. Warby Parker offers a base price that includes lenses and frames — some for as low as $95. Similar to the idea behind subscription-based clothing companies like Stitch Fix or Trunk Club, you select five frames to try on at home and Warby Parker ships them right to you. You get five days to make a decision before you send the frames back. After you make a selection, they’ll add your prescription and ship it back to you. Zenni Optical, which has frames for as low as $6.95, works a little differently. Their website allows you to upload a photo of yourself so you can virtually try on frames before ordering. In either case, you will need a prescriptions from your eye doctor to order. The upside to these sorts of shops is the price, which makes it a little easier to buy trendy frames and experiment with looks you might be hesitant to try otherwise. The downside: Some vendors only offer the most basic lens features, and that might not work for everyone. Also, according to the American Optometric Association, nearly half of all glasses ordered online had “inaccurate prescriptions or safety issues.” So if you decide to go this route, just do your best to make sure your lenses are actually going to work for you.
- Use your benefits wisely. If you have vision benefits, take the time to run some numbers to determine how to use your benefits to your advantage. In my case, it didn't make sense to use my benefits for my contact lenses because the amount covered was lower than the amount covered for glasses, but that might not be the case for everyone. Also, if you have a flex spending or health saving account — use it! Since that money is tax-free, you are automatically getting a better deal for your vision care products.
Dawn Weinberger is a freelance writer in Portland, OR.
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