By Ian Chant
(Updated 2022) Shopping for glasses or contacts? You’re in luck: they remain reasonably affordable, even for people without insurance, and it’s easy to shop around.
While the cost of vision care through an employer can vary widely, individual vision care programs may make less sense than they once did. Premiums are rising, and that’s before copays on everything from exams and frames to lenses and lens coatings. Those costs can add up quickly, especially when compared to online shops like Warby Parker, which charges a base price of around $100 for an all-inclusive set of spectacles. And with discount offers on eye exams and even lenses to be found everywhere from the Sunday paper to social media sites like Groupon, shopping around for eye care can make more sense for the aware consumer than carrying insurance.
The annual eye exam
If you wear glasses or contacts, most doctors recommend getting a new eye exam every year. While many adults’ eyes will stay about the same, they can change — and using an incorrect prescription not only affects how you see, –but can also strain your eyes, causing headaches or secondary problems like bad posture from peering at a computer screen. A yearly exam is also a great reminder to get your glasses adjusted and make sure they sit right and are comfortable.
The most basic eye exams won’t get you fit for contact lenses, though, so be prepared to pay extra if you need exams for both. Shopping around will find you a number of places offer package deals. In New York, for example, 88 Optical in Chinatown charges $35 for a glasses exam and $90 for a contact exam individually, but $100 for both. Note that a contact lens exam is also a fitting for lenses, and if you are astigmatic – caused by a misshaping of the eye – you can expect to pay $20-$30 more for an exam, depending on the store you visit.
Some shops will discount an exam if you buy your new glasses or contacts at the same visit – Manhattan Grand Optical in Chinatown offers a glasses exam for $80, but will credit $60 of that cost toward the purchase of new glasses.
So how much do glasses cost? How much do contacts cost?
With a prescription in hand, you’re free to shop for the best price you can find, though many people prefer to stay with one provider for all their eye care needs. If you want to take your business online, 1800contacts.com or lens.com will allow you to choose from a wide range of lenses delivered right to your door.
For online glasses, several companies offer designer frames with prescription lenses included for less than $100. That’s less that half of what you could expect to spend in most stores. All of the services offer a virtual try-on that can show you what frames will look like on a picture of you.
If you can’t decide without getting a feel for a frame, services like Warby Parker will even send you up to 5 pairs of frames to try on in your own home .
While a basic pair of glasses can be had pretty cheaply, fairly few pairs are actually basic. Plenty of add-ons are available: scratch-resistant coating to improve the life of your lenses, and anti-reflective coating to reduce glare, something to take into consideration if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen. Patients who need a strong prescription – outside of the + or -4.0 range, meaning far or nearsighted – may want to talk to their doctor about high index lenses. These thinner lenses add to the cost, but reduce the “coke bottle” look of many thick lenses. Naturally, how many of these add-ons you want or need will depend on what kind of glasses you wear, how heavily you depend on them, what you’re doing while wearing them – and, of course, what you’re looking to spend.
Add-on prices can vary widely – a free standard for online companies, AR coating can run up to $75 some places. Ask your doctor or provider for a price when you’re getting your prescription filled, and make sure you understand every charge. And remember that thinner, high-index lenses almost always come with UV protection standard – don’t get charged double.
Stretching the contact budget
While many of us will try and stretch our health care dollars by wearing disposable contacts longer than intended – come on, admit it, you’ve tried to get that two-week pair to go for a month before – optometrists advise against this. Wearing contacts longer than they were meant for can lead to infections like conjunctivitis. In the long run, it can even damage your sight. Same goes for that pair of expired, unopened contacts you found in the medicine cabinet. Just let it go.
If you are looking to stretch your contact budget, consider supplementing with a pair of glasses. A pair of two-week contacts can go up to 14 days in a one month period, so wearing your glasses every other day can make contacts last longer without the extended use that can put your eyes at risk.
As with any medical issue, as you get older, there’s a good chance that your vision needs will change and get more complicated – and potentially more expensive. Many glasses wearers find themselves needing bifocals or trifocal lenses as their vision changes, enabling them to see well at both close range and from a distance. These can drive up the price of glasses significantly, with lenses alone running upwards of $200, and sometimes more for progressive lenses that provide the same vision benefits without the focal lines. And unfortunately, none of these lenses are provided by mail-away services.
Part 2: How to argue a bill.