Stars like Tina Fey and Justin Timberlake have turned eyeglasses into a must-have style statement. But for many Americans, glasses aren't just an accessory; they're a necessity for safe driving and daily activities. The National Eye Institute of the U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that more than 150 million Americans use corrective eyewear and spend more than $15 billion on eyewear each year.
Here's a look at strategies to save on glasses or contacts.
Do the math before buying vision coverage. Many Americans don't have vision coverage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 4 percent of Americans without health insurance have optional vision coverage, compared with 44 percent of those with public health insurance and 58 percent with private insurance. Just because your employer offers vision coverage doesn't mean you should buy it, however.
Before you sign up for vision coverage, calculate the cost over the course of a year, and weigh that against the amount you're likely to spend out of pocket on eye doctor visits, glasses and contacts. It may be cheaper to simply pay those costs yourself, especially if you aren't replacing your glasses every year.
Thomas Nitzsche, a certified financial educator and spokesman for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, did the math himself and found that the premiums and copay would cost over $100. "For my needs, it made more sense drop the insurance because I can get an exam for between $50 to $75 out of pocket," he says.
[Read: 5 Health Insurance Mistakes to Avoid.]
Use FSA funds. If your employer offers a flexible spending account, or FSA, you can deposit pretax money into the account to pay for eligible medical expenses such as eye exams, prescription glasses or sunglasses, contacts and contact lens solution.
"The key to getting the most out of FSA dollars is to accurately determine how much you'll use in a given year based on your past medical spending patterns and to use all of your dollars before they expire," says Miranda Reiter, a certified financial planner and founder of She & Money Financial Planning in Tampa, Florida.
Kevin Merker, founder and president of online retailer GlassesEtc.com, advises "not to wait until the end of the year when you feel rushed to just use the FSA funds." You may not choose the most flattering frames or get the best deal if you're under a tight deadline.
Some FSA plans give you a prepaid debit card to use for eligible purchases, while others require you to front the money for medical costs and file for reimbursement (if you collect credit card rewards, you might prefer the latter unless the reimbursement period stretches on too long). In either scenario, keep documentation for every purchase, as your FSA plan may request it.
[Search: Find Ophthalmologists Near You.]
Check online. Websites such as 1800contacts.com and VisionDirect.com sell contact lenses for less than your eye doctor might charge, especially if you buy in bulk. Some online eyeglass retailers also provide the option to try on frames at home before you buy. One benefit of shopping online: "You get a copy of your receipts via email, which are easy to keep track of and are required by your FSA administrator to get your refund," Reiter points out. You may also be able to find online discount codes or shop through cashback websites like BeFrugal.com to reduce your cost even more.
However, do your due diligence before buying. "Not all lenses are created equal," Merker says. "Although some sites offer free [eyeglass] lenses, lenses can vary in quality. Ask whether the lenses are casted or made by the website, which is a red flag, or whether the lenses come with a warranty if they scratch. Cheaper lenses will scratch more easily." He also suggests checking with the Better Business Bureau to see if other consumers have had issues with that company.
Also make sure you have all the details on your prescription from your eye doctor, and enter it exactly when you're ordering online. Before ordering glasses, you'll need to get your pupil distance measured (ask your eye doctor to do this for you). Some eye doctors will do minor adjustments to glasses you've ordered online; others will charge a fee.
Ask if your optical shop will price match. Buying glasses or contacts online can be cheaper than a brick-and-mortar store because the online retailer often has lower overhead. But if you want the ability to try on lots of frames in the store and get face-to-face customer service, Mark Miller, owner of Glasses Galore, an optical shop with three Pennsylvania locations, suggests asking for a price match on glasses or contacts.
"We'll match any price you get on the Internet as long as it's not below our cost," he says. "We'd rather make less money on a pair of glasses than lose the customer. Rebates are not available to most of the online vendors, so we'll match the online price and give them the rebate so it can come out to less than the online price."
[Read: 5 Ways to Cut Medical Costs.]
Skip unnecessary add-ons. Depending on your prescription and your lifestyle, you may want add-ons like anti-reflective coating to reduce glare or light-adjusting lenses for when you move from indoors to out. But unless you have a high prescription (above +/- 3.00), you probably don't need high index or ultra-high index lenses, according to Miller. "Unless they have a very high prescription, it's just not worth the money," he says. FSA funds may not pay for extras like glasses protection plans or warranties, so check with your plan before you buy.
Reuse eyeglass lenses. If you don't need your prescription adjusted and your lenses are still in good shape, you may be able to save money by just paying for new frames. "Let's say your frame breaks," Miller says. "We'll order the same frame for the customer or find something else that's similar. Or sometimes you can take that lens and put it into a different style frame. It looks like people have a new pair of glasses using the same lenses."
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