A freelance photographer living in downtown Toronto, Armin Fares is living his dream. The 32-year-old says he worked hard to be his own boss and set his own schedule.
But while working for himself offers independence, what it doesn’t offer is access to dental coverage.
“I don’t have access to health benefits like you would working for a company,” Fares says. “I often fear getting some sort of dental issue like a cavity or a root canal because it’s so expensive to fix and could leave me financially vulnerable.”
Fares says he has an emergency fund for unexpected health expenses, including dental procedures.
“I basically hope that every year there’s only one (health issue), because if there’s multiple things, then I’m in trouble,” he says.
If you work freelance or contract to contract, you’ve probably shared these fears. Dental services like teeth cleanings and fillings can amount to hundreds of dollars lost if you’re not covered by a plan, which many Canadians are not.
In 2021, there were more than 2.6 million self-employed workers, according to Statistics Canada, and 33 per cent cited “independence, freedom, being one’s own boss” as a top reason for being a self-employed worker. Meanwhile, the number of temporary workers — which include contract positions and seasonal jobs — increased by 50 per cent in the last two decades, according to StatCan.
If you are one of these Canadians, experts say there are strategies to alleviate the financial blow of those surprise dental costs.
For fewer unexpected visits to the dreaded dental chair, the most obvious preventive strategy is maintaining good oral hygiene.
“Brush and floss,” says Money Coaches Canada financial planner Janet Gray. “The more conscientious you are about your own prevention, the more it reduces the dental care that you will need and the dental costs that you will incur.”
“It sounds kind of silly, but it makes a difference, so that when you do eventually have to go to the dentist it’s for check-ins rather than teeth extractions,” Gray adds.
Part of prevention is also having a discussion with your dentist about what procedures to expect down the line.
If you don’t have access to dental insurance, you’ll want to ask your dentist about how many teeth cleanings or X-rays you’ll need to schedule so you can set aside money for these treatments ahead of time, says Jessica Moorhouse, a financial educator and host of the More Money podcast.
“Have an honest conversation and ask: Are there any things I should expect?” Moorhouse says. “For example, do you need to know about some wisdom teeth that need to come out or whether you’re not flossing enough, or are your gums receding?”
Knowing about these issues in advance means you can budget for them as you would any other expense.
Putting off dental procedures
It’s important to note that some of these procedures may not require immediate attention, both Gray and Moorhouse point out.
Having a transparent conversation about your finances and what you can afford can help you and your dentist work together to prioritize services and plan what can be done in the short and long term.
“There’s nothing wrong with saying to the dentist, ‘I have $300,’ for example. What can you do with that money right now and what can wait?” says Gray.
Moorhouse says it’s important to be upfront about your financial situation because it can help your dentist come up with a plan that works for you. Some dentists might even adjust to a lower rate when they find out you don’t have coverage, because you’ll be paying them directly rather than through an insurance provider, she says.
For this reason, “it’s important to choose the right dentist that will accommodate you,” Moorhouse says.
Some dentists might try to upsell you while others are more flexible and open about discussing a payment option that works for different income levels and households.
“So shopping around for the right dentist first is a good idea,” she says.
Pay out of pocket or get covered?
Deciding whether you should get insurance or budget and pay out of pocket comes down to understanding your own risk levels, which can be challenging to foresee when it comes to dental work.
It is ultimately cheaper to pay out of pocket, say Moorhouse and Gray.
“You can be paying $100 a month in insurance and only use $400 a year in dental, which is not a good deal,” says Gray.
Dental plans also have dollar limitations and caps on the number of services you can get in a certain time, which Gray says is important to research thoroughly before deciding on coverage if you choose to go this route.
“You have to kind of get a handle on how much you need in care versus how much you will be covered for with insurance,” she says.
But for many people without access to benefits, insurance can provide some comfort in the event of an expected dental issue.
“Some people can be anxious about the idea of a surprise bill, and having dental insurance where they do have those regular payments to get coverage will give them peace of mind,” says Moorhouse.
Gray says to “know your own behaviour.”
“Some people have no problem setting aside $100 a month to save toward that next dental appointment,” she says. “Others will find that the confidence of having the insurance is worth whatever the cost.”
And about those kids? For children younger than 12 whose families earn less than $90,000 a year and who do not have access to private insurance, the interim Canada Dental Benefit is accepting applications to help with dental costs.
Ghada Alsharif is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Reach Ghada via email: email@example.com