Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Save Your Teeth

There’s a cable TV show in which cosmetic dentistry is the major method the host uses to turn discouraged, old-before-their-time people into hotties. The show promises to make them look at least ten years younger. True, these people get a small wardrobe makeover, a bunch of new makeup techniques, maybe a skin peel or Botox, and a really good haircut. It makes for fun television to watch these parts of the show. But the big boost in their confidence actually comes because a skilled dentist fixes their teeth. And they end up looking younger because they are smiling and happy. Like Adrian Grenier, pictured above.

Without a toothy smile, most Americans are ashamed of their appearance. This country has the best teeth in the world, so if you don’t have good teeth, you are visibly labeling yourself as poor and possibly self-abusing. Or foreign. I knew a girl who was very pretty until she smiled and revealed her terrible buck teeth. Even as an adult with plenty of discretionary income, she did not get the braces she needed. Although she had lived in the US all her life, her family was from the UK, and she still maintained an English culture aversion to the US standard of straight, attractive teeth. This aspect of her appearance simply was not important to her. She stigmatized herself by refusing to adhere to the standards of the middle-class society in which she lived. Last I heard of her she had moved to the backwoods. So I guess she fits in now, because having bad teeth is downwardly mobile in this country.

Most people understand this. I’ve known a couple writers who spent their entire advance and more from their first books on having their teeth straightened. They wore braces for years as adults in their thirties. They knew that if they achieved any kind of writing success, they’d need to make public appearances at bookstores and even on television. And they wanted to look at least as good as any other middle-class American. Smart move.

You may wonder why I am talking about teeth. This blog is about personal finance, isn’t it? Yes. But teeth are often neglected when people are too short of cash to cover more than the necessities of life. You can skip going to doctors and it probably won’t hurt you unless you happen to be sick. But if you skip going to dentists, it shows. And worse, it shows the first time you open your mouth. Dental hygiene simply is not a good idea to put at the bottom of your list if you are short of cash.

There are alternatives that many people do not know about. There are schools of dentistry that perform supervised, very low cost work. That’s how we found our family dentist, when he was still in school and hit it off with a relative who had very low income and made the smart choice of finding inexpensive dental care. There also are dentists in some free clinics. There are free dental screenings in major urban areas. State medicaid programs include free dental care, depending on your state. And so on. And if dental care is not available free or cheaply near you, you can find dentists who are willing to deal with patients who don’t have insurance or a lot of cash. Dentists who will allow patients to pay over a long period of time. These dentists are not rare. Another relative needed significant dental work—a case of putting dental work last because of having no cash—and found a dentist who happily did the work and accepted monthly payments for up to a year with no interest. After a year, the dentist charged interest on whatever balance was left. This is very decent and not at all unusual these days. Anyone who has gotten braces for their child knows that no sane dentist expects you to fork over $4,000 or more in one day. They have you sign a contract, and you make regular payments during the period when your child is making regular visits, and soon it’s all paid for. Not financially painful at all. The pay-over-time style of dentistry is available for complex dental work, not just routine care. But don’t let it get to that. Having just one tooth worked on that has been seriously neglected could easily cost you $600 or more.

No matter how poor you think you are, you can find care for your teeth. I urge you to do so, because your teeth go to your job interviews, your loan interviews, your everyday encounters with people of all sorts. And here in the US, a nice toothy smile is a standard. Fortunately, baseline dental care is as simple as using a toothbrush regularly. Toothpaste helps, of course. If you use them consistently, you will stave off most severe dental issues. But not all. So visit a dentist regularly. Save your teeth.

An update: Not only are free dental clinics to be found, but they actively try to find customers. We just received a notice for one that was in a Valpak envelope full of coupons, the type that all households get mailed. So even if you're not the type to find the flyer at the public library (which I saw just after the initial discussion that sparked this topic), the flyer will find you. No excuses, folks.

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