Should I Pay for Dental Care With a Credit Card?

The only thing worse than a root canal is getting the bill after it's all over. With all that Novocain in the dentist's office, you'd think someone could develop a shot to numb the mental anguish that occurs when it's time to pay up.

If you have dental insurance, that reduces some of the financial burden. But there are usually limits on expensive procedures like root canals and crowns.

I got a crown a few years ago, and the cost was $1,200. My insurance paid 50%, so my cost was $600. Thank goodness for insurance, but $600 is still a major expense that was unexpected.

Unfortunately, many Americans would have to pay the entire $1,200. According to the National Association of Dental Plans, at the end of 2016, around 74 million Americans had no dental coverage.

Here's the deal: Whether you have insurance or not, going to the dentist isn't cheap. So you need to learn about payment strategies, including credit cards, ahead of time. That way, you'll choose the approach that's optimal -- and cheapest -- for your situation.

[Read: Best Low-Interest Credit Cards.]

Paying with a CareCredit Dental Credit Card

You've probably seen signs at the dental receptionist's desk that show what types of credit cards are accepted. Often, you'll see a mention of CareCredit as an option to pay for dental care.

There are both short-term (six to 24 months) and long-term (two to five years) options. CareCredit advertises that you don't pay interest if you pay off the balance within the promotional period. I know this sounds good, but if you choose to use CareCredit, proceed with your eyes wide open.

In 2013, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered CareCredit to refund up to $34.1 million to more than a million consumers because of "deceptive credit card enrollment practices." CareCredit is a deferred-interest product, but many consumers mistakenly believed that CareCredit was an interest-free credit card.

Here's how deferred interest works: Let's say you use your CareCredit card to pay for a $3,000 dental bill. You qualified for a 24-month 0% annual percentage rate promotional period. You do your best to pay it off, but there's still $1,000 left after two years.

With a regular credit card, you start paying interest on the remaining balance after the intro period ends. But with deferred interest, if you haven't paid off the entire balance, you're charged interest back to the purchase date. Using CareCredit works best for those who know they can pay the balance in full during the interest-free period.

Using a 0% Intro APR Credit Card

If you have good to excellent credit, you might qualify for a credit card with a 0% introductory APR on purchases. Unlike CareCredit, a regular credit card with an introductory period doesn't make you pay deferred interest.

You get to pay down your balance without interest charges during the intro period, which generally ranges from 12 to 21 months. But you don't have to worry about deferred interest if you still have a balance when the 0% APR ends. You'll start paying interest at the regular purchase APR, but only on the remaining balance.

[Read: Best 0% APR Credit Cards.]

How to Pay for Dental Care with Bad Credit

If you have bad credit and you can't qualify for a 0% APR credit card, don't give up and swear off dentists until you win the lottery. It's a tough situation, but you still have options to consider.

Ask if the dental practice has payment plans for patients. If not, ask if it would create a custom payment plan for you. This might not work out, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

If all else fails, you can consider getting a personal loan. A personal loan will most likely be a cheaper option than trying to finance your dental work with a credit card.

If you don't have great credit, you're probably looking at an APR of more than 20% on your card. And don't forget you'll be dealing with compound interest. Your credit card balance will grow very quickly.

Take time to shop for the best rates for a personal loan, and you might be able to get a much lower rate, depending on your credit history, of course. With a loan, you'll be making fixed monthly payments. Pay on time and you'll also be building your credit history.

[Read: Best Credit Cards for Bad Credit.]

Consider Medical Tourism to Cut Dental Care Costs

Another option, if you have an adventurous spirit and the funds to travel, is to consider medical tourism. You have to do careful research to make sure you choose the right country and provider for the type of dental work you need done.

According to the Medical Tourism Association, the average cost for a dental implant in the U.S. is $2,500. You can get the same procedure in Costa Rica, a popular destination for dental work, for $800.

Bonus tip: If you've been using rewards credit cards, don't forget to check your accounts and see if it's possible to pay for most of the trip with rewards. You might be able to finance your airfare and your hotel stay.

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