Keep an eye on vision care savings

@Money May 10, 2012: 9:15 AM ET

(MONEY Magazine) -- If you're among the two-thirds of adults who need glasses or contact lenses, you know vision care often comes at eye-popping prices. You can easily drop $200 for a pair of basic glasses; spring for add-ons like anti-glare lenses or designer frames and the price can double. If multiple members of your family need corrective eyewear, you could face a bill that tops $500 to $1,000 in a single year.

Sure, insurance and shopping at discount retailers can help cut costs. The savings, though, may not be as great as they first appear.

And if you're not careful, you can end up sacrificing lens quality and safety to save a few bucks.

Use these strategies to get the best care for the best price.

Understand coverage limits

If you work for a large employer, you're probably eligible for vision insurance. Coverage usually includes an annual eye exam and a set amount toward the purchase of contacts or eyeglass lenses -- say, $130 a year, and another $130 for frames every year or two, says Edward Bell, a consultant at Mercer.

You may get a discount on anything over the limits. Coverage runs about $75 to $120 a year for singles, $215 to $360 for families.

Worth it? Run the numbers to see what you'd pay with and without the plan.

Generally the answer is yes if you like to update your glasses every year or two, or if you wear contacts, since you'll need to replace them regularly (commonly, every two to four weeks).

Coverage also makes sense if your children need corrective eyewear. "It's not unusual for a child to need an update on glasses every year," says Robert Wiggins, an ophthalmologist in Asheville, N.C.

Work for a company that doesn't offer coverage?

You can buy a standalone policy ($120 to $190 a year for individuals, $360 to $575 for families) or a discount plan, where you'll save 20% to 60% at participating retailers.

No health benefits? How to shop for a solo plan

Find both plan types at ehealthinsurance.com. Again, do the math to see if buying a plan makes sense.

Don't buy blindly

You can buy glasses and contacts from a variety of suppliers. If you have insurance, confirm that a retailer is actually in network and not that it merely accepts the insurance, advises Carrie McLean of ehealthinsurance.com. And understand the differences you'll find in prices and quality:

Doctors' offices. Optometrists and ophthalmologists tend to sell more expensive eyewear but offer highly personalized service.

Specialty retailers. Stores that advertise great deals on glasses (say, buy one pair, get one free) often press you to spring for upgrades that push the final price as high as what you'd pay at the doctor, says Karl Citek, a professor of optometry at Pacific University. Plus, if you have insurance, you may not qualify for the deal.

Discount stores. Be sure to check prices at Costco, which has a rep for good eyewear at low prices.

Online retailers. You can get great prices on contacts. Be wary, though, of ordering glasses online. "Often the lenses can be unsafe," says Citek.

Resist fancy extras

Do you only need glasses with magnifying power for reading? Those $10 drugstore specs will do just fine, Wiggins says.

For other types of glasses, limit add-ons, which can really drive up your costs. Unless you're constantly moving from indoors to out, pass on photochromic lenses that darken in the sun and lighten indoors (about $90).

Understand that high-index lenses ($30 to $300), which reduce the thickness and weight of glasses, serve a primarily cosmetic rather than corrective function.

Probably worth it, says Citek: a glare-reducing anti-reflective coating ($50 to $115), helpful if you wear glasses all day or drive a lot at night.

As for frames, good-quality ones cost between $100 to $200. He notes, "Anything more than that and you're just paying for the name."

Online buyers, beware

Buying from an eyeglass website seems to offer big savings ...

Price of single lenses:

  • Optical website - $47
  • Bricks and mortar - $139

Price of progressives:

  • Optical website - $91
  • Bricks and mortar - $284

... but specs ordered online may have quality or reliability issues.

Among glasses ordered online 22% never showed up and 45% of glasses delivered had problems.

Note: From a study of 200 pairs of prescription glasses from 12 popular online vendors; median prices for online; bricks and mortar are estimates; problems included incorrect power and failed impact testing. Source: Karl Citek, Pacific University.

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