Balancing Priorities

If you're lucky, you'll avoid this painful St. Patrick's Day bill

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day might be more expensive than you anticipate.

Consumers are expected to spend a record $5.3 billion for St. Patrick's Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's an average of $35.37 per person for corned beef, beer, green apparel and other purchases.

If you're lucky enough to avoid another common holiday expense, that is.

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Emergency dental visits jump 77 percent the day after St. Patrick's, per a 2016 analysis from Sikka Software, which provides software and tools to dentists around the country. Looking at visit data from 2008 to 2015, the company found that March 18 is always one of the busiest 10 days of the year, and the spike in visits tends to last two to three days. (Dentists told CNBC last year that the visits often stem from drunken clumsiness and fights.)

Keeping the costs of an unexpected dental bill in check — after St. Patrick's and at other points in the year — requires a little research before you rush to the dentist.

"Take a moment, take a breath, and find the health care for your problem that is best rather than first," said Cheryl Reed, communications director for Angie's List, a U.S.-based website containing crowdsourced reviews of local businesses.

But due diligence shouldn't mean delaying care or skipping it altogether. Regular preventive visits can help you address many problems before they require a pricier procedure, said Julia Hallisy, D.D.S., founder and president of The Empowered Patient Coalition.

"I routinely see $200 procedures, such as a simple filling, become a $2,000 problem or more when decay is left untreated," she said.

Here's how to keep the costs of an unexpected dental bill in check:

● Check policy details. If you have dental insurance, call your insurer to get a sense of your coverage and in-network provider options, said Jennifer Fitzgerald, chief executive of comparison website PolicyGenius. Plans typically have a fee schedule detailing what charges they will allow for various procedures and how much of those charges will be covered.

Policies also often have low annual limits on coverage, around $1,000, she said. "If you have a surgery, you're going to run up against that limit pretty quickly."

Shop around for care. Use a comparison site, such as Healthcare Bluebook, to figure out what a fair price is in your area for a given procedure, said Reed at Angie's List. Use that as a starting point to get estimates. If price is a concern, cast a wider net to include community clinics and dental schools, she said.

Get a pre-visit estimate. Before you head to the dentist's office, call to check your out-of-pocket costs, said Hallisy of The Empowered Patient Coalition.

"It can be impossible to know down to the penny what an insurance company will pay, but we can usually get very close," she said. "Let the office know from the moment you first call that you would like them to confirm your insurance and provide you with an estimate of your co-payment."

Negotiate a discount. Ask upfront if you can get a break on the price for paying in cash or if there are payment plans available, said Reed of Angie's List.

"You can negotiate oftentimes," she said. "So don't be afraid to ask."

Consider a discount plan. Don't have dental insurance? Waiting until you've chipped a tooth or need a root canal is too late. Most plans have waiting periods before coverage kicks in, to prevent people from buying coverage when they have an immediate need, said Fitzgerald at PolicyGenius. Discount plans, which offer percentage savings at participating dentists, kick in immediately.

Even if you have insurance, a discount plan can be a good value, she said — so long as your dentist is in both networks, you can layer both together to save.

Plan ahead. "People have to plan for unexpected dental expenses largely the same way that they would for other expenses, such as a car breakdown, vet bill, etc.," said Hallisy of The Empowered Patient Coalition.

Ideally, that means an emergency fund, she said. You might also think about funding a flexible spending account or health savings account, which help cut your tax bill and cover qualified medical expenses.