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4 Things to Know About Shopping for Eyeglasses

Here's how to keep your vision — and your budget — in focus

Shopping for eyeglasses. (Getty Images)

Understand your options (and the costs) before buying your next pair of eyeglasses. — Getty Images

Nearly 8 in 10 Americans over age 55 require prescription lenses. And they're paying a pretty penny for that need.

The cost of prescription glasses averages more than $200 out of pocket, and the price can easily double if you opt for a quality pair of no-line "progressives," favored by the majority of older consumers.

With an array of options in expensive lens materials, coatings and frames, the bill for new glasses can tally quickly. So before buying, it pays to keep your eyes wide open.

1. Size Matters

If, after an eye exam, you decide to get a new pair of glasses, don't let fashion trump function. Many people suffer from presbyopia, a naturally occurring stiffening in the lens of eyes that reduces the ability to focus at close-vision tasks. (You may know it as reading at arm's length.)

If you previously wore prescription glasses and now have presbyopia, you'll probably want multifocal lenses with various "strengths." But you'll probably want to avoid tiny, fashionable styles.

"They're not good for older patients who need bifocals, trifocals or progressives," says Robert Rosenberg, O.D., an optometrist in Great Neck, N.Y., who serves as the spokesman for the American Optometric Association. Typically, multifocal lenses require a vertical height of at least 1.25 inches.

2. Lens Materials

While specs are called "glasses," glass lenses have largely been replaced by high-tech plastics — lighter, thinner and less likely to break if dropped. Choices include:

  • Basic: Also known as CR-39, this lower-priced choice is usually what's included in single-vision offers for "buy-one-get-one" and "complete pair for under $100." Some vendors may recommend additional UV treatments, "but it's usually a gimmick," says Rosenberg. Most plastics require no additional UV treatments.

  • Mid-index: Slimmer and lighter than basic, these are more compatible with anti-reflective and photochromic treatments. But they may require thicker lenses for those with strong prescriptions for farsightedness, limiting frame options.

  • High-index: This most expensive plastic is thinnest, lightest and provides the best clarity and comfort — and avoids that "Coke bottle" effect for strong prescriptions. Scratch-coating and UV protection are usually included. The downside: Many insurance companies don't cover the full cost. And because high-index lenses reflect more light, an anti-reflective coating is advised.
  • Polycarbonate: Originally designed for use in fighter jet canopies, this material produces lenses that are virtually unbreakable — ideal for active adults, kids or those with vision in only one eye. These lenses offer similar benefits to high-index (and typically include scratch resistance and UV protection) but may cause color distortions. A similar product, Trivex, can offer crisper vision, but may cost more.

  • The latest and greatest: "High-definition" lenses engineered from a digital scan of the eyes. They can cost about $150 more than high-index lenses "but the result is like looking through a high-def TV," says Shirley Earley, an optician in West Chester, Ohio, and past president of the Opticians Association of America. "Images are sharper and clearer and colors are more vivid."

    For a cost-effective spare pair, consider the just-released Adlens Adjustables. A tiny dial is adjusted, for each eye, to set your own prescription from -6.0 to +3.0 (that's 90 percent of spherical refractive errors). Prices start at about $40 at HomeDepot.com; pairs from a "John Lennon Collection" sell for between $100 and $170 at eyewear boutiques. Be aware, though, that these are not substitutes for corrective lenses and cannot be used for driving or operating heavy machinery. They're best for use around the house or when magnification is needed.

Next page: Check out these popular lens options. »

3. Lens Treatments

In addition to scratch resistance, popular choices include:

  • Anti-reflective lenses: These reduce light reflections. Generally recommended for high-index wearers, all-day computer users, nighttime drivers bothered by glare, public speakers under bright lights, and those who've had LASIK surgery (they reduce halos and ghost images).

  • Photochromic lenses: These darken when outdoors, replacing the need for prescription sunglasses.

  • Polarized sunglasses: Designed to enhance contrast and eliminate glare, they're especially good for fishing or driving, but aren't as effective at reading smartphone screens and cameras with viewfinders. "They're also very expensive," says Rosenberg. Regular prescription sunglasses are usually fine, he says, but avoid getting lenses that are too dark "and never use them at night." When evaluating tints, look at a traffic light to ensure you can make out the colors; if you can't, they're too dark.

4. Where to Buy

Costco gets top marks from Consumer Reports, with savings of up to 40 percent compared with walk-in optical chains. Sam's Club and Wal-Mart are also good choices for price, according to Consumer Reports, but independent optometrists and opticians score best on selection and merchandise quality. You should know that LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut and optical branches of Target and Sears are owned by the same company, Italy-based Luxottica, which also controls 80 percent of major frame brands.

No doubt that online vendors have some great prices. But studies suggest that many consumers received eyeglasses that don't meet prescription specifications or safety standards.

One budget-friendly suggestion, especially if you require multifocals: See if you can purchase frames online but have lenses handled by a local practitioner or optical chain.

Sid Kirchheimer, the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, writes about consumer and health affairs.

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