En español | Americans spend, on average, $275, after insurance, for their eyewear. But unless you have special vision needs, you can spend far less on a good pair of glasses. Here are some features to consider, where to buy your specs, and different ways to save.
What makes a pair of glasses ‘good'?
It's important to understand what different features really do for your vision, and whether they're worth the extra cost.
High-index lenses. Thinner, lighter and more comfortable than regular lenses, they're a great choice for those with strong prescriptions — helping you avoid the “Coke bottle” look.
Polycarbonate lenses. Active types might want to consider polycarbonate lenses, a type of high-index lens. They are ridiculously durable (up to 10 times more impact resistant than average plastic) and scratch resistant, and have built-in UV protection. They also aren't that much more expensive than regular plastic lenses.
Photochromic lenses. These lenses react to ultraviolet (UV) light, staying clear indoors and darkening in sunlight. This is an economical add-on, good for those who don't want to carry around a pair of prescription sunglasses. They also can be a smart choice for older patients, who may be beginning to get cataracts and need to protect their eyes from UV light. A caveat: They won't darken inside cars because windshields filter out the UV rays that trigger the color change, so if you wear glasses while driving, they may not be a good choice. Also, notes Douglas Lazzaro, M.D., an ophthalmologist affiliated with NYU Langone Health, different brands have different levels of darkness and reaction times, so take time to comparison shop.
Progressive lenses. Doing bifocals one better, these lenses offer three prescriptions in one lens — up close and at a distance, with an intermediate distance (say, for computer viewing) in the center — allowing you to see all distances. They gradually change from each prescription, as you move your eyes down and up. This makes them a nice option for those who want only one pair of full-time glasses. They're also attractive, without that line across the lens you'll get with bifocals. A downside: They can be disorienting. “People can have a hard time adapting to them — for example, going up and down stairs can be tricky,” says Danny Tran, an optometrist and instructor at the Ruiz Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Science at McGovern Medical School, University of Texas, who suggests that first-time wearers remove their glasses when navigating precarious surroundings.
High-definition (digital) lenses. These lenses are to your eyes what high-definition (HD) technology is to TV. Based on a digital scan of your eyes, digital lenses can give you even crisper, clearer vision than conventional lenses. Take note: They generally cost up to 25 to 30 percent more than conventional glasses of the same material and design, and may only offer a slightly better view: “If you're happy with your traditional lenses,” says Lazzaro, “you probably don't need them.”
Anti-glare coating. This add-on, often bundled with high-index and HD lenses, eliminates reflections from the surfaces of your lenses. That means more light is able to get through, enhancing the quality of your vision by doing away with annoying distractions — such as glare and halos many people see when driving at night. It also improves the look of your glasses: By reducing the glare bouncing off the surface of your lenses, they look practically invisible.
The feature is not cheap (usually between $50 and $100), but worth every penny, says John Seegers, a licensed optician and creator of OpticianWorks, online training courses for opticians, who suggests getting the best coating you can afford. Higher-quality coatings are also less likely to get smudgy and scratched, and have better warranties on them, notes Andrea Thau, former president of the American Optometric Association.
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Where to buy glasses
Frames, which can range from a few bucks to hundreds or even thousands of dollars, can be a big part of your total cost. Whether you're looking for standard plastic or pricey titanium wire frames, it pays to comparison shop, says Seegers, who notes that there may be another other shop nearby selling the same frame for less. And when it comes to designer frames, know this: You'll shell out more, but that doesn't mean it's a better product. “In fact, it's most likely made on the same assembly line and from the same materials as a company's house brand,” he adds.
Online retailers: Companies like Zenni Optical, Warby Parker, GlassesUSA, and EyeBuyDirect have been giving the brick-and-mortar crowd a run for their money — especially during the pandemic, when many people would rather shop from home. Many have virtual try-on tools to help you get a good fit. (Warby Parker even allows you to try on five pairs at home, for free.) You can find a huge selection of well-made eyewear for under $150, though adding extras such as impact-resistant lenses with antireflective coating will drive up the price.
Online retailers can also be a good way to nab discount designer frames (GlassesUSA sells women's Prada frames for $145), as well as ridiculously inexpensive ones (a search on Zenni uncovered a $6.95 pair of basic prescription rectangle glasses with anti-scratch coating and UV protection).
Downside: You get what you pay for. If you're looking for glasses that you'll wear infrequently — maybe you usually wear contact lenses — a low-budget pair may make sense. But if you're going to be wearing your glasses full time, it pays to invest in a pricier pair and get professionally fitted. Check the return policy, in case you're not satisfied. Some online retailers offer no-questions-asked returns; others may offer up another pair instead. And be sure the website accepts vision insurance (not all do).
To buy online, you need a valid prescription and your pupillary distance (PD) measurement, which is the distance in millimeters between your pupils or from your pupils to the center of your nose bridge. This indicates where the company filling your prescription needs to place the optical center (or “sweet spot") of vision in the lenses, so you can see clearly. Many online retailers offer ways to determine your PD, including virtual eye exams. “There are also apps that will do that for you, and they're pretty accurate, but you shouldn't try doing a pupillary measurement on your own,” says Mike Vitale, a senior technical director and Lab, Lens, and Lens Processing & Technology Division liaison of The Vision Council, who suggests asking your eye doctor to include it as part of an eye exam.
Chain retailers and independent opticians or optometrists: The online route isn't for everyone. If you are tricky to fit, you are better off purchasing glasses in-person from an eye doctor, as about 38 percent of Americans do, according to Mintel, a market research firm. One reason: An eye doctor or optometrist fits your frames and checks to see exactly where you're looking through the lenses to find the PD, so they can be aligned precisely in the frames. Online suppliers simply place the spot in the geometric center of the lens, but sometimes the spot doesn't match your line of sight, and your vision will be affected (if you want to buy online, get your PD measured by a professional first, as noted above).
And if you have a strong or complicated prescription (if you wear progressive lenses, for instance), you might want to consider the pros, “especially with the kind of money you're spending,” says Seegers. “It's a lot easier than getting glasses from an online retailer, having problems, and sending them back. Could you, in theory, get a perfectly good pair online? Absolutely. But why risk it?"
An optometrist or optician (a technical specialist in fitting glasses) can help you select a pair that flatters your face shape and walk you through options for lenses.
Walmart Vision Center and Costco Optical both have licensed optometrists on-site, and are likely to offer specs at much lower prices than you'll find at boutique opticians (the average cost of a pair of eyeglasses at Costco Optical is $184). The same goes for the big-chain vision centers, such as LensCrafters and Pearle Vision, which offer seasonal sales (savings of at least 20 percent on a pair of eyeglasses) and BOGO deals. These can be great places to save on specs.
Other ways to save
Comparison shop. Keep your eyes peeled for price-match guarantees. Or try on glasses at a store, jot down the style number of the frames you fancy, and then search for a website that sells the same ones for less.
Ask for a price break. “A lot of retailers will offer a break on a second pair,” says Vitale. “If you're looking to get one pair of prescription eyeglasses and one pair for the office, it never hurts to ask for a discount."
Use loyalty cards to land sweet deals. Some retailers will offer discounts for being a member of a club or organization — AARP, among them. At LensCrafters, members can get 30 percent off a complete pair of glasses.