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Tips for Buying Affordable and Fashionable Glasses

Eyeglass Help for the 50+

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Here is how to ensure your new specs look good and don't cost a fortune.

The good news: Buying eyeglasses online are easy and cheap, and there are hundreds of styles you can choose from. The bad news: It's not for everybody.

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Buying eyeglasses online are one of those wonders of the internet age. You can find every style of frame imaginable, software that allows you to upload a picture of yourself and get a virtual representation of what you'd look like, and prices for frames that start as low as $6.95. Online is the way to go if all you want is reading glasses or you have an uncomplicated prescription. You could easily lose a couple of hours shopping websites like Zenni Optical, Eye Buy Direct and Warby Parker. I know because I did.

But buyer beware. Going the online route is not for people who are severely myopic or who have quirky prescriptions (like for astigmatism in my right eye), or who need bifocals or progressive lenses. Shopping online, I fell in love with some oversize demure-librarian frames. They cost $39, and even with a few add-ons and shipping, I ended up spending about $50, which I considered really cheap. (The last pair of glasses I bought in my pre-cataract-surgery days cost me $650.)

My new glasses came in the mail two weeks later, exactly as I'd ordered, and that's when I found out that large lenses do something really wonky when combined with a prescription for progressive lenses and astigmatism in one eye. I can wear them, and the frames look great, but I look a bit like an inquisitive Lassie, cocking my head to one side to get things in focus.

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What went wrong? "It's because of the way the lens is measured," explains John Seegers, an optician and director of education at Laramy-K Optical, a website for sellers and buyers of eyeglasses. Online sites ask buyers to measure their own PD (pupillary distance, or the width between the center of each pupil), which is easy enough to do. "But when you get into the vertical measurement of where the progressive part of the lens begins, that takes a little more expertise." Live and learn.

Some other things to know when searching for inexpensive glasses:

  • Do due diligence before buying. Look up your seller on the Better Business Bureau website before you send in your credit card number. Those folks who offer the cheapest prices also tend to have customers who describe issues such as long delays in receiving their glasses or incorrect prescriptions in their lenses.
  • Be careful about upselling. Both Zenni Optical and Warby Parker, two reputable online retailers, will offer you lots of bells and whistles after you pick your frames and enter your prescription numbers. So will storefront retailers. Some extras you may need; most you don't. Ask about the quality of the nonglare coating, if you want that, Seegers advises. "If they don't have a brand name, that's a danger sign. Better to have no nonglare coating than a cheap one."
  • Don't overlook big-box discount stores. Overall, Seegers thinks the best route is to shop at stores like Costco or BJ's. Store-front retail opticians' shops will have the biggest selection and the latest styles, he says, but "these days, a frame is a frame is a frame. It's all pretty good stuff." Big-box stores can easily save you $100 or more, "and you still have a human being doing the measurements."