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When Is It OK To Buy Cheap Glasses?

Americans spend about $16 billion on eyeglasses every year. If you wear glasses, you probably know that some of them can cost $1000, while others go for $9.99. Your eye doctor might tell you that buying glasses online is a stupid idea. Commercials promise two pairs of no line bifocals in designer frames for less than the price of a dinner at Applebee’s. How do you know when it’s OK to buy cheap glasses?

I’ve been a private practice optometrist for over 13 years. I make money from selling glasses, and I’ve seen it all. Today, I’ll give you the honest truth about when it’s OK to buy cheap glasses.

Amount of Prescription

Years ago, people with really bad prescriptions had to wear thick lenses in their glasses. Remember Grandpa’s “coke bottles?”

Any prescription over three units looks better with thinner and lighter lenses. If you look at your written prescription, and the first number is higher than a 3, this means you.

A higher index material or a composite called polycarbonate is used to make them thinner, but it also refracts light at a higher degree. You don’t need to understand the optics behind this, but sometimes people have a hard time adjusting to thinner and lighter materials and feel like they are looking through a fish bowl. Better quality lenses lessen this effect.

Astigmatism

If you have a moderate to high amount of astigmatism (the middle number of your written prescription is over 1.50), it is very important that your pupils align with the optical center of the lens. Otherwise, the glasses won’t work as well and could actually cause eye strain or double vision. Ideally, a trained optician would measure your pupil distance so that the glasses are correct.

If you order glasses online, they give instructions on how to measure this yourself or by looking into a gadget on the screen. You could get lucky, but generally it is never as accurate.

Progressive Lenses

Just like with astigmatism, the pupil distance and the area where the lens changes into the reading power have to be measured correctly with no line bifocals, also called progressive lenses. Online stores often give a standard “one size fits all” measurement that may or may not work for you.

No line bifocals can have a steep adjusment curve, especially for first time wearers. Cheaper quality lenses have worse optics, which can make adjustment more challenging. If you are someone who gets car sick or doesn’t adapt to change quickly, you are setting yourself up for failure by buying cheap progressive lenses.

Anti-Glare Coatings

Anti-glare coatings help with annoying reflections from headlights and overhead lights. Cosmetically, they look nice because a person viewing you sees your eyes and not reflections. If you work in broadcasting or do public speaking, this is a must.

However, cheap anti-glare coatings peel off and make reflections worse than no coating at all. If you are going cheap, I would leave this option off. If you really need or like anti-glare, it’s better to invest in a quality coating, which usually costs $40 or more.

Are You Too Picky for Cheap Glasses?

I’ve seen people treat choosing glasses like Sophie’s Choice. They expect help with choosing the right shape or frame size and have lots of questions about materials. They need their glasses adjusted often and expect minor repairs for no charge. They also want a warranty if something breaks or needs parts. If this is your personality, it might be worth paying more for quality service.

Should I Try Cheap Glasses?

If you aren’t sure, ask yourself if you would be satisfied with the quality of clothing or furniture at a store like Wal Mart or Big Lots. If you have no issues with bargain stores, you probably would be OK with cheap glasses.

I would not buy clothes for myself at Wal Mart, but I might buy them for my daughter, who will outgrow them quickly. Cheap might be a good option if you need high volume.

If you wear contacts most of the time and need backup glasses to make it from the bathroom to the bedroom at night, cheap might be OK.

People who have always had cheap glasses don’t have any other standard of comparison. If you see well, aren’t a hazard to yourself or others, and aren’t getting headaches, it’s probably fine to stay with cheap.

Cheap or Expensive, Make Sure You Check Your Appearance.

Regardless of where you get your glasses or how much you pay for them, make sure they are clean, straight, from the current decade, and appropriate for what you do. I met with a financial planner once who had an ancient, enormous pair of glasses. The nose pads were green from decay, and all the color on the frame was chipping off.

She might be a money genius who spends so much time making money that she doesn’t have time to buy glasses, but to me, it looked either like she couldn’t afford them, or wasn’t paying attention to detail. I don’t want a broke, haphazard financial planner. Fair? Maybe not, but first impressions do count.

Do you think it’s worthwhile to spend a few hundred dollars on glasses or would you go the $9.99 route? Would you assume things about someone because they had bad glasses?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.

46 comments

  1. Thanks for pointing that out. I figured that when it came to the lens there were probably a lot of varying degrees of quality that would make the price point range by so much.

    What about the frames? Is there any real reason why a pair of Ralph Lauren frames has to cost several hundred dollars more than similar looking generic ones?
    MMD @ My Money Design recently posted..How to Find Good Cheap Stocks to Invest In – A Book ReviewMy Profile

    • Because Ralph gets a lot of money to put his name on them. Some higher end frames are made of better materials, but honestly, the more durable ones that last a long time are usually not the celebrity lines.

  2. Luckily I’ve never had to get glasses. I do think if I were glasses everyday I would definitely spend a little more money. I am usually cheap but if it came to something that sat on my face a lot I would want a quality pair.
    Alexa recently posted..Investing in a Blog: Process and PlansMy Profile

  3. I don’t wear glasses but my wife does. We have our eye wear covered under our works benefits plan so we don’t pay out of pocket. That being said, you only get one set of eyes so protect them the best way you can.
    canadianbudgetbinder recently posted..Baked Loaded Cauliflower PizzaMy Profile

  4. We would likely buy more expensive glasses if it were in the budget right now. Years ago, Rick bought a $300 pair of Ray Ban sunglasses and they are still in awesome shape and he still loves them. For me, though, I only wear mine at night, so I’d probably go the cheaper route . Great post, Kim!
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted..How to Save Money on Luxuries and SplurgesMy Profile

    • Buying $300 glasses would not make sense if you’re trying to pay off debt. It makes me sad when I see people buy things I feel they can’t afford. That’s one thing I don’t enjoy about my job.

  5. I just got new glasses and the guy at the store pulled out the case of frames to show me what my insurance covered and proceeded to put down every frame in that collection. Mind you, there were over 100 frames to chose from. I guess that tactic works on some people, but not me.
    Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life recently posted..Groupon: Good or Bad?My Profile

    • My feeling is that if you don’t want to carry that product and sell it, then don’t accept the vision plan. If you can’t stand behind what you sell, you might as well be Wal Mart.

  6. I’ve generally gone the more expensive route as I’d rather spend a little more on my eyes to make sure what I am using fits my needs. I don’t wear my glasses all that much, but when I do I like to have ones that work well.

  7. I think it would depend on how much discretionary income I had. I would buy the best I could that my money could afford. I’ve never been one to skimp on any kind of health care (but luckily I don’t need glasses!).
    Budget and the Beach recently posted..Invest in my future or Save! Save! Save!?My Profile

  8. I have bought cheap glasses before and I regretted it. Luckily the cost was so low and all I think I had to pay for was the shipping because they had a deal going on.
    Michelle recently posted..Things That I Do To Save MoneyMy Profile

  9. We buy mid range glasses for the most part, though sometimes mr pop thinks he wants an expensive pair. But we always buy then locally. There’s something nice about being able to walk in and get an adjustment or a little fix if they don’t feel quite right.
    Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..He Said She Said – Miley Cyrus And Growing UpMy Profile

  10. I have 20/20 vision but I convinced my husband to go all out on his last frames–getting scratch and glare resistant lenses and brand-name frames. We’re not normally brand-snobs, but he still gets compliments on his Prada frames and they have lasted him quite a while (his prescription hasn’t changed). I think glasses are something that I’d rather spend more money one as it’s a daily usage item. For someone like me with 20/20 vision, I’d compare it to spending good money on a mattress!
    Tara @ Streets Ahead Living recently posted..Sorry for the delay…My Profile

  11. I bought new glasses a few months ago that were pretty expensive. I did think to myself that since I wear them everyday, it is worth it. However, for my next pair, I think I might check out a more affordable route. Of course my eyes are important so I wouldn’t want low quality glasses but I read that the more expensive part of glasses are usually the frame…so I’ll probably look into more affordable frames. What do you think about buying glasses online? P.S: I included one of your posts in my roundup =)
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted..Monday Update and RoundupMy Profile

    • If I lived in NYC, I would probably try online. Are you able to have a relationship with a smaller office or is everything commercial and/or really expensive?

      • I think there are both small offices or big commercial ones. I’ve just read that the industry is controlled by a few large companies that have kept prices artificially high and that eye glasses shouldn’t necessarily cost so much. I read this in an article about why Warby Parker was started (Kurt from Money Counselor also mentioned them).
        Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted..Monday Update and RoundupMy Profile

        • It is true about the monopoly. Luxottica pretty much owns everything and is associated with one of the chain opticals. Local optometrist cannot even get together and discuss insurances or prices in any way. It’s considered insider trading, and we can lose our license. However, the big corporations can set the price on everything. I suspect that at some point optometry will be like pharmacy. It will all be corporate owned and we’ll all draw a salary unless you do specialized work with ocular disease or low vision or maybe in really small towns. I hope I’m able to “retire” before that happens.

  12. I love nothing better than a great looking pair of glasses. Working in finance, glasses were always the look that said, “Trust me.” For this reason, when I purchase glasses, I go big. I couldn’t ever wear a cheap pair of glasses. Cheap tee shirt on the weekend? Absolutely. Glasses? No thank you.
    AverageJoe recently posted..Making Better Insurance and Investing Decisions – Stacking Benjamins #23My Profile

    • When I am talking with someone in that sort of position, insurance, finance, business, etc., I do notice their shoes and glasses. I think it says a lot about a person if they pay attention to those details.

  13. I use magnifiers for reading. Most of my time is spent in the office working on my computer, and I don’t go out to visit clients as much as in the past. When I do I almost always manage to lose something – most often my glasses.

    As a result I buy as many dollar store pairs as possible. Sometimes they sit on my face properly, but not too often. It does make people laugh though.
    Kevin @ Ask for Benefits recently posted..The Average Cost of Critical Illness InsuranceMy Profile

    • My Dad is the worst with his old crooked reading glasses. I’ve bought him nice pairs but he goes back to the old standby pair every time.

  14. I do have eye glasses but I don’t wear it, I’m not comfortable in wearing it. My vision is 170/170 and I bought it for $70.
    Clarrise @ Make Money Your Way recently posted..How to Identify the Short Term Market PeakMy Profile

  15. I plan on trying Warby Parker for a pair of glasses. My perrscription is relatively light and I thought I would try them.
    krantcents recently posted..Job Applicants should be Careful about Online Identity TheftMy Profile

  16. I hardly wear my glasses (only at night mostly) and when my dog ate my expensive pair I decided to buy a cheap pair online. It only cost me $16 for the frames, lenses, and shipping. I am definitely happy with that!
    Derek@LifeAndMyFinances recently posted..7 Reasons to Pay Your Student Loans Off FastMy Profile

    • That’s not an ouch if the dog eats them. Dogs love glasses. I’m not sure why, but we have tons of chewed up ones that come in for repairs.

  17. I’m usually careless with my glasses so I always opt for the more expensive sturdy ones. Glasses and good shoes are two things I pay a premium for.
    Charles@gettingarichlife recently posted..Building Up My FU Money One Investment At A TimeMy Profile

  18. I think ads for cheap glasses are terribly misleading. As you pointed out, there are many situations where cheap glasses are not recommended. My wife’s glasses ended up being a lot more than we expected, because her prescription didn’t fit under the ‘cheap lenses’ advertised price. I have held off for about 5+ years without getting new glasses :0 I might get some this Winter, though.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted..My Habitual Spending and Learning to Curb ItMy Profile

  19. My parents literally buy $1 reading glasses at the Dollar Store. I always wonder if it’s a good idea…..
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..House vs. House: The ShowdownMy Profile

    • If they see well in the distance, it’s probably OK. I would be more concerned if they weren’t getting eye exams. Risk of everything goes up quite a bit after age 50.

  20. i have a wicked astigmatism that seems to be getting worse, year after year. i have always purchased decent glasses to make sure that they work correctly..
    jefferson @SeeDebtRun recently posted..What Is This “Betterment Charge” That An Insurance Company Wants Me to Pay?My Profile

  21. I’m terrible with my sunglasses so I only ever buy cheap ones. I wear contacts on weekends/days off and glasses at work (in place of safety goggles). I’ve had expensive glasses and cheap glasses. Given that I’ve worn glasses the bulk of my life I’ve come to know what I like and can usually shop around and find what I want much cheaper. I just got my first pair via clearlycontacts.ca and was super happy with them.
    Catherine recently posted..Life Lesson From An Airline Pilot/Pizza Delivery ManMy Profile

    • That’s so true about having a long history with glasses. I can know it’s a pair I want within five seconds of seeing it.

  22. I have pretty bad eyesight so I get my lenses from my eye doctor. The frames I will shop around to find the pair that looks best on me and is the cheapest. I once got my lenses from a discount eye store and they were all messed up. At first I thought that it was just a stronger prescription and I needed a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. They never did and when I went back, the doctor said that the lenses were nowhere near what my prescription was!
    Jon @ MoneySmartGuides recently posted..How PayAnywhere is Revolutionizing Paying for Goods and ServicesMy Profile

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