Dr. Vaibhavi S. Patel

The average American spends $384 on dental care per year, according to the American Dental Association. Many choose to—or simply must—get more dental care than others, and that has some people looking for ways to improve their smiles on the cheap. Paying a lot for your children’s braces so they can have straight teeth is one thing; paying a lot to fix a chipped tooth in your own smile is another.

Fortunately, strategies and habits exist that can help you save both money and your smile. Here are nine ways to improve your smile without breaking the bank:

1. Brush and Floss

Perhaps the best way to improve and maintain your smile inexpensively is simply to follow a good oral hygiene routine of brushing twice a day (for two minutes each time) and flossing at least once a day. These simple habits can prevent many of the smaller issues that lead to bigger problems, such as tooth decay, plaque and tartar buildup, or gum disease.

2. See Your Dentist Twice a Year

Many dental insurance plans cover two checkups per year, which is the recommended number of times you should see your dentist. During these checkups, any issues with your teeth can be identified and, ideally, addressed before they become bigger, more expensive problems. Take advantage of the checkups your insurance offers, and even if you aren’t covered, office visits are inexpensive enough and could potentially save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in the long run.

3. Use a Decent Toothbrush

Toothbrushes aren’t meant to last forever—three months is a good maximum before they start losing their effectiveness. Replacing your toothbrush (or toothbrush head if you are using an electric one) a few times a year is a cost-effective way to ensure you are getting the most out of each brushing session.

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4. Use Whitening Toothpaste

If you want to whiten your teeth, the professional route through your dentist is the best way to ensure a lasting, uniform color for your smile. However, on a budget, over-the-counter whitening toothpastes can deliver results at a much lower cost. These products often contain baking soda and other abrasive ingredients, so take care to follow instructions and avoid damaging your teeth. Also, don’t expect amazing results—whitening toothpastes may help with stains and some basic discoloration, but they aren’t as effective as what a dentist can achieve.

5. Be Careful with Staining Foods

If your teeth are stained and you want them professionally whitened (which, in some cases, is the best option for your smile), there will be a cost. You can avoid that cost by not letting your teeth become severely stained in the first place. Coffee, cola, berries, black tea, wine, curry, and tomato sauce are among some of the foods that, over time, can discolor your smile. You don’t have to stop eating these staining foods, but be smart when you consume them by not going overboard, rinsing your mouth afterward, and brushing later.

6. Be Careful with Acidic Foods

Along the same lines, citrus fruits, soda, sparkling water, sports drinks, and juices deliver an acidic punch to your teeth that can be damaging over time. Again, moderation and smart oral hygiene can lessen the effects of these foods and drinks, and an enamel-strengthening toothpaste or mouthwash can provide some additional smile defense.

7. Be Smart with What You Chew

A cracked or chipped tooth can be expensive to fix with a veneer or crown (and even more expensive if you lose the tooth and need an implant). Avoid costly procedures and protect your teeth by not biting into hard objects and by not using your teeth for anything besides chewing. Beware of popcorn kernels, bones, and hard candy. Moreover, try not to bite ice, chew your fingernails, or use your teeth to rip open potato chip bags, tear duct tape from the roll, or undo knots.

8. Quit Smoking

Smoking stains teeth, weakens gums, and puts you at a greater risk for cancer in and around your mouth (not to mention the rest of you). The costs associated with these side effects can range from expensive to incredibly expensive, so quitting is not only better for your health, but also for your wallet. Plus, the money you save by not buying cigarettes or other tobacco products can be applied to your smile—say, by having your teeth professionally whitened.

9. Composite Bonding

Veneers and crowns are strong options for repairing smiles, but they are also expensive options. Composite bonding has emerged as a viable alternative for cost-conscious patients, at several hundred dollars less per tooth. The procedure is simple: The dentist applies a tooth-colored composite material to cracks, chips, and gaps to rebuild that area of the smile. Bonding also can be placed over areas of gum recession to prevent tooth sensitivity. The process is similar to getting a filling—but without the drill and numbing shots. The procedure requires just one office visit, saving you time and money.

If we may suggest a tenth way to inexpensively improve your smile: Use it! A smile is often the first impression people see and a reflection of your mood and personality, so don’t hide it. If there is something you don’t like about your smile, talk to your dentist. The tips given here won’t break the bank, and they can give you a smile worth a million dollars.