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See Your Way to Great Eyeglass, Vision Bargains

How to Save on EyeglassesMonks have brought us a lot of technological innovations over the years, beer being perhaps the most widely enjoyed. And it's believed that a frustrated, squinting monk -- too much beer, perhaps?-- stumbled upon use of a magnifying "reading stone" sometime around 1000 A.D.

Fast forward 1,000 years, and we're still trying to figure out how to get the most out of our glasses, and the various alternatives that exist for correcting vision. In today's world of polycarbonate this, contact lens that, and laser-assisted surgery, you may well wonder: Which vision options emerge as cost-effective and consumer smart? We've studied the fine print, read between the lines-and have plenty to report on eyeglass enlightenment in this week's Savings Experiment.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: THE EYE EXAM
The first step in any journey to better vision begins with an eye exam. Whether you're experiencing vision problems for the first time, or trying to figure out whether those 20-year-old glasses should still do the trick, know this: the American Optometric Association (AOA) recommends a comprehensive eye exam every two years for adults ages 18 to 60, and annual exams for seniors age 61 and older.

Think your kid is too young to get his or her peepers checked? Children generally should have their first eye exam at six months of age, another exam at age three, and again at the start of school. Risk-free children should then continue to have their eyes examined every two years until age 18. At any point along the way, problems with your child's school work could signal the need for glasses: They may be doing poorly because they can't see the blackboard or the front of the class.

By the way: If you emerge from an eye exam with 20/20 vision, it means not that you have superior vision, but average vision. 20/20 means that the eye being tested can read the small size letter that the average person can see from 20 feet away. If you're 20/10, then you can brag: you can see from 20 ft. what most people can only see from 10 ft.

KNOW YOUR EYE CARE PROS
When you're ready to get examined and perhaps fitted for eyeglasses or contacts, it helps to know the difference between the "three O's."

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in eye care. They not only prescribe eyeglasses and contacts, but also perform eye surgery and treat medical conditions of the eye.

Optometrists are non-surgical eye doctors who diagnose vision problems and treat medical conditions of the eye with eye drops and other medicines. They prescribe glasses, contacts, low vision aids, vision therapy and medication to treat eye diseases. With a few exceptions, optometrists typically are not trained or licensed to perform eye surgery.

Opticians are not eye doctors. They are eye care professionals who fit, adjust and repair glasses and teach patients how to apply, remove and care for contact lenses.

So be careful for that fourth "O," opportunists. Don't let anyone look at your eyes who lacks the proper certifications, medical degrees, or who can't tell a monocle from a bifocal.

EYE EXAMS, DONE RIGHT AND DONE CHEAP
I marvel at the fact that with every passing year, Costco seems to offer an ever-increasing plethora of cradle-to-grave merchandise. You can get diapers for your baby there. You can buy caskets for the dearly departed there. And if you need an eye exam, it's in most cases the cheapest place to go. And think of the convenience: You can drop off your photo prints, get your eyes checked and your tires changed all in the same trip, all while trying samples of fried ravioli. (And if you save room in the back of the minivan for that casket, then yee-hah. ..)

Costco Optical charges $49 for an eyeglass exam. Pay $79 and you can get both an eyeglass and contact lens fitting. Be sure to check your local store, as prices may vary from region to region.

Walmart Vision Center also offers discounted exams, though you will likely pay a bit more. If there's no Costco in your area, consider Walmart a good bet: Charges vary between $65 (in New Jersey) to $80 (Chapel Hill, N.C.) for eyeglass exam. Eyeglasses and contacts range from $109 (N.J.) to $150 (N.C.).

America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses: If available in your area it's worth checking out America's Best for special offers. In select states it offers a $45 exam; if you buy two pairs of single-vision glasses with plastic lenses, the price runs as low as $69.95 complete. The EyeCare Club offers memberships for $99 (3 years) and $139 (5 years) that include:

• Free exams for the life of your EyeCare Club membership, and up to two exams per year for each year of membership. Initial eye exam included toward first year's two-exam maximum.

• 10% off all replacement contacts.

• 10% off all eyeglasses including designer frames.

FREE AND LOW-COST EXAM OPTIONS
Healthy vision is crucial to everyone. That's why many local colleges of optometry offer low-cost screenings for eye conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts. Check out the "College of Optometry" in your area for information.

Eye Care America, a service of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, also offers free exams for qualifying uninsured and low-income patients. Vision USA, affiliated with the non-profit American Optometric Association, also provides basic eye health and vision care services to the uninsured and their families.

GETTING THE SPECS
OK, so you've got your eye exam and you have all the paperwork in hand to get glasses made. The online world offers plenty of options, though of course you won't know exactly how the frames look on your face until you get them.

Eyeglassdirect boasts a very informative, helpful website, and glasses for as low as $28. These bargain beauties feature CR39 plastic lenses complete with frame. This is standard plastic, treated at no extra cost with with UV and scratch resistant coatings.

Polycarbonate ($38 complete with frame) are made of space-age material -- literally. (Windows in the space shuttles are made of it.) Thinner, lighter and impact resistant than standard plastic lenses, polycarbonates offer a good bet for children's and active adult's eyeglasses -- as well as the adults of active children. Trust me on the last point. My kids have broken numerous pairs of my eyeglasses during too-spirited rounds of horseplay.

Next Generation Transitions Lenses run $85 with frame. They contain light-sensitive molecules that darken and lighten according to the intensity of ultraviolet light and across a wide range of temperatures and climates. And finally: You can also get anti-glare coating for $28 extra.

So let's review the cost of a very basic pair of specs complete with frame:
Cost of glasses: $28
Surcharges: $18
Shipping: $4.95
Total: $50.95
Now, Eyeglassdirect does have an office and showroom in Brooklyn, N.Y. if you happen to live near there. Otherwise, if you're worried about what the frames might look like, you can always print them out. That's right: From the website you can print the frames in actual size via a PDF document and try the paper version. (Sorry, no paper lenses or contacts.) Also you can see the frames on your face type.

39 Dollar Glasses features prices fairly similar to Eyeglassdirect.com. And the cheapest frames we found were Global Eyeglasses, running as low as $1. But once you add in lenses ($69), coatings ($15) and other charges, the cost hits $91 -- not so much the bargain.

Now ... if you absolutely must see the frames on your face, and feel them in your hands, Costco and Walmart represent your cheapest options. And if you have an old, trusted pair of frames and want to change out the lenses, you're in luck: Many places will let you use your old frames for new glasses, including Eyeglassdirect and Walmart.

By the way: While you can try to adjust the earpiece on your eyeglasses by yourself, it is safest to bring your eyeglasses to a local eyeglasses shop to have them adjusted by a professional. Most shops will adjust eyeglasses for free. Again, trust me on this: I snapped a pair of beloved Zegna frames trying to do a badly needed adjustment myself. Sigh: Why couldn't I see that coming?

CONTACT LENSES, DISCOUNTS
The cheapest option we found: Coastal Contacts. It claims that it will beat any online prices and it sure looks like it can. It offers free priority shipping on orders of $99 and more. Our comparisons show that for the same lenses, Coastal beats 1-800-Contacts by $20. America's Best also offers competitive contact lens prices, so depending upon your needs, shop around a bit before you make that purchase.

As for discounts on vision, your insurance coverage can be helpful in some instances: Many employers will offer separate vision plans from their main insurance, so be sure to check who offers the vision coverage through your workplace.

If your health insurance policy doesn't cover vision, Vital Savings by Aetna is not insurance, but a discount program that can save you money on vision. Blue Cross/ Blue Shield also offers similar programs, but these offer the biggest savings on laser eye surgery. Their savings on eye exams and prescription glasses are insignificant compared to the cheapest places we found.

THE INS AND OUTS OF LASER SURGERY
It's expensive. And I swear that a few short years ago, I saw a TV special about laser eye surgery where all the eye doctors being interviewed wore glasses! Some testimonial.

Make no mistake, laser surgery has its risks. Enhancements are needed in approximately 5% of patients. Vision loss, while extremely rare, is possible. And about 1% of patients may have slightly less sharp vision, which is not improved with glasses or contact lenses, after the procedure. Hmmm. Something to think about before you dish out thousands of dollars for this procedure.

And dish out you will. Many insurance programs do not cover LASIK surgery -- LASIK being an acronym for "laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis." But if you have expanded vision coverage, check it out: As much as 50% of the cost may be covered.

In America average LASIK costs in 2009, per eye, ran $1,748 for non-customized LASIK using a bladed instrument (microkeratome) and excimer lasers that are not guided by wavefront analysis. The costs jumps to $2,314 for wavefront-guided LASIK using a laser-created flap.

Beware of advertising that promises "LASIK from $499 per eye." Look for the fine print: Typically, only a few select people are actually eligible for LASIK at prices that sound unusually low, because most eyes require more extensive correction or more follow-up after the surgery. The lowest price almost always applies only if you do not have any astigmatism and your vision is just slightly worse than 20/20.

So is LASIK economical? No. But if you've always wanted to ditch your glasses or contacts, it's the one surgical option you have ... other than perma-gluing your glasses to your face, or course.

THE EYES HAVE IT: NUTRITIONAL NEEDS, THAT IS
No, eating carrots won't give you eagle eyes. But a sound nutritional program can help protect your eyes over time. Here's a winning list of nutrients based on our research, and where to find them:

Vitamin A: cod liver oil, liver, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash
Lutein and zeaxanthin: spinach, kale, collard greens
Vitamin C: sweet peppers (red or green), kale, strawberries, broccoli, oranges, cantaloupe
Bioflavonoids: citrus fruits, cherries, grapes, plums
Vitamin E: sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts
Selenium: brazil nuts, yeast, seafood
Zinc: oysters, hamburgers, wheat, nuts
Fatty acids: cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, trout)

SUMMING UP: HERE'S WHAT WE SEE ...
In terms of budget eye exams, glasses and such, it's hard to go wrong in terms of the one-stop shopping at Costco or Walmart. Among online options, we're liking Eyeglassdirect and Coastal Contacts for their extremely reasonable prices. And since we haven't mentioned it before, the greatest bargain of all -- for those who need it most -- comes when you donate your old glasses to the Lion's Club recycle boxes, found at many eyewear retail stores. They'll take those old frames and lenses and provide the gift of vision for someone in the world who needs it desperately. It won't cost you a dime, but for the recipient, the gift of sight goes beyond a price tag.

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