I can see clearly now: how to cut the cost of eyewear

For cheaper lenses and glasses, you need to focus on the internet, says David Prosser

Are you spending hundreds of pounds a year on correcting your vision? A survey published this week suggests that the average specs-wearer spends more than £200 a year on frames, lenses and care, rising to more than £600 for those who wear contact lenses.

But, while buying glasses or lenses from upmarket high-street boutiques or even run-of-the-mill opticians could land you with a bill running into hundreds of pounds, there are ways to cut the cost of eyecare sharply. Even if you're not entitled to free eye-tests or money off equipment, there are more than 20 websites that sell glasses and lenses, including leading designer names, at a fraction of the cost on the high street.

"Head to a high-street optician to buy your specs and you'll pay about £99 for a basic lens and frame," says Martin Lewis, the founder of the consumer website Moneysavingexpert.com. "Buy them online, and you could pay as little as £10.50 for the frames and lenses - plus they will be delivered straight to your door at no extra cost."

In order to place an order for glasses with any supplier - online or not - you will need the details of your prescription. This means going along for an eye test, which will cost about £25 unless you are entitled to a free check. All reputable eyewear retailers will not accept you as a customer unless you have had an eye test within the previous two years.

Once you've had the test, the optician is under a legal duty to provide you with your prescription, irrespective of whether or not you buy anything from him.

Make sure that you understand what the prescription means. While online retailers' sites include guides to prescription terms, your optician's code should not be difficult to decipher. The three most basic terms are sphere, specifying the strength of the lens; cylinder, the correction for astigmatism (if you have this condition); and axis, which also refers to astigmatism.

Your prescription may also contain other information, all of which must be passed on when you buy your glasses or lenses. If you don't understand what the optician is saying, ask for clarification.

In addition, if you are buying glasses online, you won't have the opportunity to try them on, but you will need to specify sizes so that you get a pair that fits your head properly.

The easiest way to do that is to identify the size of an existing pair of glasses that fit you comfortably. This is most typically displayed on one of the arms, and there are three numbers to look for. The first is the lens diameter; the second is the bridge width; and the third is the length of the arm. The first two measurements are often separated by a small rectangle.

Alternatively, the numbers may be shown on the bridge, on the nose-rest of your glasses. There may be only two numbers, in which case the arm length will be shown separately on the arm. Note that while the diameter of your lenses is a matter of personal choice, the bridge width and the arm length are more important - they will determine whether or not your glasses fit properly.

Inevitably, however, some people will discover that the glasses they have ordered are not comfortable. Some of the cheap sites offer guaranteed refunds or exchanges, and it may be worth sticking to these, at least on the first occasion that you buy.

Armed with all the information about the glasses you require, you're ready to start shopping around. The table (below left) shows the price of the cheapest glasses at 10 leading online discounters, but it's worth consulting a range of sites once you have identified the specific pair you want.

Some sites are better value than others on designer brands, for example, while others may work out cheaper if you have additional requirements - you may want tinted lenses, for example, or bifocals. Also, many of the sites run special offers from time to time, so the cheapest retailer will vary day to day.

A different set of websites offers cut-price contact lenses. Here, the trick to exploit is that while many companies - from specialist opticians to supermarkets - sell lenses, there are only a small number of manufacturers. Buy Boots' daily disposable lenses, for example, and you're actually buying lenses made by Bausch & Lomb.

In many cases, identical lenses are available at widely differing prices, depending on the brand you buy. Find the cheapest brand and you can save a fortune, without compromising in any way on the quality of your eyewear.

"The longer the supply you buy, the cheaper it works out - three, six or preferably 12 months' worth is usual, although don't buy more than a year's supply in case your prescription changes," Lewis adds.

There is, however, a catch compared to the market for glasses. "When buying lenses from a discounter, it is still important to get regular aftercare," Lewis says. "Unlike those who buy lenses from an optician, you'll have to pay for this, but the saving from the lenses still substantially outweighs the extra costs."

In a few cases, it may be possible to get some limited help with the cost of aftercare. Sainsbury's Online, for example, offers a 20 per cent aftercare discount that can be redeemed at branches of the opticians Dollond & Aitchison.

One money-saving suggestion that appears on internet-based bulletin boards is that, while monthly lenses are significantly more expensive than daily disposables, they're actually made from the same material. In which case, why pay extra for monthly lenses when you could simply reuse your dailies?

A spokesman for the British Contact Lens Association is adamant that this is not a good idea. "Daily disposables tend to be thinner, as breaking them on removal is not a problem," he says. "To re-wear contacts, it is essential to clean and disinfect them - dailies are not designed for this, which could lead to possibly serious eye infections."

An expert consulted earlier this year by Which?, the consumer group, said that in most cases, he could find no difference between daily and monthly lenses. Even so - and despite the savings that are on offer if you reuse dailies - Which? stops short of advising people to do so.

However, even leaving aside this tactic, it is still possible to make big savings on contact lenses. In its most recent survey, Moneysavingexpert.com identified Directsight, OKVision and Asda Online as the cheapest suppliers of standard daily disposable lenses - all of them charge less than £200 for a year's supply, compared to about £500 from the typical optician in your local high street.

Other sites worth checking include Getlenses, Contactforlenses, Sainsbury's Online, Postoptics, Secondsight and Vision Direct.

Finally, you should also check prices on Lensplanet and Tesco Online if you want monthly disposable lenses, as these sites scored highly in this category of the survey.

Is surgery an option?

Laser eye surgery is one way permanently to solve the problem of ongoing opticians' bills. Roughly speaking, the cheapest daily disposable contact lenses will cost you about £200 a year. The cheapest laser eye surgery, assuming that you need your vision corrected in both eyes, will cost from about £800, so the procedure is likely to pay for itself within four or five years.

However, while it pays to shop around for surgery, do your research carefully. The Eyecare Trust, a charity set up to promote better eyecare, has a good section on its website ( www.eye-care.org.uk; 0845 129 5001) that provides you with a round-up of all the techniques on offer, as well as their pros and cons. While the vast majority of laser eye surgery is successful, there are risks to the procedure, which should be properly explained.

Once you feel equipped to make some decisions about surgery, look for a decent deal. The Eyecare Trust includes a list of providers on its site, many of which run special offers from time to time, so it is worth registering your details with several of them so that you receive details of all their prices.

Most people have one eye corrected at a time. But you should get a discount if you sign up to have both eyes treated, even if you end up having two separate operations.

It's worth talking to your GP before coming to a final decision about whether and how to proceed - he may be able to point out any additional medical issues that you have not considered.

In the absence of specific regulation of laser eye surgery (several consumer groups are now campaigning for this) tread carefully. Before committing to a deal, check the qualifications of the surgeon who will perform the procedure.

"There are no specific qualifications in refractive surgery, and the only legal requirement for doctors performing laser eye surgery is that they are registered with the General Medical Council," explains a spokesman for the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. As a guide to patients looking for a doctor, he adds: "We recommend that refractive surgeons should be fully trained ophthalmologists and should have undergone additional specialist training in refractive surgery."

Who gets free eyecare?

Not everyone has to meet the full cost of eye tests, glasses or contact lenses; certain groups are entitled to claim NHS vouchers, which entitle you to money off tests and equipment.

Everyone below the age of 16 or over the age of 60 is entitled to free eye tests, as are diabetics and those suffering from glaucoma. Most benefits claimants are entitled to free tests.

Many of these people will also be entitled to help with the cost of glasses or contact lenses. Broadly speaking, you may claim NHS optical vouchers if you're under the age of 16 (or 19 if still in full-time education) or if you're claiming benefits such as income support, jobseeker's allowance or the pension credit. Those with particularly serious eye problems are also able to claim the vouchers, as is anyone with a valid "HC2" certificate - this category includes pregnant women, for example.

Your GP or optician should be able to provide you with the forms needed to claim the vouchers, or call the Department of Health on 08700 102 870.

Many of the discount websites accept NHS vouchers, so paying this way does not mean you have to use a more expensive high-street optician.

Finally, one other way to get free eyecare - or at least heavily discounted prices - is to subscribe to a health cash plan. For a small monthly payment, these insurance contracts allow you to reclaim much of the cost of regular health treatment such as opticians' and dentists' fees.

The best known healthcare cash plan providers include HSA, Forester, Medicash and Healthsure.

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