Budgeting

Glasses for Less Than $50

You can save hundreds, but these cut-rate specs come with some caveats.

by Ryan Wilk

More than a year has passed since your last eye exam, so you drop by your local boutique for a quick checkup. An hour later -- and $500 poorer -- you're out the door, wondering how a simple prescription framed in a piece of plastic stamped "Made in China" could cost so much. But thanks to some online retailers, getting a new pair of specs doesn't have to break the bank.

The savings can be dramatic. These factory-direct glasses run from about $8 to $50 for both frames and lenses -- but they come with two caveats. First, you'll need to do a little work to put in an order. Second, the quality ranges from pretty good to flimsy, more or less in proportion to the price you pay. Charles Bailey, an associate clinical professor at the University of California-Berkeley optometry school, says the frames may have shoddy hinges, or the protective lens coatings may be of lesser quality than in pricier eyeglasses. However, they're worth considering, especially to use as a backup pair or to expand your eyeglass wardrobe on the cheap.

The Web sites themselves also vary in quality. The best -- 39DollarGlasses.com and EyeBuyDirect.com -- offer a big selection and an easy-to-use, uncluttered interface. But others, such as Optical4Less.com, can be tricky to navigate. And some, such as ZenniOptical.com, are usable but downright eyesores.

For advice on getting the best fit for the best price, we checked with Ira Mitchell, who runs a Web site on the online eyewear industry, GlassyEyes.com. Mitchell, a software developer in St. Paul, says he owns 18 pairs of glasses from various online retailers. "Of the 18 pairs that I've gotten, 17 have been great."

Proper fit

Make sure you have an accurate, updated prescription, Mitchell says. By law, your ophthalmologist or optometrist is required to give it to you. You'll also need to know your pupillary distance (PD), which is the distance between the centers of your pupils, to ensure a proper fit.

Your optometrist should be able to give you that number, but most online retailers also provide instructions for measuring it yourself. Because calculating your own PD can be tricky and imprecise, ask a friend for help to save you the trouble of fumbling with a ruler in front of the mirror.

Next, look at an old pair of frames and jot down the measurements -- they're usually on the inside of the frames. If you can't find the size, try on a few pairs with clearly marked sizes at an optometrist's office.

Armed with that information, shopping for glasses online is as straightforward as buying anything else. Most retailers let you filter their inventories by style and frame size, so you don't have to sort through countless frames. Some even let you upload a picture of your face so you can virtually see yourself in different styles.

After "trying on" dozens of pairs, I settled on $19 plastic frames from Zenni Optical. I opted for high-index lenses with anti-glare coating -- a $20 upgrade, but the total was still hundreds less than I would pay in stores. Similar designer glasses by Oliver Peoples cost about $530. My pair was not as sturdy as the Peoples pair, but they looked just as sharp, and I could see just fine. The glasses, along with a case and cleaning cloth, arrived in two weeks.

If you have bifocals or a strong prescription, says Bailey, be certain your measurements are accurate (especially the PD). If there's an error, your glasses may cause eye fatigue or double vision.

If the prescription is wrong or your frames don't fit properly, most online retailers have flexible return policies. Zenni Optical, for example, offers a 50% refund within four weeks, and EyeBuyDirect.com gives a full, no-questions-asked refund within seven days.

Most Popular

Is the Stock Market a House of Cards?
investing

Is the Stock Market a House of Cards?

The stock market volatility we’ve been experiencing and the apparent disconnect with the broader economy have some investors wondering just that. But …
October 12, 2020
Stock Market Holidays in 2020
Markets

Stock Market Holidays in 2020

Is the stock market open today? Take a look at which days the NYSE, Nasdaq and bond markets take off in 2020.
October 12, 2020
10 Worst Things to Keep in Your Wallet
Scams

10 Worst Things to Keep in Your Wallet

Storing your passport book or card, a spare key, or any of these other important items in your wallet leaves you open to identity theft -- or worse.
October 9, 2020

Recommended

The Ultimate Guide to Amazon Prime Day 2020: When It Starts, the Best and Worst Deals, Competing Events, More
spending

The Ultimate Guide to Amazon Prime Day 2020: When It Starts, the Best and Worst Deals, Competing Events, More

In a first, the giant retailer has pushed Amazon Prime Day this year from July to October, effectively launching the holiday shopping season weeks ear…
October 8, 2020
Retirees' Guide to Giving for the Greatest Impact
Making Your Money Last

Retirees' Guide to Giving for the Greatest Impact

The need for charity is climbing, particularly to combat the rising poverty, hunger and homelessness from the pandemic’s economic fallout. Here's how …
October 7, 2020
13 Smart Ways to Spend $1,000 or More
spending

13 Smart Ways to Spend $1,000 or More

We offer up several ways to get the most bang for your buck whether investing in yourself or others.
October 1, 2020
How to Pick the Right Medicare Plans for You
Healthy Living on a Budget

How to Pick the Right Medicare Plans for You

As you're signing up for Medicare, you must learn the basics of Medicare Part A, Part B, Part D, medigap plans, Medicare Advantage plans and even doug…
September 30, 2020