The Hardest $270 I’ve Ever Saved

Despite being a socialist utopia in many other ways, you still have to pay for prescriptions and dental care in Canada. Luckily, I was on my father’s insurance plan, but that luck was set to run out on my birthday.

I had been trying to schedule a dentist’s appointment for a couple of months. Having heard only bad things about the dentists near my university, I continued to make the hour-long trip home to my childhood dentist, in part to visit my parents. My childhood dentist was also a good dentist—evidenced by the fact that he had to be scheduled months in advance. The first appointment his office tried to give me was in the middle of classes; the second seemed fine at first but later turned out to be the same date as an exam. They finally managed to squeeze me in on May 1st: the day I was slated to move into a new apartment, and a few days before my 22nd birthday.

I am pretty vigilant about my oral health. As a kid, my friends and I used to compete to see who could brush their teeth the longest. (Possibly the most wholesome activity thinkable.) I wasn’t all that concerned about the prospect of not having dental insurance.

Since I’d been squeezed in at the last minute, the dentist did my cleaning. After telling him I was officially moving into my apartment in Toronto later that day, he asked me a bunch of questions about local landmarks that I didn’t really follow, then started talking about the Toronto Raptors. I nodded and stared at the home improvement show on the monitor hovering above my head.

He finally took his fingers out of my mouth. “So,” he said nonchalantly, “you have two cavities.”

What? I hadn’t had a cavity since I was about six years-old. I reflected guiltily on all the sugary orange juice I’d drank over the past few months.

“They’re very small right now. You probably don’t need to worry about them until your next checkup.”

“Um … my dental insurance runs out in three days,” I blurted.

“Oh. I thought you had a job?”

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

“Oh. Hmmm.”

The receptionist offered to call me if they had a cancellation the next day. Fillings turned out to cost $135 each, for a potential total of $270. This was less than I would’ve guessed they’d cost, but still more than I felt I was willing to pay. I considered staying the extra day and seeing if a spot opened up and then remembered that I was supposed to be handing in a rent check for my new apartment later that day. Frick.

I drove to my mom’s work to ask for her opinion. She suggested that I call around to other dentists’ offices in the area and see if anyone could fit me in that day. I am not a big fan of making phone calls. I’ve overcome that feeling to a certain extent after working as a receptionist, but the prospect of calling a dozen dentists was still unappealing. My immediate instinct was to not change my plans and to ignore the cavities. I resolved to only drink water and beer for the rest of my life. Maybe I’d get a job with dental insurance before the cavities got worse, or, if I had to, I could shell out the $270.

Then I remembered that I graduated with a film degree, it’s 2014, and that $270 could go to my student loans. I started making calls; I phoned the first place that came to mind. They had a spot for the next morning, but they only had about 45 minutes available and could probably fill one of the cavities in that time. Well, $135 saved was better than nothing. The receptionist said she could book me in for the appointment and to call her back within an hour if I found someone who could do both teeth. I retreated home to make more phone calls.

First I called my apartment building. They said it was fine if I handed in my rent check the next day. (Phew.)

I Googled the phone numbers of all the dentists in the area; two didn’t pick up (lunch?); one said they’d call back (yeah, right); one was actually a dental lab (oops). A few didn’t have any openings. I called a newly opened dental office within walking distance of my house.

I launched into my spiel: “Hi, I know this is a long shot, but I was wondering if you had space available for two cavity fillings today or tomorrow.”

“We do, if you come right now.”

I told her I’d call right back after checking one or two things and then proceeded to lie down on the ground and panic. I didn’t know how my parents’ insurance worked. I knew in the States that only certain places were “in network” and had no clue if it was the same in Canada. And what if this dentist sucked and they infected my mouth or something? Is that a thing? (Please do not tell me if that is a thing.) I took a deep breath, got up, and made some more phone calls: I called my mom to find out how the insurance worked; I called the first place back to tell them I didn’t need the appointment, about 10 minutes shy of the hour deadline; and then I called the last place back to tell them I’d be there in five minutes.

The appointment took roughly 40 minutes. The dentist was a nice dude and everything seemed perfectly legitimate. Scheduling the appointment took as long if not longer than the actual appointment itself and all the artificially imposed deadlines were more stressful than the actual “procedure.” Even though it meant going to two dentists in one day, I’m glad that I managed to handle the problem mostly like a grown-up and to not defer it, which I would have regretted massively later.


Sarah Robert makes movies, writes, and lives in Canada. She has a nut allergy and a Twitter account.

Photo Tim Green



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