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Adventures in $40 eyeglasses
Matthew Haughey | Nov 29 2007
Last year, I stumbled upon a blog post about buying prescription eyeglasses online. It sounded too good to be true: you could get any frames you wanted quickly and cheaply, and the comments were filled with optometrists freaking out. Eventually, the author launched a dedicated blog for it called Glassy Eyes. When the site was recently mentioned on MetaFilter right around the time I was getting my 2-year exam, I decided to take the plunge myself and order some glasses online.
Why Buy Online?
As a lifelong near-sighted person, prescription eyeglasses and especially prescription sunglasses have long commanded a high premium due to the seemingly precise and scarce nature of creating them. Until a few years ago, I only had two options for eyewear: my optometrist (here's an employee admitting they pay less than ten bucks per pair) or a 1-hour place like Lenscrafters (which is part of a multinational monopoly). About ten years ago, when I was fresh out of college and scraping by month to month with my first real job, I broke my only glasses and had to pay $400 for an emergency pair (that were ugly and I hated and I wore for two more years before I paid off the old ones and could afford new ones). For far too long, glasses have been expensive.
Today things are different, with Coscto and Walmart bringing prices down to the $100-150 range for frames/lenses and they serve as a good economical option to the mainstays. With the advent of online sellers, it's now possible to get a decent set of specs for anywhere between $20-$100. The online selection is phenomenal as well.
Get Your Measurements Right
First thing you need is an up-to-date prescription. Though people usually get one every 2+ years, most optometrists will only honor them for a up to a year afterwards. If you're getting one soon, you're in luck, because you can go in knowing a little more than the average patient. When you're done with the standard exam, ask the eye doctor or an assistant if they can give you your pupil distance. It's a simple matter of looking through a binoculars-like device that measures the distance between your pupils. It should be a number in millimeters and be sure to write it down either on the prescription or on a piece of paper (if you get two numbers, that's right/left which you can add up to be the PD). If you forget to ask or already visited an eye doctor recently, you can measure the PD yourself, by simply printing out a ruler and looking in a mirror (or taking a photo of yourself with the ruler below your eyes).
Armed with your prescription and your PD, you're all set for ordering any glasses you want online.
Measure What You Have, Know What You Want
It helps if you have two things: a bit of fashion sense and a measuring tape. I personally loved my last pair of eyeglasses (paid $500 at a fashion eyewear store two years ago), but they were a bit too short in the lens height department which became annoying as I could often "see" below my lenses during common everyday tasks. The glasses fit well otherwise and armed with my wife's soft sewing measuring tape, I took millimeter measurements of all aspects of my old glasses: lens height, lens width, length of bridge (distance between lenses), total width of lenses plus bridge, and the length of the side arms.
Now that I had my prescription (with PD), and my frame measurements, I copied it into a text file and kept it open as I shopped online. I knew I needed lenses around 53mm wide, about 20mm apart, and the arms needed to be at least 135mm long. My old too-short lenses were only 26mm tall, so I was looking to get something with around 30mm of lens height. Some online shops let you plug all these numbers in and specify what you want to search on as the most important (I did "lens height must be at least 28mm" search), but most all online shops will display the measurements below each frame, which should help narrow down your searches.
In terms of frame design, I knew I wanted a half-rim frame (metal/plastic top and arms, clear lens below) or a full plastic frame, and most every online shop categorizes frames for sale by their construction in this way. Knowing that you want frameless glasses or nerdy plastic retro glasses definitely helps making shopping online easier because some online shops can offer 500+ different varieties of just one style of eyewear. If you're not quite sure what you want, you might want to browse a real eyeglasses store for a bit to narrow down your desires.
Ordering Up, Playing the Waiting Game
Once you find something you like and it's about the right size, it's time to order. Plug in your prescription details (if you can't make them all out, most sites have helpful tips on deciphering a prescription) and pick out your options. The one option that will turn a $20 pair of glasses into an $80 pair is the lens choice. Be careful when picking out a lens because there are plenty of add-ons you might or might not want. Generally I pay for the highest level of non-glare coatings and I usually pick the middle of the thin-lens options (my personal prescription rules out the thinnest, lightest lenses). Most of my online glasses have run about $50 or so.
Shipment and fulfillment is generally pretty good. I ordered five pairs of glasses total, from four different retailers and started receiving pairs about a week later. The longest one was maybe three weeks, which is about normal for most optometrists, so in general ordering online was faster than higher cost traditional options.
I used to wear the same glasses for 3-4 years between changes so I'm finding it incredibly liberating to pick from five different sets of glasses each morning. I have a couple fashionable pairs for going out, a couple understated ones for working and I can even take a chance with a wacky retro frame if I'm in the mood. All told, my glasses cost me from a low of $26 to a high of $84 per pair, mostly depending on the options I picked for lenses. If I had to come up with any criticisms, the only (very) minor issue I had was one pair's lenses (with identical prescriptions on both sides) were cut slightly different, so that when the light hits them, you can see a bit more of border on one lens over the other (like I said, it's minor). I purchased frames from four different companies mentioned on the GlassyEyes site and every pair showed up intact and the prescriptions all seemed identical.
I've had such good success with it that I recently ordered some higher priced specialized sports glasses online, saving about 35% over what an optometrist office would charge. Overall, I couldn't be happier with the process of buying glasses online. I'm happy to have several backup pairs and different styles to fit my mood. About the only drawback is that there is almost too much selection online. Picking out each frame took me about an hour, after wading through 150-200 results and checking measurements on the ones that caught my eye.
I encourage anyone looking to save some money and get a bigger selection to search online. Glasses are no longer a scarce resource costing many hundreds of dollars, they can be as simple as buying a DVD or book online, and cost about the same.
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