How I got prescription eyeglasses for $11

For some people, losing a pair of prescription glasses is a costly mistake. For me, it’s equivalent to lunch at Chipotle.

OK, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly — and not in the way you might be expecting. A burrito and soda runs me about $11 at the yuppified fast-casual Mexican chain. My last pair of prescription frames, purchased just a few weeks ago, cost $10.89. So, yes, lunch is actually a few pennies more.

How’d I get my glasses so cheaply? That’s easy: I ditched the brick-and-mortar eyewear stores and bought a rather nice-looking, sturdy pair online.

Emma PassyNot too shabby for under $11.

In recent years, there’s been a small but potentially seismic shift in the $34 billion eyewear industry — namely, a piece of the business is starting to migrate to the web. Since 2007, the share of prescription eyeglass purchases made over the Internet has grown from 1% to 3%, according to Statista, a web-based researcher.

Moreover, major players have started to emerge. A few years ago, if you mentioned the name “Warby Parker,” someone might have thought you were talking about a character straight from the pages of Kerouac. Today, Warby Parker is arguably the defining name in online eyewear — a beloved brand among hipsters that now sells hundreds of thousands of pairs of glasses a year and has raised more than $100 million from investors to date. (Oh, and by the way, the company’s name does derive from Kerouac — that’s part of its hipster cred, after all.)

I have colleagues who happily make purchases from Warby and praise the brand for its service (it lets you try five frames before you commit to one) and low prices (frames start at $95). But for me, Warby just isn’t priced low enough. You see, I mainly wear contact lenses, so glasses are a backup — and I don’t like to spend a lot for something I don’t use. More to the point, I like to have a few backup pairs — one at home, one in my bag, one in my car — so I want to keep things as budget-minded as possible. Hence, the $10.89 pair.

Want to get frames for that little? Or save on glasses in general? Here’s my four-point guide to the quirky world of buying eyewear online:

1. Understand what you’re getting into

Like I said, I was willing to take a chance on buying my frames online because I don’t depend on them day in and day out. And frankly, I was tired of dealing with the major brick-and-mortar eyewear chains, whose pricing policies all seemed to reek of bait-and-switch. (Or am I the only one who went in to purchase an advertised $99 pair of glasses, only to find out it would cost closer to $300 by the time I walked out?) But that doesn’t mean all is well and good with the online experience. Many eye-care experts will say the surest way to get a pair of glasses that fits properly and allows you to see your best is to visit a professional in person and have them guide you through the process. Otherwise, you risk accepting a pair of glasses that may seem “okay,” but could be less than ideally suited for you — or even worse, may not be made properly. A study by the American Optometric Association found that 44.8% of glasses ordered online arrived with “incorrect prescriptions or safety issues.”

Online retailers counter that they have the tools — from videos to try-on features — to help consumers make informed choices. Additionally, they say they stand by the quality of the products they offer and that they don’t stint on materials or construction (indeed, they say they often rely on the same labs that brick-and-mortar chains use). The reason their costs are so low? They simply don’t have the same overhead as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they note.

2. Understand that you still have to get an eye exam

Getting a pair of glasses on the cheap doesn’t mean you can avoid paying the eye doctor. In fact, it may mean you’ll have to pay more for an eye exam. That’s because a lot of brick-and-mortar stores will bundle the price of the exam with the glasses (or offer it for “free” — see my caveat above regarding bait-and-switch). Still, there are ways to save. Usually, employer-based insurance programs will provide some coverage, however minimal. And traditional membership programs — AARP and AAA, for example — will offer discounts at major eyewear chains (just realize the eyewear chains are hoping you’ll buy your glasses from them). Discount retailers — Costco COST, +0.57%  and Wal-Mart WMT, +0.37%  , in particular — are also generally considered good sources for low-cost exams; I’ve used Costco many times (the optometrists are essentially outside contractors) and rarely been disappointed with the service or pricing.

A final point: Whatever you do when it comes to your exam, make sure you’re upfront that you’ll need your prescription — by law, by law, providers are required to give it to you, but reports occasionally surface that some refuse to do so with patients who are planning to purchase online. Additionally, be upfront about wanting your pupillary distance (PD) measurement, which is also needed to fill an order for frames. The PD issue is trickier since it’s not covered in the same way under federal protection (and providers will sometimes balk at taking or giving the measurement to customers who are planning on buying their glasses elsewhere).

My advice: Go to a provider who will indeed provide it, even if it means having to pay a small additional fee for it. (Many online eyewear sites will also guide you through the process of determining your PD measurement.)

3. Pick your store based on your personality

These days, you have lots of choices when it comes to shopping online for glasses. Based on my limited experience — I’ve purchased from just two sites — I won’t pretend to offer advice as to which is the best, the worst, etc. (But a few other writers have weighed in with their thoughts on the subject — see here and here.) What I will say is that your choice should be dictated by your personality. If style is of the utmost concern, you probably want a store that’s contemporary or fashion-forward (think Warby) or that carries lots of designer brands ( comes to mind). If you’re a tightwad, you might consider the two places I’ve gone — and (the latter sold me that fairly decent $10.89 pair — frames and prescription lenses shipping included).

Other companies play up the geek factor: lets you try on your would-be frames in 3D with an app, and newcomer touts a sophisticated PD measurement tool. Whatever store you pick, make sure it has a solid return policy. With something as personal and particular as eyeglasses, you want to know you can send them back.

4. Apply the usual rules of ecommerce

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The true art to buying things online is doubling, even tripling down on your purchases. You do that by shopping at a discount-oriented site and then finding coupon codes ( or are great sources for those) and/or going to a rebate site (hello, Ebates). Admittedly, I couldn’t score any big additional deals for my $10.89 eyeglasses. But I did make the purchase on a cash-rebate credit card, which netted me another 16 cents. Hey, a deal’s a deal, however you, um, see it.

More from MarketWatch:

Play these brain games to keep yourself sharp

At $18 a pint, Camel’s milk may make you healthy — and poor

People are paying $11 for an order of toast

Let's block ads! (Why?)