How to keep eyecare costs down

Published by Nathalie Bonney on 21 July 2010.
Last updated on 25 August 2011


Having poor eyesight is an expensive ailment. From sight tests to fancy designer frames and contact lens solution, everything costs, which explains why some of us are willing to forfeit perfect vision to save money.

Research by the Royal National Institute of Blind People found the cost of spectacles was significant enough of a barrier to prevent some older people from visiting their optometrist.

While the Eyecare Trust calculates that 20 million Brits risk avoidable sight loss because they fail to have regular sight tests.

Yet, over 30 million Brits are entitled to free NHS eyecare. Children up to the age of 16, students aged 16 to 19 in full-time education, and anyone over the age of 60 don't have to pay for sight tests.

Even if you don't fall into any of these age categories you might still be eligible for an NHS-paid test – for example, if you have glaucoma or diabetes, or if you are on income support, jobseeker's allowance or receive working tax credit or child tax credit (and are named on a NHS tax credit exemption certificate).

Scottish residents are automatically entitled to free sight tests, as is anyone registered blind or partially sighted, and anyone over 40 who has a close relative with glaucoma.

If you are on a low income, you can apply for help with expenses by filling out a 'claim for help with health costs' HC1 form, which is available from NHS hospitals and Jobcentre Plus offices or online.

To obtain a form and get help filling it in, call the NHS Low Income Scheme Patient Services on 0845 850 1166 or contact Department of Health Publications on 0845 601 1112.

Those who qualify for help will then receive an HC2 or HC3 certificate; the former entitles you to help for full costs, whereas the latter only qualifies you for partial help.

As well as being eligible for free NHS tests, you may also be entitled to NHS vouchers, which will help towards any costs after the initial eye test. Similar eligibility rules apply to sight tests.

The value of the vouchers varies, depending on your prescription needs – for example, vouchers for glasses with single vision start at £36.20, rising to £200.10 for prism-controlled bifocal lenses.

Under the Health and Safety Regulations Act 1992, employers have to pay for sight tests – plus any further tests that are needed – for any of their employees who look at a computer screen for more than one hour continuously.

As, according to the College of Optometrists, over half of us spend nearly 50 hours a week staring at computer screens, this ruling will apply to the majority of office workers.

"Under the law, companies are expected to pay for the cost of a basic set of frames and lenses for employees who need to wear glasses [if they are long-sighted] to look at a computer screen," says Andrew Adams, manager for Accor Services, an eyecare voucher scheme for employees.

But although it's the employer's responsibility to pay, it's up to you to do the chasing. "A lot of companies have a mechanism in place, but they don't always publicise it," says Adams.

Other options

If you aren't eligible for any support, there are other ways to reduce the cost of eyecare. High-street giants Vision Express and Specsavers have cornered the market in affordable eye care.

Prices of contact lenses and glasses are considerably less than at many independent opticians. For example, at the time of writing, a year's supply of contact lenses with two aftercare appointments costs £160.80 less at Vision Express (£124.20), compared with local opticians (around £290).

These companies' branch-based philosophy has helped to spread out their costs and their success has been mimicked by Boots and Tesco, which now include eye-care services in their pharmacies.

Tesco's in-store opticians even offer free eye tests regardless of NHS criteria and customers are free to take their prescription details elsewhere.

Online glasses and contact lens providers have also helped drive down costs.

An ever-growing number of websites like,,, and sell single lens specs for incredibly low prices – selectspecs' 'recession-busting' range includes glasses for as little as £5, and includes free scratch-resistance, full UV-protection and anti-reflection treatment.

These websites are able to offer such impressive discounts because they don't have to run sight tests and so don't pay for any expensive equipment.

It's possible to go to your local optician for eye tests and contact lens fittings but order your eyewear from elsewhere, although they may not be too keen to disclose your prescription information.

However, the Opticians Act 1989, section 26.4, states you are within your legal rights to do so:

"A person shall not be required as a condition of having their sight tested to undertake to purchase from a specified person any optical appliance the testing of their sight may show they require to wear or use."

To get the best-fitting spectacles, the websites ask wearers to provide their pupillary distance measurement – the distance between the two pupils.

If this isn't on your existing prescription you may have to pay a small fee at an opticians to get this or rely on an average measurement.

However, this is only half of the information needed, according to Susan Blakeney, optometric adviser at the College of Optometrists.

"The pupillary distance measurement is the horizontal distance, but you also need the vertical measurement," she says. "It's really important to make sure you have both, so that you're looking through the centre of the lens."

Blakeney is also wary of the fit of frames when ordering glasses online: "You need to find frames that fit you properly and suit your needs. By ordering online, no-one gets to check how the glasses look or fit on you."

All the sites give guidelines, but this obviously can't help you assess how comfortable the glasses will feel. Only offers customers home trials.

Also bear in mind that none of the discount spectacle websites accept NHS vouchers as payment, although they do accept Accor vouchers. Ordering your contact lenses online is perhaps an easier way to take advantage of cheaper internet prices.

"Provided you get exactly the same type of lens and prescription, there's no reason why you shouldn't get these on the internet," says Blakeney. However, get a lens check both before and after to ensure your lenses fit well and aren't damaging your eyes.

Sites like and will only prescribe exactly the same lenses as on your prescription.

It's now possible to spend less on a pair of specs than a meal out, so by all means explore the budget options, but make sure you don't compromise on your eye health in the process.