Ways to Save Money on Printer Ink

Replacement cartridges are expensive, but these products, services, and tips can help you spend less

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Among the great nuisances of modern life, few things irritate consumers more than the high price of printer ink. If you want to see black clouds roll in, just tell someone it’s time to drive to the store, open the wallet, and purchase a new round of color cartridges.

In a recent Consumer Reports printer survey, we found that having to replace ink cartridges too often was among the most common complaints, with full 28 percent of all inkjet printers needing overly frequent ink replacements, according to our members.

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So it’s no surprise that products and services have sprung up in recent years to help people address those concerns. For example, there's Brother's line of INKvestment Tank inkjet printers and the reservoir models manufactured by companies including Canon and Epson, which forgo traditional ink cartridges in favor of large tanks that can be refilled with ink sold in bottles or boxes. (Note that Consumer Reports doesn't recommend any Epson printers because of subpar predicted brand reliability.)

Our testing shows that some of these printers will pump out black-and-white text for less than 1 cent per page and print color pages for 1.5 cents. It's not usual for printing with an conventional inkjet to cost six or seven times as much.

There are plenty of other ways to save money on ink as well, like signing up for an ink subscription service, trying third-party ink cartridges, or even changing fonts. The following tips can help you cut down on costs.

Invest in a Reservoir Printer

Canon and Epson say the bottles of ink included with their reservoir printers will last about two years. Once the bottles are empty, you can buy replacements for about $20 or less each.

That’s beneficial in the long run, but these printers tend to cost more up front, with the least expensive models going for about $200. That’s a hard sell when you can buy one of our recommended inkjets for less than $100. But Rich Sulin, who leads CR’s printer testing program, says it’s important to consider the follow-up costs when comparing models.

For example, the CR-recommended Canon Pixma G4210 sells for approximately $300. That might sound like a lot, but thanks to those sub-$20 bottles of ink, it's actually one of the cheapest printers you can buy in the long run. After just two years the savings are significant when you compare it with many models in our ratings that cost less up front but then quickly run through expensive ink cartridges.

While Brother’s reservoir printers start at $170, they may cost more than the Pixma G4210 over time. Brother’s proprietary ink-in-a-box replacement system will add an extra $56 per year, according to our tests. That puts the printer on a par with typical inkjets, Sulin says, but it’s much more expensive than the replacement ink estimates for Canon and Epson reservoir printers when you factor in the two-year life span of the bottles.

“Consumers shouldn’t compare the manufacturer's claims directly,” Sulin says. “Each company estimates yield differently depending on underlying assumptions about the typical consumer’s printing habits.”

One other thing to keep in mind, Sulin says: Unlike those cheap bottles of ink, Brother’s proprietary “box” may restrict you from trying third-party ink options.

Keep Your Printer Turned On

By leaving an inkjet printer on, you avoid triggering a maintenance cycle each time you use it. According to our test results, that can yield big savings from your ink costs because many of the printers we evaluated used as much ink to clean the print heads as they did for actual printing.

When we kept the printers on, we saw a noticeable reduction in ink consumption even on some of the most ink-hogging models.

Worried about the cost and environmental impact from the extra energy? Inkjets consume very little power when not in use, so your ink savings should considerably outweigh those concerns.

Subscribe to an Ink Delivery Service

If you own a compatible HP printer, you can sign up for HP Instant Ink, a subscription service that automatically provides ink refills when you need them.

The monthly fee is based on the number of pages you print, not how much ink you use. Whether you print one word or cover the sheet with dense illustrations, the cost is the same.

The printer monitors your monthly page count and contacts HP to order ink refills when you run low. Yes, that means the printer is keeping tabs on you.

Instant Ink offers a 15-page-per-month plan free of charge, but depending on your habits, you may need to upgrade to the paid tiers. The plans start at $3 per month for printing 50 pages and go up to $20 for 700 pages. If you go over the limit, you’re charged $1 more for each additional 10 to 20 pages, depending on your plan. The company provides prepaid envelopes to return used ink cartridges for recycling.

According to HP, consumers could save 50 percent on ink costs by using the plan. Sulin says it’s a good deal if you print roughly the same number of pages each month. “I’d caution that people may overestimate how much they actually print and ‘oversubscribe’ for fear of that overage charge,” he says.

One nice benefit: The plan absolves you of paying for the ink used on printer head maintenance, which can drain a cartridge faster than you’d think.

Some HP printers come with a three-month trial offer. You can sign up online with HP or through retailers such as Best Buy and Staples.

Canon, Epson, Best Buy, and Amazon Dash offer subscription services as well. Like HP, they employ printers that monitor ink usage and communicate with the supplier via a WiFi connection. Not all the plans are based on printed pages, though. Some simply order replacement cartridges when your ink supplies run low.

That may save you a trip to the store, but it’s less flexible than the Instant Ink service and won’t solve the problem of ink wasted on maintenance.

Shop for Third-Party Ink

For some people, aftermarket inks provide a welcome alternative to the high-priced replacement cartridges made by printer manufacturers. Typically sold by third parties in cartridges that have been recycled and refilled, they offer significant savings.

Instead of paying $31 for an HP 27 black ink cartridge on HP’s website, for example, you can purchase a compatible aftermarket cartridge from a company called LD Products for $11.

Third-party inks have their downsides, though. They don’t always work well, according to Consumer Reports’ testers. At times they may even clog the printer heads, leaving visible streaks or bands in your printouts.

Consumer Reports doesn’t rate third-party inks because the marketplace is so fractured—with a rapidly changing lineup of products and providers—that it makes comparisons difficult.

If you decide to shop for an aftermarket ink cartridge, make sure it comes with a good satisfaction guarantee, Sulin says. Then try it out quickly, so you have time to return it if you have a problem.

Try a Black-and-White Laser Printer

You might associate laser printers with home offices or small businesses—and high prices—but some black-and-white laser printers are very affordable, and they can be attractive for everyday use. Monochrome lasers tend to produce speedy, high-quality text, and they're generally more cost-efficient than inkjets.

With many inkjet printers, you’ll encounter that "out of ink" message more often than you’d like, even when the color cartridges run dry but you only need to print in black. The toner used in laser printers lasts longer. As a result, the overall cost of ownership (the up-front price plus the ink or toner expenses) stays low. The cost to buy and use a printer is one of the details you can find in our printer ratings.

For example, the two-year cost of ownership for some of our recommended black-and-white laser printers runs between $150 and $230, according to our calculations and estimates of typical printer use. That beats the cost of ownership for some similarly priced all-in-one inkjets by more than $100.

For many people, that adds up to a better experience in general. In our ratings, laser printers do far better in predicted brand reliability and owner satisfaction than inkjets. If you want a printer that's likely to work longer with fewer hassles, a black-and-white laser printer is worth considering.

Consumer Reports

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