3 Ways to Save Money on Printer Ink

Consumer technology keeps improving, but one thing stays constant: consumer complaints about the high cost of printer ink.

In a 2015 Consumer Reports survey, almost half of printer owners said they are paying too much for printer cartridges. And among the 36,000 subscribers surveyed, more than a quarter say they have to buy new cartridges too often.

There's a lot you can do to use less ink—from choosing draft mode to changing fonts. And in recent years, more products and services have come on the market claiming to help consumers save money.

Here are three options to check out:

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Epson EcoTank: Beyond the Cartridge

Epson EcoTank printers forgo traditional ink cartridges in favor of large, refillable ink tanks. The bottled ink included with the printers should last about two years, according to Epson. Once the bottles are empty, you can buy replacements for $13 apiece, or $52 for a set of all four colors—cyan, yellow, magenta, and black.

That's pretty cheap, but EcoTank printers cost a lot, with the least expensive models going for around $300. That's a hard sell when some inkjets cost as little as $50. EcoTank printers have been around since 2015, but a more recent Consumer Reports survey found that only 6 percent of the Epson inkjets purchased by our subscribers since that year were EcoTank models.

However, printer costs depend on the time scale you're considering. At Consumer Reports, we look at both the up-front price (what you pay for the machine) and the cost of ownership (which adds in your ink purchases). Rich Sulin, who leads CR's printer testing program, says EcoTank printers are a good deal if you use them long enough.

The $300 Epson ET-2550 EcoTank model becomes less expensive than other printers in our ratings after just about one year of use. And after two-and-a-half years, it becomes the cheapest model we test. (Before you run out to buy one, we should say that printer's print quality was middle-of-the-pack; there are pricier EcoTanks that produce better-looking pages.)

HP Instant Ink: Subscription Service

HP has its own approach to luring budget-conscious shoppers. If you have a compatible HP printer, you can sign up for HP Instant Ink, a monthly subscription service that provides ink refills whenever you need them.

“HP ink is automatically ordered and delivered to customers' doors before they run out,” says Anthony Napolitano, global head of Instant Ink at HP. “It is just one less thing customers have to think about in their busy lives.”

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

The printer monitors your monthly page count and automatically contacts HP to order ink refills whenever you run low. So yes, it does mean the printer is keeping tabs on you.

The plans start at $2.99 per month for printing 50 pages and goes up to $10 for 300 pages. If you go over your limit, you're charged an extra $1 for every additional 15 pages. The company provides prepaid envelopes to return used cartridges for recycling.

According to HP, consumers could save 50 percent on ink costs by using the plan.

CR's Sulin says the subscription plan is 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: HP Instant Ink solves the problem of wasted ink. Consumer Reports has long observed that a lot of ink is used for maintenance inside the printer, which drains your ink cartridge faster and costs you more.  

HP offers consumers a free trial month. You can sign up through retailers such as Best Buy and Staples, or online with HP.

Third-Party Ink: Shopping Around

Aftermarket or third-party inks are sold by companies other than the printer manufacturer. Typically, they use recycled cartridges that have been refilled and resold.

The savings can be significant. For instance, HP 28 tricolor cartridges cost $36 on HP’s website; a compatible aftermarket cartridge from a company called Cartridge World costs $22.

Not everyone trusts these inks, and perhaps for good reason. In Consumer Reports' 2016 printer reliability survey, slightly more than one-third of subscribers who had purchased aftermarket inks thought they didn't offer the same quality as original-manufacturer inks. (If you take the positive view, that means almost two-thirds thought the quality was just as good.)

Mike Hemming, Cartridge World's European operations manager, acknowledges that quality varies among brands, while defending his own products. The prices are low, he says, because the suppliers don't pay for R&D—and, unlike printer manufacturers, they don't need to boost ink prices to make up for the low price of most printers.

If you're shopping for aftermarket inks, make sure there's a good return policy or satisfaction guarantee, Sulin advises. Then look for an expiration date on the package and try the cartridges out quickly by printing several pages with color. Return them if you see a problem.

In testing, Consumer Reports has found that some aftermarket inks tend to clog printer heads, but not right away. “When there are clogged jets, the printout will have visible streaks or bands, where the clogged color is missing," Sulin says.

If this happens when it's too late to return the cartridges, there are two ways to unclog the heads, he says. "You can either set the printer to do 'cleaning,' where it dumps a set amount of ink through the jets, or just keep printing until, hopefully, the streaks go away.”

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