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Is it cheaper to buy a printer or go to the copy shop?

Investing in a printer is worthwhile for anyone who prints fairly often. Save photo printing for providers with the right equipment.

By Apr 23, 2014 12:20PM
This post comes from Louis DeNicola at partner site on MSN MoneyWhether you have a project that needs to be printed or two tickets to the biggest show in town, access to a reliable printer is a must. But if you use a printer only occasionally, is it worth the space and the expense when you could head to an office supply store instead?

Man using a printer © Stephan Zabel/Getty Images

To understand the economics behind this dilemma, we compared the cost of printing at home to the prices charged by two national chains. The frugal-wise choice was quickly apparent.

What's the project?
Printing costs primarily depend on the project, and to some extent on the type of printer you buy. Laser printers are fast and have a low cost per page, and are generally used for black-and-white text documents. Inkjet printers do well with color and can print glossy photos with ease. There are color laser printers as well, but they're often quite expensive and don't do justice to images.

Although printer prices vary widely (Cheapism's buying guides recommend laser printers for less than $150 and multifunction printers for less than $100), the initial cost pales in comparison to the ongoing cost of replacement cartridges. The cheapest strategy is to buy remanufactured or compatible cartridges or to refill them at home or in a store.

Opting for any of these alternatives over a new cartridge from the printer manufacturer saves you big time -- the cost is often one-third or less. The print capacity of cartridges varies, as well, usually landing in the 200-500 page range for inkjet cartridges and the 2,000-8,000 page range for toner (laser) cartridges.  

Now consider the per-page cost of printing on each type of machine, courtesy of Consumer Reports.
  • Laser printers: black-and-white text documents cost 2 to 5 cents per page
  • Inkjet printers: black-and-white text documents cost 2 to 7 cents per page
  • Inkjet printers: 4x6 photos start at 25 cents each
Per-page print costs at two national office supply stores are significantly higher.
* Cost per-side for printing on 8.5x11 paper

Bottom line
For students and professionals who need to print more than just a few plain-text documents on a consistent basis, investing in a printer is the most economical way to go. Even accounting for the cost of paper, which may add an extra cent to the cost of each page, and for replacement cartridges, the at-home cost generally is less than half that of in-store printing.

This conclusion also holds for extra-large print jobs, when the cost at office supply shops drops to 6 to 7 cents per page. Using your own printer is cheaper on all but the most inefficient devices loaded with the most expensive ink.

When to pay someone else to print
Anyone who frequently prints photos and only rarely prints documents should probably forgo buying a printer. The best deal under these circumstances is printing at a store, or online if there's no rush. Many online providers make 4x6 prints for less than 20 cents each, plus reward you for opening an account with an offer to print the first 50 to 100 photos at no charge (shipping is usually extra). Most sites also offer bulk discounts that can lower the cost to 9 cents, or sometimes even 5 cents, with free shipping on orders over a set price point.

Printing photos at a brick-and-mortar location is slightly more expensive. CVS and Walgreens are two national chains that offer this service, with prices starting at 19 cents and 20 cents for each 4x6 print, respectively. These prices undercut the cost of at-home photo printing, which starts at 25 cents per print. These vendors likewise offer discounts on bulk print jobs, which lowers the cost considerably. Both online and retail stores also seem to run one or more "limited-time" promotions constantly, so be sure to look for a coupon code before checking out.

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Apr 23, 2014 7:12PM
The cost of ink cannot really be figured since a color printer with out-dated ink will not work...not even in b&w mode. I purchased a new blk cartridge for my color printer, got maybe 2 copies and then it refused to work because the color cartridges had expired. Yes, they expire! ..Regardless of whether they are completely full. I now make my copies at the library for 75 cents (color). I need 4 copies a year for my budget spreadsheet, for a total of $3/yr. No matter how I calculate it, I couldn't pay for a printer (much less ink) for that price. I don't miss my printer at all. Been about 3 yrs now.
Apr 23, 2014 5:28PM
The at-home cost of printing photos probably doesn't take into account that 1 or 2 test prints or partials are often made at-home which drives up the price, largely because of the ink costs--and paper costs to a smaller extent (for test prints, one can print a partial on both sides of one sheet of paper).
Maybe I don't understand going to the store to print out pages how can I do that ???
Most of the printing I do is 1) my on-line bank statements 2) directions somewhere 3) info about different products so I can figure out which one is better 4) stories I write for my daughter on the computer etc

Can I take my lap top to the office store and hook it up to their printers and print this stuff out?? How does that work??? Easier to generate the page at home via Open Office, web browsing, map quest and hit print although with windows 8 there are no print buttons but most programs still have ctrl P

I have two printers one laser jet from HP about $100 seven years ago on second cartridge and an Epson NX300 printer that eats cartridges a lot which is why I got the laser jet however that said I think I ruined my epson by not printing anything out since before last Christmas you need to print something once a month or it dries up and without tearing it apart and soaking the parts there is no fixing it. Had an epson tech tell me that when my epson rx300 quit working about 10 years ago.

But the scanner still works on the epson and the HP does not have one.

Apr 24, 2014 9:02AM

Just replaced a multi-function inkjet with a new one by HP for 58 bucks. The old one was used to scan over 1,000 old photos, but many of it's features no longer worked with the new Windows 8 pc. We use a pair of cartridges ( about 36 dollars ) maybe once a year for the occasional printing that we do. If all you want to do is print, you can buy a basic printer for about 30 bucks, ink included.


If you need photo prints, upload them to Walmart and pick them up in a hour for about 20 cents each. Photos printed on a home printer cannot match a photo lab and are not archive quality. I've used both methods and it's worth the 20 cents.


As for the remanufactured cartridges, we recently tossed a printer to the curb that we tried them in.

You get what you pay for. If you set the printer in "fast draft" mode, you can get good copies for a hell of a lot less ink.

Apr 24, 2014 11:11AM

LaserJet all the way.  Toner never expires.  I print 400+ UPS labels per year for eBay.   Super cheap and you can always find new HP toner 2nd hand at thrift stores or flea markets really cheap.

 If you need color go to the store.  

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