Why is printer ink so expensive?

August 21 2012 by Ellen Roseman

A century ago, Gillette started giving away razors at reduced prices to increase sales of its high-priced blades.

Many years later, wireless phone companies started offering subsidies on new devices to induce customers to sign long-term contracts.

This lowballing strategy is nowhere more evident than in sales of printers and ink. It’s often cheaper to replace a printer than to replace a cartridge.

I recently found my new printer came with a half-empty cartridge, which ran out a few months after purchase. When I wrote about this discovery, I tapped into a deep well of rage about the business model.

One reader sent me to a great infographic, which showed black printer ink as the most expensive liquid at more than $3,000 a gallon.

With one gallon of black printer ink, you can buy 223 bottles of bleach, 139 bottles of olive oil and 98 bottles of vodka.

Despite predictions of a paperless world, we seem to be printing as much as ever. Reading long documents on a screen is no picnic. My desk is full of printouts.

Also, many companies now charge you for mailing paper bills, forcing you to print copies yourself if you need more than an electronic record.

Every conversation ends up with HP, which still dominates the market for printers and ink. A Motley Fool article says HP has a 42 per cent market share, more than the next two competitors combined.

Why does printer ink cost more than blood by volume and more than caviar by weight?

Printer ink is so expensive because manufacturers can make it that expensive. It costs more than it should, says an article by a printing supply company.

Printer sales are in decline because of a combination of mobile devices and cloud storage, says this article at ReadWriteWeb/Cloud.

Seems like everyone writing on this subject has a vested interest. So, I’m turning it over to the you, the consumers, to give your views on what’s wrong and what’s right with the business model of low-priced printers and high-priced ink cartridges.

I’ll post a few readers’ comments below. I also want to mention that HP gave my reader, Brian Smith, two full replacement cartridges to thank him for his inquiry — even after confirming that he was not shortchanged with his purchase of new printers.


  1. SS

    Aug 21 2012

    I bought a cheap HP printer and also discovered that the cartridge was only half full.

    I avoid the awful price of a new cartridge by using my local dollar store which fills my cartridge. Instead of over $80, I play less than $60.

  2. IM

    Aug 21 2012

    Your article about new printers struck a responsive chord.

    That morning, I had gone to the Staples store up the street in search of answers to the number of ink cartridges that I had bought since buying an Epson Stylus NX330 printer on Jan. 20,2012 – a full capacity 69 tri-colour pack and a 69 black double pack on May 19, followed by a 124 “moderate capacity” colour pack and a 124 black pack, then another 124 black on June 14 and now, most recently, a 124 colour and a 124 black on Aug. 13.

    My enquiry was met with the same evasive response, which you received. My sense is that there is something rotten in the state of the printer industry.

    The obligation of full and frank disclosure by the retailer to the public is not being fulfilled.

  3. Slacker

    Aug 21 2012

    Just buy a laser printer, problem solved. I bought a brother for $50 + tax, comes with a drum that will print thousands of pages.

    Most important bit is that I don’t print often, but when I need to print, I need it to work. Laser does that for me.

  4. RL

    Aug 21 2012

    Having experienced a “premature” ink outage from both starter and replacement cartridges, I found your article quite interesting.

    Through some internet research, I found a simple solution to the expensive premature replacement of ink cartridges and some drums.

    For my $149 black only printer, the black laser ink cartridges cost about $49 and the drum costs $129 – cheaper to just buy a new printer.

    You see, the problem with Brother ink cartridges does not stop with the starter supply. A couple of years ago, I bought a Brother “Multi-Function” laser printer for $149. It came with a “starter” supply (500 sheets) of laser ink and a special drum.

    After a couple of months and about 350 sheets of print, the ink cartridge ran out of ink – supposedly.

    Unfortunately, the Brother printer line stops printing when the printer detects that it is out of ink.

    I did the usual tricks of shaking the cartridge, etc. and managed another 15 sheets before the printer stopped printing again and displayed the message, “Replace the Ink Cartridge”.

    Nothing that I did got it going again. I called Brother support and they were useless. They simply said for me to go buy a new cartridge – which I did.

    With the new cartridge installed, the printer worked fine until I generated about 1,100 pages from this 1,500 new laser ink cartridge. Then, it stopped printing and displayed the same message.

    I went onto the internet to see if others were having the same problem. It was here that I read about how these and the miniature ink-jet colour cartridges work relative to the “out of ink” situation.

    It seems that they rely upon a small hole near the bottom of the cartridge through which they shoot a laser beam of light. So long as this beam of light is blocked (by ink), the printer works.

    However, if the light beam gets through this hole and is detected on the other side, the printer’s electronics shut the printer down on the assumption that there is no more ink in a cartridge.

    However, as this “hole” is NOT right at the bottom of the cartridge, there is always some ink left.

    According to the internet advice, if you simply block or cover this hole with anything, the message disappears and the printer starts printing again.

    I tried it and it worked.

    I cut a small piece of thicker paper from a brochure and taped it over the hole near the bottom of the cartridge. Lo and behold, my printer started working.

    Since doing this, I have now generated another 250 sheets from that “EMPTY” Brother cartridge and it is still printing.

    Brother and the sellers of these cartridges will not tell you about this little trick, as they make money selling replacement cartridges.

    According to the internet boards on this topic, this same trick works on many colour ink cartridges as well.

    Just thought that you might be interested in a follow up to your article.

  5. MS

    Aug 21 2012

    You correctly identify that some cheap inkjet printers (and laserjets) are sold with partially filled cartridges.

    However, you do not point out that cheap inkjets are no bargain. They use far more ink per page than their expensive brethren.

    This means that the TCO (total cost of ownership) will be greater than if you had purchased a more “expensive” printer.

    The following calculation is from inkjet.com:

    A good example is the purchase of a Canon Bubble Jet Printer for about $55. The average cost for the ink is about $19, but that cartridge will only print about 170 pages.

    If you print seven pages a day for 300 business days a year, your ink bill would be around $236.

    If you print that amount of pages for three years, the cost of the cartridges would be around $700, which is almost 13 times the cost of the printer.

    If you use an Epson printer and print the same number of pages, the cartridge cost would be over $1,000 for three years.

    Also, cheaper inkjets have smaller duty cycles (that is, the maximum number of pages per month the unit can produce without breaking down). This means that they are more likely to break down when you are busiest.

    If you want to pay a lower price, buy a cheaper inkjet, but it will cost you more in the long run and deliver lower quality prints than a more expensive model.

  6. NB

    Aug 21 2012

    You might be interested to know that the ‘driver’ default for these printers is colour, even for documents.

    I only used mine for such and even when set to gray scale, the colour cartridges were used up way way too fast.

    In the end, I went to purchase an Epson 4-in-1 (since I need a fax).

    Epson cartridges can be refilled, while Brother’s cannot. And yes, the salesman warned me about the ‘set up’ cart.

  7. LD

    Aug 21 2012

    HP inkjet printers tend to live a lot longer than their competitors. My own inkjet that I use every day is at least 8 years old.

    There is a design feature that no one seems to write about that causes this. I should also note that HP has been moving away from this lately.

    HP inkjet cartridges are not just ink tanks. They house the inkjets themselves. I do not know of any competitor that does this.

    When my clients ask what kind of a printer to buy, I always tell them to buy a xerographic printer, IF they can live with no colour.

    Colour laser printers produce lousy quality and the toners cost way too much, so I do not consider laser colour printers.

    IF they cannot live without colour, then the only printer I recommend is HP inkjets. And that is ONLY if they can confirm that the particular model has the inkjets in the cartridges.

    It is actually fairly simple if you can see the cartridge. The bottom of the cartridge has a copper strip with about 50 or so tiny (you need a magnifying glass) holes, and copper contacts on the back.

    The reason for this is that inkjets will eventually clog up. This is a certainty. It is only a question of time, usage and how well the printer is used.

    I tell my clients to never let more than a week go by before you print at least one page with some colour.

    Since your HP inkjets are replaced every time you replace the cartridge, the way to solve clogged inkjets is to replace the cartridge. It is affordable to do so. And, if you take care, your cartridge will run out of ink before you clog the jets.

    HP inkjet cartridges make lousy refills. Remember, if you are refilling, you are also trying to use inkjets not designed to last that long.

    Printers that have the inkjets as part of the printer itself will have their inkjets eventually clog. When they do, you will find that the replacement parts will be more expensive than replacing the printer.

    Also, ink replacements are significantly cheaper in the US – about 20 per cent. Both Brother and HP are guilty of this pricing strategy.

    Also, you should know that inkjet cartridges have a best before date. During that period, they are under warranty. After that, they are likely to not function.

    When you buy cartridges, be very careful to spot the date on the package. You will find dates on the packages that may vary greatly. Some may even be past dated. You should get two years.

    As for ink volume, HP is guilty of selling lots of cartridges that look like their identifier is the same, e.g. HP 78, but the cartridges have different fill levels. The full identifiers are different, sometimes by one letter.

    The way to tell what you are buying is to very carefully try to spot the volume. HP does not tell you the actual volume of ink in the tank, but will estimate the number of pages that it will print.

    You will find packages that look identical, but will print twice the volume. Pricing is cheaper per page for the larger volume.

    There is no question in my mind that HP fixes prices. You will not find any supplier that sells a particular inkjet cartridge for a significantly different price

    Inkjet printers are made for three different design groupings: Low, Medium and High. If you open them up and look inside, it is readily apparent.

    NEVER buy the low end. They will mechanically fail much sooner.

    Always buy the medium design. You can tell which each one is by going on HP.com and reviewing the specs. In the specs, you will find monthly volumes.

    The numbers are ridiculous, but you will be able to tell the difference between a model designed for 500 pages a month vs. one for 5,000 pages a month.

  8. MB

    Aug 21 2012

    Before I buy a printer, I find out if cheap secondary market cartridges are readily available.

    You can also call these suppliers and ask if the machine you are thinking of buying is economical to operate.

    I use Atlantic Inkjet, 123Cartridges and I have just found TonerClinic, but have no experience with the ones I just bought. The savings with these suppliers is enormous.

    I have been doing this for many years and it’s a very low risk situation.

    At the moment, I have a bunch of Epson WorkForce printers, which are very easy to live with. I usually buy them for between $59-$79 each.

    With laser printers, I have been trapped to buy low price, buy high refill a number of times.

    I bought an OKI printer at Tiger Direct, very cheaply. I thought it would be easy to find alternative toner suppliers, but it was very difficult.

    I eventually found a supplier in California. The price was $9 per cartridge versus the Tiger Direct $65.

    The drum warning lamp came on a couple of months ago. I always ignore these until the printer fails.

    At the end of the useful life of a printer, I take it to ReBoot in Scarborough and donate it in exchange for a charitable donation tax credit.

  9. SavingMentor

    Aug 28 2012

    For the regular consumer, I agree that this situation is a terrible ripoff. However, for the savvy consumer it can be beneficial, because you can get a high quality printer for ultra cheap and then find an ultra cheap method of replacing the ink.

    The best solution is to research your printer purchase in advance and choose one that is either easy to refill or is compatible with generic ink cartridges.

    I used to own an Epson RX500 for years. It used to cost $120 to do a full ink replacement of the 6 cartridges at Staples. Buying genuine Epson ink through Ebay, I could get that cost down to about $50.

    Going with a well respected non-OEM ink manufacturer also on Ebay, I could get 2 full refills (12 cartridges) for $20.

    There’s no point refilling your own or paying someone to refill it for you when you can get a brand new 3rd party replacement for that cheap.

    I also have a 2nd cheap Brother laser printer that I use for heavy print jobs to save ink. I bought 2 huge bottles of toner for about $10, I think, and have only ever had to refill it once myself over the past 3-4 years I’ve had it. Refilling a toner cartridge yourself is super easy to do.

    It is true that using 3rd party ink can impact print quality or the life of your printer. But if you buy well-reviewed quality ink, you shouldn’t have much of a problem. And even if it breaks after 2-3 uses of cheap ink, you can buy a brand spanking new printer for less than $50 anyway – no big loss! Rinse and repeat.

    Like me, you should always have 2 printers, so you always have a backup in case one breaks and you never are in need of expensive “emergency ink”.

  10. Rob In Madrid

    Sep 1 2012

    For me the answer is AMAZON!!!

    I have an older ???? HP printer still running after all this years, and amazon.es offers next day delivery for about 20% less than the local store, if they even carry it, machine is too old.

    Secondly Amazon lists the size so it’s easy to find the best price. But what I do most often what I do is choose the economy option, that convincing the wife not to print every page of an email or booking confirmation!

  11. Traciatim

    Sep 4 2012

    I agree with the others about buying a laser printer. This problem would be solved overnight.

    Also, the reason you have such a hard time with reading on a screen (other than you probably have your brightness cranked way too high) is the proliferation of wide screen monitors.

    Everyone wants the 1080P HD buzz word monitor. But if you get yourself a nice 4:3 (the ‘old’ standard) and turn it sideways, you end up with an incredibly pleasing ratio for reading text — since the screen ratio will be much closer to that of a piece of paper (8.5×11 is a 0.77 and 3:4 is 0.75).

  12. Dave Ings

    Sep 12 2012

    I guess I disagree with your premise. I print far less than I used to at both home and work.

    Similarly, I rarely buy paper books anymore. Who the heck wants to haul around all that paper?

    So yes, printer ink is conspicuously expensive but I purchase so little of it I don’t really care.

  13. Innah | Inkjet

    May 16 2013

    Manufacturers usually play tricks on consumers to get higher profit.

    Many will be attracted to buy a low-cost printer, thinking that it will bring enormous convenience, only to end up spending more because of ink cartridges that are apparently made to work with their printers.

  14. Scott Massie

    Oct 14 2013

    I switched from ink printer to laser ones and save a fortune on the ink.

  15. Bill

    Apr 30 2014

    It’s certainly sneaky in my opinion that big printer manufacturers include “starter” ink cartridges with their new printers. These starters have only a fraction of the ink that you’d find in a replacement.

  16. printer ink refill

    Apr 8 2016

    I’ve found that the best way to save money on printing is to use the printer at work when no one’s looking. Plus, there’s always staples and paper clips handy.

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