What is the Real Cost of Owning a Printer?

The Lack of Industry Standards Leads Consumers to Overspend
$6 Billion for Home Computer Printers and Printer Ink

A major study released by the Institute found that consumers were being lured into buying inexpensive printers, only later to pay substantially more for ink. In a recent ConsumerGram, we concluded that giving all consumers more information on the cost of printing and printer ink would help them to make well-informed purchasing decisions and save $6 billion per year. However, without industry standards to help consumer know the cost of ink over the life of the printer, these savings will never be realized. In this ConsumerGram, we show the divergence in costs between printers and urge the industry to adopt a much-needed consumer labeling standard.

Lack of Information is a Market Failure
Ink is one of a handful of products that are exempt from Federal Trade Commission regulation under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. This means that printer manufacturers can “slack fill” their products and profit from them; and evidence suggests that this is happening today, as some ink jet cartridges contain only one-tenth of the volume that some cartridges contained in 1999. Because there is insufficient labeling on printers and cartridges, consumers do not know the true cost to operate a printer before buying one. According to a 2007 TeleNomic Research study released by the Institute, this lack of information has led to increased industry ink prices, excessive profits and high market concentration – all to the harm of consumer welfare. Moreover, better information on the cost of printing would save consumers $6 billion per year in lower printing costs.

Divergence in Printer Costs
Consumers can save money when they can compare prices. For instance, shoppers can compare shelf labels for unit prices on brands and product sizes; and they can read the posted price per gallon before filling up their automobiles with gasoline. Yet, most consumers are completely unaware of printing costs and would be surprised to know that the cost of printing a text page, color graphics or photos can vary considerably depending on the printer they own. Despite this variation, the cost to print is not labeled on the printer, printer box, cartridge, cartridge packaging, or retail shelf label. When it comes time to buy a printer, this omission makes it very difficult for consumers to understand the total cost of owning and operating a printer. As the table below shows, the cost of ink per page varies tremendously among different manufacturers and models. In this example, printing in black text (monochrome) could cost anywhere from 2 cents per page to 9 cents per page; printing color graphics could cost from 7 cents to 19 cents per page; and printing a 4×6 inch color photo could cost from 9 cents to 40 cents. Therefore, there is substantial variation in the cost to print a page, yet there is no easy way for consumers to know about these costs when purchasing a printer.


If consumers do not print very often, these differences in cost are a matter of pennies. Yet, for the average consumer or home office worker, these few pennies can add up to hundreds of dollars over the lifetime of a printer. In fact, knowing the printing costs at the time of purchase could be more important than knowing the price of the printer itself.

The Cost of Ownership
Printers are durable goods – that is, products that are not simply purchased and then immediately consumed, but instead used for several years. As such, it is important to know the full cost of ownership – both the upfront costs to buy the product and the annual or lifetime cost of operation. To make consumers aware of the full cost of ownership at the point of sale, new automobile price stickers provide estimated annual costs of fuel. Similarly, Energy Guide labels on new appliances, like refrigerators, show an estimated annual electricity cost to run the appliance. In both cases, the operating cost is much lower than the initial purchase price. In contrast, over the useful life of a printer, the cost of printing can overwhelm the cost of the printer itself. Simply put, consumers require better knowledge of the lifetime cost of ownership in order to make well-informed choices – not blind ones.

The table below shows the initial retail costs for inkjet printers priced under $150 and their 3-year printing ink costs, and confirms that the cost of the printer pales in comparison to the cost of the ink. For example, the 3-year cost of ink could be more than seven times greater than the cost of the printer itself. Therefore, retailers that show only the cost of the printer are hiding the real cost of ownership.

Need for an Industry Standard
Market alternatives convey value to consumers, but the value of competition and product alternatives for consumers is attenuated if they have insufficient information to choose rationally among them. An industry standard is needed and should be adopted by manufacturers and retailers alike. One solution is to simply add an annual or (as shown below) a 3-year cost of ink on shelf feature cards in stores that sell computer printers. This simple solution creates no appreciable industry costs, but it would enable consumers to compare printers and judge for themselves whether printer and ink costs matter. This will likely lead to increased competition and potentially lower prices for consumers.

Just as consumers search the shelves for labels and feature cards for information on most goods that they buy, providing consumers with better information on ink costs would allow them to make better choices upfront that suit their printing needs and minimize their costs for doing so. That, in turn, would provide added discipline in the marketplace and encourage price competition that would result in $6 billion in lower costs for the combined purchase of printers and corresponding ink.

(Download a PDF of this ConsumerGram ink-standards)

Posted: November 7, 2008


About The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research
The Institute is a nonprofit educational and research institute. For more information or to contact us, visit http://www.aci-citizenresearch.org.  If you would like a copy of this ConsumerGram and its charts, please email us at [email protected].


16 thoughts on “What is the Real Cost of Owning a Printer?

  1. In considering the cost of printing, print quality should also be an important factor. What good is an inexpensive print if it doesn’t look good?

  2. What Good? Actually the lowest priced ink also has the highest quality print (about 120 years and pigmented ink), according to research results from QualityLogic labs and Wilhelm Imaging Research.

  3. It is amazing how many people I know complain about high ink costs when there are great alternatives available. While printer manufacturers sell ink for thousands of dollars a gallon, we sell ours (excellent quality) for about $100 per gallon. Trouble is, there is very little awareness that consumers have a choice.

  4. Excellent information, and unfortunately not widely distributed. The X toner cartridge on my old Laserjet 4000 is $100-150.00 for 10K copies. The A cartridge is sold for about $50.00. The printer cost a lot, but I’ve had it 1o years. !7ppm is slow, but nothing matches the per copy cost. I may keep fixing it.

    I bought some cheaper printers for my kids. Inkjets where the included cartridges cost more than the printers, I bought five.

    And now we have demo cartridges in new printers that only print a few copies before you have to buy a cartridge. I am deeply offended when companies exploit consumer ignorance. Unfortunately they all do it so it is difficult to boycott anyone.

  5. Type your comment here. I have an rx700 epson if one color is out nothing works I can’t even scan due to an error window that will not pass until it gets whatever color is out replaced In the past with other printers if I was out of a color I could at least print in black in an emergency It is close to $100 (crazy) to replace all ink in this printer and is only able to be perched by mail order So when I am out of one color I am stuck until I go to the computer and so on and so on and so on……………. And only get any kind of break if I order 3 I may only need 1 and I may only have the funds for 1 So I think my best option is to stop printing all together and start using paper and pencil (I might think about that too) and passing the word around I would like to know what this ink is made of and the mark up on this liquid gold I am a fool who thought a printer would make my life better Donna

  6. Why is it so hard to find a low cost printer that does a good job on photos, text and is reliable. I have gone to all sorts of sites and I find the entire process. I am looking for wireless, moderate speed, copy and scan, under $150.00 low operating cost. Got any suggestion….I am going to research the ones in your article. I guess my next option is to buy one, take it home, try it out and if it does not work to my satifaction, take it back…maybe they will get the hint. Joanne Ardary

  7. Most people or businesses look for the latest features on printers… Can the printer scan? Fax? Copy? Does the printer work on a network? Wifi? Does it work with my OS? Can I print thousands of pages?

    Printer Manufacturers like HP, Epson, Dell and others work hard to make printers that work in a wide variety of applications. And they have done an excellent job. In fact, they have reduced the need for professional printers. Real estate agents no longer need to pay Kinko type prices and small businesses can print flyers on demand.

    The problem is that convenience comes with a cost. Most people that buy printers will buy on price and they end up with a printer they cannot afford to refill.

    Some companies provide options – such as http://www.sohojet.com.

    You should know that there are options to refilling your printer.


  8. I have used Canon printers for 15 years, have owned 3 in that time, with prices ranging from $70 to &250. I buy Staples replacement cartriges. My current Pixma MP530 is 3 years old, prints great pics,faxes & copies. Black canon is $30 to replace. Get Staples replacement for $19. I don’t print often, but when I do (gamer walkthroughs) will print 12 to 30 pages. Catridges last about a year.

  9. I now have my 3rd Epson Printer..I now have an Epson stylus CX6000. In one year I have spent over $300.00 on ink cartridges…I will never buy another Ebson. If the black runs out, the color is almost out even though I have never used them. And it will not work.
    I am going to try the Kodak soon.

  10. Kodak printers offer very low cost printing. I know because I bought one when the were first offered. However,I have spent AT LEAST 15 hours on the phone with their technical support as well as receiving 3 replacement printers and numerous ink cartridges and heads. Their tech support people are great but the fact remains the product is seriously flawed. They offered me a 30% discount coupon for the purchase of a new one. I passed. The 5500 All-In-One goes on the curb tomorrow.

  11. This cost of ownership calculation for inkjet printers cannot be right. Average consumers do not print much. Therefore printheads clog up. If the printhead is not exchangeable by the user (i.e. Epson) repair is very costly. User-exchangeable printheads can be integated with the inkcartridge or are separate units (HP uses both systems). That is why HP inkcartidges seem so expensive. They are not. The user-exchangeable printheads garantee the highest possible uptime for the printer together with the lowest possible operating cost.

  12. I have to take exception to the statement that Average Consumers do not “print that much.” The fact is that consumer printing is increasing at an exponential rate.

    Small offices (home offices), small business start ups, computer use at home for office work, kid’s home work, etc… all demand paper with ink or toner. The problem is that printer manufacturers continue to increase the cost of the page by reducing the amount of ink or toner in each cartridge. You used to find up to 40ml of ink in HP’s color cartridges. Now, you are lucky to find 5 to 8 ml’s.

    They use this a 5% coverage calculation to figure how many pages you can print per cartridge and that doesn’t work for most people. If you print photos, aren’t you looking at 100% coverage?

    That’s 20 times more ink usage per page than the manufacturer claims….

    That’s why I use sources other than the manufacturer’s ink for refills. It used to cost me over $500 to buy all four cartridges for my color laser printer. Using high quality sources (such as sohojet products), I can get the same yield and quality for about $200.

    Just a thought for you guys…

  13. It’s well known that most, if not all inkjet printers are not cost effective for any kind of volume printing, especially when factoring pictures into the equation. Kodak inks and printers are a good deal, but still expensive in the long run.

    Another factor not stated here, and something many people don’t realize, is that inkjet cartridges often have a tendency to “dry out” when not used often, or if stored improperly, adding more cost to the ownership of an inkjet printer.

    Laser printers, though more expensive initially, are a MUCH better deal in the long run, both in the cost of toner, and for the fact that they tend to break less often (fewer moving parts). They also generally provide faster printing of multiple pages, especially in black and white.

    Hope this information is helpful.

  14. In the past I have saved considerable money having my cartridges refilled by a local company. !!Surprise!! Lexmark has now programed their printers so that they will not operate with refilled cartridges not made by Lexmark. Result; my two Lexmark printers, both less than 18 months old will go on Craigs List or in the next garage sale.
    All of us are suckers for putting up with this. We know that companies must made a profit but like with an automobile, give us some clue as to how much it’s going to cost us over some reasonable period of time.

Comments are closed.