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How to save on printer ink

The most common printer-related complaints we get from readers bemoan the high cost of ink or toner. Yes, ink can be costly – particularly for people who print in high volume – but there are ways to reduce your printing costs over time.

Here we're offering up eight money-saving printing tips, most of them tried and true, but some with downsides or up-front costs that you should weigh carefully when implementing them. It's also good to have a general idea of how much you print every month or even every year (either personally or for your business), as usage levels are certainly relevant in determining which tips will work for your particular situation.

If some of these suggestions seem self-evident, ignore them and be grateful you're already on the right track. Your no-brainer may be someone else's cash saver.

Shop for a printer with a low cost per page

Many printers have a low sticker price, but when you factor in ink costs, you may be paying more for them in the long run. Ink or toner costs tend to be inversely proportional to a printer's price; high-end laser printers often have a very low cost per page, while budget inkjets frequently have high ink costs. But even for printers within a given price range, there may be considerable variation in running costs.

We include cost per page info – generally supplied by the company, based on their most economical ink or toner cartridges and other consumables – with all printer reviews we publish.

One caveat: The most economical cartridges are also the highest capacity and most expensive ones, so although you'll have to change them less frequently than the low capacity cartridges, you will have to pay more for them up front. For instance, replacing a set of colour laser toner cartridges can potentially run to several hundred pounds.

And for inkjets, if you don't print a lot, you may be better off with lower capacity cartridges (see our final tip).

Bring your brochure printing in-house

Some colour lasers are capable of printing graphics, photos, and/or text at a quality suitable for use in basic marketing hand-outs or brochures. Buying a high quality laser printer can reduce or eliminate the need and cost of sending those materials to a print shop. Investment in such a printer will pay for itself over time and then provide cost savings, as well as the convenience of on-demand 24/7 printing.

Get a printer with an automatic duplexer – and use it

Most business printers sold today – and many consumer printers as well – include (or offer as an option) an automatic duplexer, which lets you print on both sides of a sheet of paper. Several vendors now sell their laser printers with duplex printing as the default mode. Duplex (two-sided) printing is both eco-friendly and economical, as it can cut your paper use (and costs) nearly in half. Just remember, when you do need to print single-sided documents, change the driver setting to simplex printing. Also, note that duplex printing is somewhat slower than simplex printing for a given document, as the duplexer has to flip the page over to print on the back.

Think (and look) before you print

You can reduce clutter and save ink and paper by only printing the material you actually need. Why print out the 4 pages of legalese at the end of a bank statement, or the 242 comments that follow an opinion piece? Do you really want a hardcopy of that 50-page report, or will reading it on screen suffice? Preview your document before printing; many documents (particularly web pages) will print quite differently to how they look on screen.

Check your printer's software or driver settings

Most printers come with a user-friendly software interface that lets you access and tweak many of the printer's functions. All come with (or instruct you to download) a printer driver – a program that controls the printer, converting files and commands into a format the printer can recognise. The driver offers a more direct way (and in some cases, the only way) to change printer settings, with all the settings accessible through a tabbed interface.

To find the driver, open the Printers page (in some Windows versions it's called Devices and Printers) from the Start menu or the Control Panel, right click on your printer's name (or icon), and open the Printing Preferences tab.

Whether you work from the software interface or the driver, our recommendations are the same. Look for ink saver or toner saver mode. Print in Draft mode except when presentation quality is required. Wherever possible, print in black instead of colour. If your printer supports duplex printing, using it will enable you to save paper.

Third-party inks may save you money – but at a cost

Many third-party companies offer ink cartridges that they claim are compatible with given printers, at a considerable cost savings from the cartridges offered by the manufacturers. Although the cost savings are real, sometimes you'll pay an even higher price in headaches. Common complaints about third-party inks include degraded output quality and the need to frequently clean the nozzles. If you're still tempted to try third-party inks, do your homework: Do a search on the ink company and see what other users have said about their cartridges.

Be sceptical of low ink warnings

Warnings that a given colour cartridge is running low and needs to be replaced often start well before the ink level is actually a problem. The accuracy of such warnings can vary greatly between printer brands and models, and you don't want to waste ink and money by replacing the cartridges too soon. In time you'll learn whether your printer's warnings are dire or premature. Until then, don't rush to replace a cartridge, unless you notice degradation in the output quality, or you're starting a large and vital print job.

Take care of your ink and toner

With older ink cartridges, particulates may come out of solution and clog the nozzles. To prevent this, don't overstock on ink cartridges so they extend past their "use by" date. Also, match cartridge capacity to how much you actually print, to avoid having large capacity cartridges languish beyond their time. (It's also a good idea to regularly clean the nozzles – your printer should have a setting that will clean the nozzles and print out a test sheet).

With laser printers, toner will settle over time, meaning it will be unevenly distributed on the printed page, causing faded areas and/or streaking. If your laser print quality is deteriorating, remove the toner cartridge from the printer and shake or rock it from side to side five or six times. You may be able to do this several times before the cartridge actually needs replacing.

For more printer advice, see our guide on how to set up and maintain your new printer, and our 8 tips and tricks to make best use of your printer.