As anyone who has owned and regularly used an ink jet printer will likely have noticed, the cost of replacement ink cartridges is disproportionately high when compared to the printer itself. In the cases of some of the more inexpensive printers, the cartridges can even cost more than the printer!
You may have heard it said that printer ink is worth more than gold, which is something of a myth (it can be true in specific circumstances) but the fact that it is something that people say at all speaks to how expensive printer ink is.
So, why is printer ink so expensive? Especially when compared to the complex contraption that uses the ink. After all, a printer is a marvel of modern engineering, and printer ink is, well, a plain old liquid, right?
Well, that is exactly what we are going to explore in the post, as well as a few handy tips for saving on the cost of printer ink, so let’s get to it.
Types of Printer
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this topic, it should be noted that we are talking about a specific type of printer when we talk about how expensive the ink is. That is, non-commercial printers that use ink cartridges.
There are alternatives, of course, such as laser printers that use toner, rather than ink, and ink jet printers that use ink reservoirs rather than cartridges. Generally speaking, the alternatives are considerably more expensive, and, as such, only used in situations where a lot of printing goes on, like offices.
We’re going to put this point to one side for now, but this will come up later.
Printer Ink Vs Other Liquids
Though prices will naturally fluctuate, printer ink specifically black printer ink is typically well within the top ten most expensive liquids in the world. Given that very few things can be printed without black ink indeed, many printers will refuse to even try if they are low on ink the fact that other colors of printer ink aren’t in the top ten doesn’t seem that important.
What is more remarkable is that one of the liquids less expensive than black printer ink is human blood. Another notable liquid that black printer ink beats on the most-expensive list is Penicillin.
Then again, the well-known perfume, Chanel No. 5, is more expensive than all the above, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that printer ink could be more expensive than other liquids that are literally lifesaving.
There are many variables that factor into why something like printer ink is so expensive compared to other liquids, not least of which is the difficulty in making it. As much as human blood is a precious liquid, it is not that difficult to get since there are a lot of humans and many of us are willing to donate.
Conversely, two of the most expensive liquids in the world are cobra and scorpion venom, and the collection of both puts the life of the person doing the harvesting in very real jeopardy.
Another factor is the market. The price of any item in a free market is a compromise between what the customer is willing to pay and what the seller wants to charge. If the seller raises the price too high, the customer won’t buy it.
If the customer demands a price too low, the seller will decide it’s not worth it. Printer ink is a mature industry, and the seemingly excessive prices are, nevertheless, prices that people are willing to pay.
What is Printer Ink Made From?
Ink has, of course, been around for a long time far longer than electronic printers, and non-electronic printers, for that matter, but the makeup of that ink is different from printer ink. This is because traditional ink, which is made from a variety of things including vegetable juices, tannin from tree bark, and all manner of sea creature extracts, just has to stain the surface it is being used on.
Modern printer ink, on the other hand, is designed to be applied to the surface at high speed and in minute detail. The base of most printer ink is a linseed or soybean oil, or heavy petroleum distillate. This base liquid is referred to as varnish, and will then have pigments added to it to give it color.
As you will likely have noticed when you change your ink cartridges, all the colors of the rainbow are not represented, nor are the colors in a printer necessarily the “primary” colors that can be used to make up all other colors. Instead, they typically use colors like cyan, magenta, and yellow.
The cost of ink cartridges typically varies depending on the printer, but an average price you can expect to pay for a complete set of colors is around $50. Some manufacturers sell their colors separately, while others sell their color ink as one single cartridge.
The Razor and Blades Business Model
Printer manufacturers are also the manufacturers of the ink cartridges that their printers use, and this is an important part of why printer ink is so expensive when compared to the printers themselves. Of course, there are often third party alternatives, but they rarely work as well as the cartridges you get from the printer manufacturer. This is not necessarily a failing on the part of those third party manufacturers, but a conscious effort from the printer companies.
Printer’s work under what is referred to as a razor and blades business model. You may also hear it referred to as a loss-leader product. The logic is simple enough;
A long-life product like a printer is not worth that much to a printer company, because they can only sell you one. They can’t charge too much for it because they will be undercut by an ambitious competitor, and they can’t build their printers to break down after limited use for the same reason. This is a problem all big-item producers face, of course, but not all manufacturers have the opportunity that printer manufacturers do; printer ink.
You see, while you only need one printer, you will need to constantly replace your ink cartridges. With this in mind, printer manufacturers make their printers very cheap potentially even selling them at a loss to the company and make it so that only their ink cartridges can be used with the printer. The low price of the printer is compelling to a consumer, while the high cost of future ink cartridge purchases make it worthwhile for the manufacturer.
This is the razor and blade model, so-called because it is precisely how razor blade manufacturers work. Rather than charging a reasonable price for a razor, razor blade manufacturers make their razors only work with their blades and practically give the razor itself away, making their profits on subsequent purchases of the much more expensive blades. After all, a razor may not need replacing for months and months, but a small pack of blades could be used up in weeks.
Of course, the success of this model relies on the printer company being the only one that can produce the printer cartridges for their printers. And, for the most part, this is the case. Third parties will attempt to undercut printer manufacturers, but they are rarely successful enough to threaten the printer companies because their product will never work as well as the real thing.
This is because printer manufacturers are not obliged to make any of the details about how their printer works public knowledge. This includes the electronics in the cartridge, and the ingredients in the ink itself. As a result, there is nothing stopping them from tweaking their ink ingredients or changing their cartridge designs in ways that make it harder to replicate. Third party cartridges often don’t work as well, or run out of ink more quickly. In some cases, they can even damage the printer itself.
The Printer Company PerspectiveAs ruthless as capitalism can be, the cost of printer ink is not solely down to the freedom the razor and blade model grants printer companies to pump up the price. It is also expensive for them to make.
The first reason it is expensive for printer manufacturers we have already touched on; the cost of actually making the liquid. Printer ink is not just a colored liquid, like dye or food coloring; it needs to be made in such a way as to perform the task of being printed in an ink jet printer. This means different, not always cheap ingredients to what would be used on something like a typewriter, or a regular pen.
The other reason is research and development. Printer companies are constantly looking to innovate in every aspect, whether it be to reduce the amount of ink needed to print, improve the methods of printing, and, yes, making it harder for other companies to copy their design and undercut them with cheaper cartridges. All of this adds up, and the cost of that research is passed on to the consumer when they buy more ink cartridges.
According to HP, original HP ink and toner cartridges deliver the best possible printing experience for customers. We make significant investments in R&D each year to provide the highest levels of print quality, safety and environmental sustainability. When customers purchase HP, they are reducing plastic waste and contributing to a circular economy. And we work tirelessly to maximize value for our customers, including Instant Ink, our "ink delivery" subscription service which includes ink, shipping and recycling.
Tips to Save on Printer Ink
Knowing why printer ink costs you so much is one thing, but what about keeping those costs down? It’s not exactly a “how to get cheap ink” lifehack, but we thought a nice way to finish this post would be to include a few tips on saving the money you spend on printer ink.
Okay, this one probably feels like a bit of a cop-out, but in this day and age, it is a very legitimate option to cut down the amount of printer ink you use. The number of situations in which you need to have a hard copy of a particular document has reduced dramatically from ten years ago, and taking advantage of that fact will save you money on printer ink. For backup, consider moving to digital backups, keeping a copy of your backups on removable media and away from your main data storage location.
Companies like HP offer a subscription service that allows you to pay monthly and keep your printer topped up with ink. The amount you pay will depend on how much printing you do, but the cost generally works out cheaper than the same amount of printing done using the conventional method of buying new cartridges when they run out. The cartridges are also delivered to your door, which is nice.
HP Instant Ink
This one isn’t for everyone, but laser printers have many advantages when it comes to the financial side of things. Those advantages do not extend to the initial cost of purchase, however. Laser printers use toner, rather than printer ink, which is considerably cheaper, but the printers themselves are far more expensive.
On top of that, they tend to be bulkier and noisier than their ink counterparts, and they are very much geared towards text documents, rather than things like photographs. Still, if none of this is a problem, and you do a lot of printing, getting a laser printer could save you a considerable sum of money in the long run.
Though it’s not strictly saving money, you can offset the cost of your ink cartridges by recycling your used ones. The cartridge itself is a not-insignificant part of the cost, and there are companies out there prepared to pay you to take your used ones off your hands. We’re not talking a substantial sum of money, of course, but it can help to bring the net cost of printing down a little more.
Use Third-party Ink Cartridges
Third-party ink cartridges make a good alternative if you would like to save money on ink supplies. While some people are worried that using generic ink can void their printer warranty, choosing quality generic ink can save you a lot of money and still have a decent printing job done.
So, what's you take on this issue and how do you save money on ink supplies?