Why Is Printer Ink So Crazy Expensive?

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(5-min read)

There’s no debating that immense strides have been made in the technological development of modern printer ink. The first printer inks manufactured in the 1960s were made from cheaper degradable food dyes. The results were inks that would all-but disappear in a few month’s time (we hope you didn’t need those receipts). The need for printer ink with the shelf-life of a photograph prompted extensive research and development efforts. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1980s that printer companies began manufacturing consumer-level inkjet printers. 

Ok, the ink has been developed. The code has been cracked. Why is it still expensive?

Theory 2: Ink Must be Developed for Each Model

The second theory for the price of printer ink (or, rather, the second part of the first theory) is that each type of ink must be formulated for each model of printer, cartridge, and head. The idea states that because each print head and model is different, its accompanying printer ink must be developed to reduce instances of ink drying up, clogging print heads, or being of the right concentration for image consistency. Designing and manufacturing ink that meets these grueling standards of quality control makes it expensive. 

Ah, ok. Any other theories? 

Theory 3: Printer Companies Are Greedy

Let us be the first to acknowledge that this is simply a theory and not a proven fact, but there are many who believe the price of printer ink is marked up immensely to pay for printer company CEOs’ third beach houses…or whatever it is that they spend their bonuses buying. Those who take this stance are quick to point out that printer manufacturers have gone to great lengths to keep their ink refills proprietary—in other words, they control the ink flowing out of their models. Computer chips may keep aftermarket cartridges from working. In most instances, their printer ink is not available for purchase outside of cartridge form. Most cartridge manufacturers do not even disclose the precise volume of ink in each cartridge. 

Theory 4: You’re Actually Paying Off Your Printer

If you’ve ever shopped for inkjet printers, especially consumer-grade models, you’ll likely begin your search pleasantly surprised by the prices. You can usually buy what seems to be a reasonably robust consumer-level inkjet printer for well under $200. After purchasing said printer and using up the ink in introductory-level cartridges that came with the machine, you may be shocked to find that the inkjet cartridge replacements cost almost as much as the device itself—sometimes more. This pricing technique is what is known as the “razor-and-blade” model. Just like shaving kit manufacturer Gilette first sold its first “disposible” razor handles for almost nothing only to build the true price into the cost of replacement cartridges, many theorize the same such eco-system building is taking place among printer manufacturers. 

This theory somewhat checks out. How? Well, upon researching the true manufacturing costs of consumer-grade inkjet printers, there’s a pretty big discrepancy in cost-to-make and their retail price. No, it’s not inflated, but rather significantly deflated. A consumer-grade HP may cost $70 at the store, but actually costs $120 for the manufacturer to make. How is this pricing model sustainable? Easy—you’re likely paying the difference in the price of replacement inkjet cartridges. 

How Do I Get Around Steep Inkjet Prices?

If you’re looking for a way of getting around steep cartridge costs for your budget inkjet printer, we’re sorry to say that you’re likely stuck. Printer manufacturers have made it significantly more challenging to use remanufactured cartridges or aftermarket printer inks in their devices. 

Consider Going Commercial or Laser

If you want more upfront pricing in your printer usage, there are two favored avenues; commercial-grade printers or going with a laser printer. 

Commercial Grade Inkjet Printers

A commercial-grade inkjet printer will have two main differences from its consumer-grade variety. Firstly, it will likely be significantly more expensive. Why? In addition to a superior build quality, the true price of the printer is more likely to be built into the price of the device itself. Secondly, the refills may actually be less expensive. With more of the price in the upfront cost of the machine, that may mean less costly refills over the lifespan of the device. 

Laser Printers 

If you’re not needing to print photo-quality images and prefer to pay less in cartridge refills, a toner-containing laser printer may be an attractive alternative to an inkjet printer. Unlike inkjets, laser printers utilize toner—a powdery substance that is less reactive to many of the conditions that increase the price of ink. Laser printers tend to deliver more consistent text-based imagery over the lifespan of the device than their inkjet counterparts. While they struggle to deliver higher-quality graphics, replacing a toner cartridge tends to be less expensive than an inkjet printer when price-per-page is the chosen pricing metric.

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