Is It Cheaper to Buy a Printer or Go to the Copy Shop?

Whether you have a project that needs to be printed or two tickets to the biggest show in town, access to a reliable printer is a must. But if you use a printer only occasionally, is it worth the space and the expense when you could head to an office supply store instead?

To understand the economics behind this dilemma, we compared the cost of printing at home to the prices charged by two national chains. The frugal-wise choice was quickly apparent.

What's the Project?

Printing costs primarily depend on the project, and to some extent on the type of printer you buy. Laser printers are fast and have a low cost per page, and are generally used for black-and-white text documents. Inkjet printers do well with color and can print glossy photos with ease. There are color laser printers as well, but they're often quite expensive and don't do justice to images.

Although printer prices vary widely (Cheapism's buying guides recommend laser printers for less than $150 and multifunction printers for less than $100), the initial cost pales in comparison to the ongoing cost of replacement cartridges. The cheapest strategy is to buy remanufactured or compatible cartridges or to refill them at home or in a store. Opting for any of these alternatives over a new cartridge from the printer manufacturer saves you big time -- the cost is often one-third or less. The print capacity of cartridges varies, as well, usually landing in the 200-500 page range for inkjet cartridges and the 2,000-8,000 page range for toner (laser) cartridges.

Now consider the per-page cost of printing on each type of machine, courtesy of Consumer Reports.

  • Laser printers: black-and-white text documents cost 2 to 5 cents per page
  • Inkjet printers: black-and-white text documents cost 2 to 7 cents per page
  • Inkjet printers: 4x6 photos start at 25 cents each

Per-page print costs at two national office supply stores are significantly higher.

Printing Paper Comparison
Store
Staples 1-100 B&W 101-500 B&W 501-750 B&W 751-2,500+ B&W
10 cents 9 cents 8 cents 7 cents
OfficeMax 1-500 B&W 501-1,000 B&W 1,001-3,000 B&W 3,000+ B&W
10 cents 9 cents 8 cents 6 cents

* Cost per-side for printing on 8.5x11 paper

Bottom line: For students and professionals who need to print more than just a few plain-text documents on a consistent basis, investing in a printer is the most economical way to go. Even accounting for the cost of paper, which may add an extra cent to the cost of each page, and for replacement cartridges, the at-home cost generally is less than half that of in-store printing. This conclusion also holds for extra-large print jobs, when the cost at office supply shops drops to 6 to 7 cents per page. Using your own printer is cheaper on all but the most inefficient devices loaded with the most expensive ink.

When to Pay Someone Else to Print.

Anyone who frequently prints photos and only rarely prints documents should probably forgo buying a printer. The best deal under these circumstances is printing at a store, or online if there's no rush. Many online providers make 4x6 prints for less than 20 cents each, plus reward you for opening an account with an offer to print the first 50 to 100 photos at no charge (shipping is usually extra). Most sites also offer bulk discounts that can lower the cost to 9 cents, or sometimes even 5 cents, with free shipping on orders over a set price point.

Printing photos at a brick-and-mortar location is slightly more expensive. CVS and Walgreens are two national chains that offer this service, with prices starting at 19 cents and 20 cents for each 4x6 print, respectively. These prices undercut the cost of at-home photo printing, which starts at 25 cents per print. These vendors likewise offer discounts on bulk print jobs, which lowers the cost considerably. Both online and retail stores also seem to run one or more "limited-time" promotions constantly, so be sure to look for a coupon code before checking out.