People have been predicting the rise of the ‘paperless office’ since the early 1960s, but the need to make a paper copy of something you see on-screen has hardly diminished over the intervening 50 years.

Fortunately, as with most kinds of technology, the price of printers has plummeted and perfectly usable inkjets are now available, new, from around £30. Unfortunately, the printer itself is only part of the ‘total cost of ownership’ and that’s where things get sticky.

All printers use consumables, namely paper and ink of some sort, and it’s the latter that causes problems. Inkjet printers in particular can cost a fortune to run and inkjet ink has long been one of the most expensive liquids in the world — it’s cheaper to fill your printer with vintage Dom Pérignon champagne, though perhaps not as practical. The question is what can you do to make your printer cheaper to run?


What to buy — which printer?

If you don’t yet own a printer, or are looking to buy a new one to reduce its running costs, then it’s important to think about what you need to print. Inkjet printers are great all-rounders, but if all you ever print is letters and documents, and never need to print in colour, then there’s a better option.

Canon inkjet

Laser printers cost little more than inkjets these days and the Samsung M2022 is just £49, for example. The catch is that these cheap models can only print in monochrome, but they’re fast and produce pin-sharp prints that won’t fade or smudge. More importantly, they’re very cheap to run.

Canon inkjet refill

A replacement PG-545 black ink cartridge for the £19.99 Canon PIXMA MG2550 inkjet printer, for example, costs £23 and it prints up to 180 A4 documents, according to Canon. That gives a cost per page of 11p.Samsung laser

A 2p difference may not seem like much, but if you print 180 pages a year, you’ll pay almost £70 for the inkjet and its ink over five years — that’s assuming you get one cartridge with the printer. The laser printer, on the other hand, will still be on the toner cartridge it came with by that point, so you’ll have still only paid £49 for five years’ use.

Those are only rough calculations, however, and they don’t include ink wasted when the inkjet printer needs to clean its print head — which it will need to do if it isn’t used regularly. Laser printers don’t have this problem and they can sit idle for months without wasting toner.

Samsung toner refil


What to buy — which refills?

Ink and toner supplied by the original equipment manufacturer (or ‘OEM’) tends to be the most expensive.

Inkjet manufacturers, at least, make great claims about the investment they make in ink development to give optimum performance. This is a fair claim if you’re printing high-quality photos on premium paper, but it’s less convincing if you just want to print web pages onto cheap photocopier paper. So one way to cut printing costs in a major way is to avoid OEM refills and opt for third-party solutions.


Laser printers

Laser printer owners have a distinct advantage here. The toner they use to print is far less finicky than inkjet ink and third-party refills usually work extremely well. The toner cartridge for the Samsung laser printer mentioned above, for example, can be refilled for around £15, although care is needed to avoid getting the fine black-powdered toner everywhere.

[Related story: Photo printing online: Which website is the cheapest?]

A laser printer cartridge can’t be reused in this way forever and some contain parts that wear out with use, but most can be refilled several times with no ill effects.


Inkjet printers

Inkjet owners don’t have such an easy time. Some inkjets use ‘chipped’ OEM cartridges that communicate with the printer — and prevent cheaper non-OEM cartridges from being used. Inkjet refill companies are a clever bunch, though, and most of these obstacles have been overcome in various ways.

Inkjet cartridges can be refilled in various ways, from doing it yourself with ink syringes to buying ‘remanufactured’ or pre-filled cartridges from high street stores on online.

In all cases, however, you might need to try a few options before you find one that works well with you printer and always be sure to buy ink or cartridges designed for use with your specific make and model.

Some printer manufacturers may also claim that using third-party ink will void your printer’s warranty. It’s up to the manufacturer to prove this should a fault arise and your purchase is still covered by the Sale of Goods Act otherwise.


How to save money

Buying a printer that’s cheap to run and using non-OEM refills aren’t the only way to save money when printing and there are a host of other options to consider.

For example, switching both a laser and inkjet printer to ‘draft’ mode will make toner and ink last longer. You won’t want to use draft mode for documents you’re sending to other people, but draft-mode text is perfectly readable for all other purposes.

[Related story: 6 ways to save money on printer ink]

If you’re using a colour inkjet, switching to monochrome printing will also save money. A web page printed in colour may look great, but it won’t be any more readable than one printed in monochrome — and switching to the (usually cheaper) black ink cartridge will save money.

Of course the best way to save money with a printer is to no use it at all. Printing a document as a PDF file gives perfect copy that can be saved to reference, or you can just make a screen grab of anything you want to keep — and you can always print either out later if you need to.

Have you had great success — or countless problems — refilling your printer? Or are you still using an old model that’s still on its original supplies? Let us know in the Comments.