Printing costs are getting ever-higher, so cutting corners could save you a packet. Here's a guide to printing on a shoe string.

Whether your printer costs £60 or £600, the purchase price is only the first expense on your list of printing overheads. Over time, buying the ink or toner and acquiring media (paper, envelopes, transparencies) will add up to a bigger impact on your wallet. These costs will vary depending on what you print, how much you print, and what kind of media you use. Some expenses are unavoidable: Printing an 8-x-10 photo on premium, glossy paper will never be cheap. Shaving cents off other kinds of printing, however, involves just a little thought, effort, and advance planning.

Know before you buy

Saving money on printing starts before you buy the printer. Before you begin researching new models, make sure that you'll be getting the best printer for the types of documents you plan to produce. Once you start looking at specific models, make a point of checking the recommended print volume – if you typically print 100 pages a day, for example, don't buy a printer that's rated for 500 pages a month.

Cartridge costs

Replacement ink or toner cartridge costs represent a major part of your long-term printing expenses. With low-end models, changing the cartridge can cost as much as the printer itself.

Don't judge a cartridge by price alone – its efficiency, or page yield matters just as much. Of course, that figure will vary depending on how much ink you use on a page, but the industry-standard assumption is 5 per cent coverage per page for each colour. Some companies make yield information available on the Web along with other printer specifications. Others will provide it if you ask, either by email or phone.

You can use yield information to calculate per-page costs, which can be useful in determining what your printing costs for different printers would look like over time. Laser printer toner cartridges may cost a lot more than ink jet cartridges, but their higher yields make per-page costs lower.

A few colors more

Some ink jet printers produce superior photo quality by using additional colours beyond the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. But not all the colour cartridges necessarily come with the printer, so it’s best to check what additional costs will be incurred.
Many lower-cost laser printers come with starter cartridges that last anywhere from 60 per cent to as little as 33 percent as long as a regular cartridge. Granted, if you don't print much, that first cartridge could last you a while, but if you know you'll be printing at least 100 pages per month, either find a printer that comes with a full-size cartridge or factor in the cost of an early replacement. Of course, if you get a great deal on the printer, your overall cost may still be quite affordable.

Paper stock will impact on printing costs too. The heavier, brighter (whiter), or more specialized the paper is, the more it will cost. General use, 20-pound office paper is cheap, but an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of glossy photo paper can cost 60p or more.

Save the pricey stuff for final prints. For everything else, use the cheapest paper you can find. It will affect the print quality from your laser printer minimally, and will be acceptable for producing drafts and test compositions. Third-party brands often cost less per page than the printer manufacturer's media, but test ink jet-specific media on your printer to see if you like the results. You may have to buy a full pack to do this, unfortunately.

Penny-saving printer settings

The printer you already own may have money-saving features built into it – simply take a few minutes to delve into its settings. Many have a button right up front that sets the printer to draft mode (sometimes called Economode, InkSaver, or the like), reducing the ink or toner consumption for everyday documents. Other printers may require or allow you to set draft-mode printing in the driver.

A utility that can help you save on ink or toner is Strydent Software's $35 (around £20) InkSaver (www.strydent.com or www.inksaver.com), which provides you with an intuitive slider for controlling precisely how much ink to use while printing.

Cheapskate tricks that work

Some of the best ways to control ink, toner, and paper costs are also the easiest. If your studio is really strapped for cash, cut your paper expenses in half by printing on both sides of the page. Some offices equip their workgroup printers with automatic duplexers, and a few even set duplexing as the default print mode. A handful of personal printers provide automatic duplexing (requiring no manual refeeding of the sheets) as a standard or extra-cost accessory, and some present a handy on-screen guide for turning and ordering the pages. Barring such features, only a patient soul should try manual duplexing for a multipage document.

If your laser printer software says you're running low on toner, or if you start to see streaks in your printouts, you may still have plenty of toner left – but it's stuck in the cartridge's nooks and crannies. Remove the cartridge from the printer and slowly rock it end-to-end and then to-and-fro a few times. Do not shake it randomly or vigorously. Reinsert the cartridge into your printer.

Digital photo tips

Printing many digital images on an ink jet will definitely cost you. What are your options? For your highest-resolution important photos, it's probably best to pay the high price for total control over the process from editing to printing. For your everyday shots, though, letting someone else print the photos (by either uploading your images to an online photo service or dropping off a CD or memory card at a shop) is the easiest, and often cheapest, solution – especially for large quantities.

If printing costs are crippling your cash flow, it’s a good idea to Photoshop-out any obvious flaws in your images before you print them. Whether you have digitized a film photo or downloaded an image from your digital camera, checking for red-eye and other flaws before you print will keep you from wasting pricey photo paper. It pays to preview photos before sending them to a print service.