Technobuddy: Bring down the high price of printing

You may be printing yourself into the poorhouse.

It's easy to spend nearly twice a printer's purchase price in a single year just buying ink.

There are $50 ink jet printers that spit out $86 worth of ink in a year. And that's for families that print just 15 pages a week. Families with kids printing homework and parents printing family photos and reports for work can easily print more pages than that in a single day.

At a time when most of us are trying to cut costs, it's a good idea to find ways to save on printing costs. That's what we'll do today.

The process starts when you buy your printer. Your first step in shopping should be to determine the operating cost of that printer. Luckily there's a Web site that does just that: http://www.printer.com.

You'll be asked a series of questions -- stuff like how many pages you print a week, whether you print photos and if the printer is used for a home business.Then you'll be shown a list of printers of various brands, along with the cost of each printer and an estimate of how much you will spend on ink over the five-year life of the printer.

My guess is you'll see that cheap ink jet printers cost more to operate than expensive printers. And those of you who do a lot of black and white printing will find that laser printers will cost more to buy but less to operate.

But there's no one "right" printer for every family. The choice will depend on both the amount of printing you do and how much color printing is involved. For those who may go a week without printing a single page, a cheapo printer -- even with its high operating costs -- may be the right way to go. And those of you who crank out reams of pages each month may find happiness with a higher priced ink jet model, or with a laser printer.

Now that you've selected a printer that offers the best combination of purchase price and operating costs, there are still ways to save money.

One of the most obvious is to proofread your work. I don't know about you, but I sometimesprint two or even three versions of an important document before getting it right. So I pay a penalty of two or three times the printing cost for not checking my work.

Photo prints are especially expensive to print because they use a lot of high-priced colored ink. Spend extra time tweaking the image before hitting the print button to avoid reprints.

Sometimes there are other reasons to reprint a page -- maybe a letter ends up with a second page that only contains a few words, or the document just doesn't look right. Many word processing programs, including Microsoft Word, let you use a feature called Print Preview. That shows you exactly how the printed page would look. If you use Word, select File from the menu, then Print Preview.

Many of us print out grocery lists, to-do lists and notes where print quality isn't important. Using your printer's "draft" mode puts less ink on the page. To reach draft mode, go to Print, then Properties and finally Print Quality, and select Draft.

Ironically, those of you who go weeks without printing a page may be costing yourself some money. Each time you print, the printer does maintenance that cleans the printer's printhead (the device that manages the ink flow). If ink clogs you may end up needing a new printhead. Since a replacement printhead can cost nearly as much as a cheap printer that often means buying a new printer. So, once a week or so, print something out.

Another way to prolong your ink jet printer's life is to turn it off when you aren't using it. When you do that, most printers park the printhead in a way that seals it off and prevents drying ink from clogging the printhead.

You may wonder why I haven't mentioned refilled ink cartridges. Using them will certainly save money. But it may also void your printer warranty and result in lower quality printing. I don't have enough personal experience with refills to offer a sound opinion. But I do know quality varies from vendor-to-vendor. So if you go that route, do some research on the Web to find the best combination of price and quality.

Finally, spend a second or two thinking before you press the print button. Jotting down a seven item grocery list with pencil and paper may be low-tech. But over the course of a year, you'll save enough to buy a lot of chocolate chip cookies.