Updated on 12.03.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Home Photo Printing

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Chelsea writes in: I’ve always wondered if it’s cheaper to print photos from home, rather than having them developed at a drugstore. Nowadays, most printers have photo capabilities and the quality is pretty stellar for the average consumer, but the convenience of uploading files and just picking them up when they’re done is tempting.

As always with questions like this, there are a lot of variables to consider. I decided to calculate our home cost of 4″ by 6″ prints just to see how expensive they really were.

The printer itself Our current printer is a Canon Pixma MP480, which is currently discontinued. We were able to pick one up new for $69.99 when it was being discontinued. We have used the printer to print well over 1,000 documents at this point without any difficulties and with an anticipation that we’ll be using it for a long time to come, so the cost per page for the printer is quite low. I think it would be reasonable to estimate that the cost of the printer itself per document printed is $0.02.

This is perhaps the hardest factor to truly quantify. It has a lot to do with the reliability of your printer as well as the price you paid for that printer. A low-end printer with good reviews from a reputable brand, preferably bought during a sale, will get you the best price per document printed.

The ink We can get a new color cartridge for our printer for $19.96. We use Canon 211XL color cartridges. I kept track of our last cartridge use to find out how long they lasted. We were able to print 344 documents that were either full color or largely color before the ink began to fade out with that cartridge. This adds up to a cost of $0.06 per picture printed.

My experience has been that, if you have the option to buy the cartridge with more ink, that’s the one you should choose. They generally give you more printing for the penny.

What about refilling your cartridges? I’ve mostly had good experiences with this, but not always. I have had a few experiences where cartridges have completely clogged and another experience where the ink filling process broke the cartridge in a subtle way, resulting in ink all over the insides of my printer. This can save you money, but you’re also looking at a bit of risk.

The paper I can get 200 sheets of blank 4″ by 6″ photo paper for $20.68. That gives us a cost of $0.10 per picture printed.

I’ve found that if you go really low-end when it comes to photo paper, you end up with very dull-looking snapshots. You don’t have to buy the premium paper, but the cheapest paper usually doesn’t hold ink and doesn’t look good. Research your paper brands before you buy. We usually use Kodak glossy paper.

Adding these all up, I can print a 4″ by 6″ at home for $0.18 per print.

The prices for prints from digital sources at various stores varies quite a lot. The least expensive regular price I could easily find for 4″ by 6″ prints was $0.20 a print from Target. Other stores charged substantially more – WalMart, for example, charged $0.28 per 4″ by 6″ print. There are some online services, like CVS Photo, that offer rates as low as $0.19 per print, but you have to wait to get the prints. There’s also the cost of actually going to these places, which is at least somewhat alleviated if you’re making the stop for multiple purchases.

I actually find it far more convenient to print at home. I usually use Picasa to manage all of the documents.

Is it a big savings to print at home? No. It’s clearly in the “pennies, not dollars” camp. However, I find it to be more convenient and pennies do add up over time.

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  1. We always use snapfish.com for our photo printing. Much cheaper, even with delivery. Service is great and we’ve never had a probelm with our photo quality.

  2. Baley says:

    The regular price at Walgreens for a 4 by 6 print is $.19, but they have sales frequently. I’ve gotten emails advertising free prints or $.10 prints regularly. My printer (and ink) costs more than your calculations, so I would easily save money by ordering online if I use coupons/sales. Actually, even at the regular price I think I would come out pretty evenly in cost but have a better quality photo.

  3. josh says:

    snapfish.com and artscow.com are typically WAY cheaper than $0.18/print. And you don’t have to refill ink or maintain equipment.

  4. Adam says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I always have issues printing at home and it’s never worth the hassle. I’d much rather order prints and have them delivered, or get them printed at the Walgreens 4 blocks from my house. Is it cheaper than printing at home, I think so, is it easier than printing at home, much.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Costco is 13 cents and I’ve always found the quality to be better than what I’ve gotten at Walgreens or Target.

  6. Riki says:

    I find home-printed photos don’t last as long. They fade quickly in the sun and never have the same longevitiy as professionally printed images.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Thanks for doing this research, Trent. It confirms my preference for printing via professional services or kiosks.
    If you buy photos in bulk, at 100 at a time or so, you can easily get them around 9 cents a piece. I usually take advantage of snapfish sales where they give you 50 free prints and you pay for shipping…usually about $3.99, which is around 7 cents a photo. They end up great…much better than doing it at home, in my opinion.

  8. Steve says:

    If I need to print more than a single-digit number of pictures, snapfish or one of their competitors is going to be far cheaper. I rarely or never have to print a single-digit batch; If I did I would use whatever local store was closest (or that I was already going to be visiting).

  9. Melissa says:

    I agree with the commenters – even adding sales tax, you can get a lower rate than $0.18/print from Walgreens and Target when they have sales. And even if you include shipping, Snapfish and Shutterfly, to name two, have regular sales which would beat the price (although you have to wait 5-7 days for delivery).

  10. christine says:

    Do you not have Walgreens near you? I’ll wait and print my pictures there when they are 10 cents each. I don’t mind picking them up because it’s on the way of other errands.

  11. Anne says:

    I like using the sales at Snapfish, while my husband likes MPix or Winkflash. You can find some great deals that can take your per print cost down below nine cents a print if you’re willing to wait a few days to get the pictures.

  12. Tom says:

    Can’t you print two 4×6 on one sheet, so it is 9 cents per photo? Or did I miss something on the calculation?

  13. Very interesting. One thing to keep in mind though is you get what you pay for when it comes to printing. My wife does a lot of printing of your photography business and if you want the good archival prints, that are the right colors, you have to spend a bit more.

  14. jim says:

    I figure for occasional misc. prints of 1-2 photos its easiest to do it at home. But online services end up cheaper.

    Printing photos uses a lot more ink than normal print outs. With a picture the entire page is covered in ink but normal prints with text mixed in only a small % of the page is ink. Canon’s own data states page yield for 4×6 photos of 122-144 for one of their printers using the 211XL. That would make the ink cost more like 13.8¢ per page.

  15. Matt says:

    Another vote for Costco. Best print quality. Way cheaper than doing it at home. And more convenient to me, personally.

  16. Janna says:

    I just had Christmas photos printed at Costco for about $.13 each.

  17. valleycat1 says:

    Tom, #12 – I was going to ask the same thing last night but got sidetracked by a rerun of Big Bang Theory….

  18. Beth says:

    Note that ink does sometimes dry out if you only use the printer a few times per year. I think for the infrequent user printing services are definitely the better option.

  19. par717 says:

    More important than money in this case (since you’re only saving pennies) is the fact that printing at home on paper is simply ink on paper. Real photographic prints will not fade, smudge, or disintegrate over long periods of time.

    Those photos you found of your great-grandfather with your grandmother on his lap? Well those were developed on photographic paper. Your printout of you and your children printed on your $70 printer will last a few years and then start degrading. They will not survive 100 years.

    Photos need to be developed, not printed.

  20. Mike says:

    I don’t think I have paid more than $0.15/print in over 5 years. I usually do bulk prints (100+ photos) to walgreens or Costco. I wait for sales and get $0.05 to $0.09 per photo for 4×6. For $0.25-$0.50 you can get larger sizes. You should recheck your pricing estimates.

    Also, your print quality must be rather mediocre on the equipment you’re using, or your digital images weren’t so great if you can’t tell a difference. My step-dad prints photos at home that are often higher quality than what you get at a retail facility like Walgreens and he’s paying about $0.35/print.

    This is one place where quality counts and you may just have to pay more.

    There are two more benefits you didn’t mention of outsourcing this task: you save time and you save space at home.

  21. Matt says:

    In my experience, most ink cartridges cost significantly more than yours. Mine are more than double what you’ve stated here.

    That makes printing at home the more expensive option (for me at least)

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