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To develop or print at home: A photo cost breakdown

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(Read caption) Printing photos off your computer isn't significantly cheaper than developing at a pharmacy photo center, but it is much more convenient, Hamm argues

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Saving 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.

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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.

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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.