“Dear Jill: I shop online for a fair amount of products. I have a laser printer that uses toner instead of ink, which is cost-effective as one toner cartridge tends to last me three years or more. As it had been some time since I purchased toner, I experienced sticker shock when I headed to the store and found that the toner I previously paid $40 for was now $65. A quick check of a popular online marketplace showed it for $30, so I bought it there. The toner cartridge arrived, and I put it into my printer. Immediately I knew something was wrong as it was printing light grey instead of black. I looked at the date on the cartridge and found that it was manufactured in 2005! This toner, while new in the box, was 14 years old and had likely hardened inside the cartridge. Buyer beware indeed. I realized that while I had tried to save money, it had come back to bite me in this instance as I had no way to check the manufacture date before it was in my hands. I returned to the office supply store and purchased it there. That cartridge had a 2018 manufacture date and is working correctly.” — Isabelle R.

As a fellow computer user who gives her printer a coupon workout on a weekly basis, I do sympathize. The prices of ink and toner cartridges can be quite eye-opening. I, too, have found laser printers cost less to maintain, as while the printers typically have a higher price point, the toner costs less in the long-term. We have both a laser printer and an inkjet printer, and it seems we change the inkjet cartridges far more often.

As my reader pointed out, printer cartridges typically have a manufacture date or an expiration date stamped somewhere on the packaging. I have actually advocated buying “gently” expired ink or toner for your printers, because if it is not more than one or two years past the date, these cartridges are typically fine to use. In fact, a sort of cottage industry has sprung up on popular auction sites, such as eBay. Searching for “expired,” along with the product number for your printer’s cartridge, usually returns a lengthy list of items that, while expired, may still work in your printer and are also discounted well below retail prices.

For example, my inkjet printer’s cartridges typically cost around $30 each. A quick auction search returns two-year-old ink cartridges priced less than $5! For that price difference, I’m willing to take a chance on purchasing these, but I’m also doing so while fully informed they are “gently” outdated.

That said, 14-year-old printer cartridges are an entirely different story. When shopping online, especially at a large online shopping portal, you would have every reason to expect the printer cartridges you’re buying are new and current. If there is no disclosure you are buying new-old-stock, but you receive something that’s far past its prime, I would immediately return the item.

It’s true one advantage to shopping in-store, for any item, is you have the privilege of personally inspecting the item and making sure it’s exactly what you wish to buy.

While we’re on the topic of printer savings, let me share a few more money-saving tips with you as well.

Whether you’re an ink or toner user, when your cartridge reaches the end of its life, remember to return it to a suitable vendor for recycling. Most office supply stores accept empty printer cartridges and some offer you in-store credit to shop with when you bring them back (I usually turn around and use that credit to help purchase another ream of printer paper).

Some brands of printers are not fully compatible with refilled cartridges, but if your model accepts them, you can also save money purchasing refilled ink or toner cartridges. When you purchase these, you’re also helping keep electronic waste out of landfills, too.

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