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Free Printer: How to Avoid Getting Ripped-Off on Refills

Ever notice how manufacturers practically give away -- or literally give away -- certain products like printers and razors, so that they can hook us on some overpriced way to keep the "free" product operating?

Costco gives you a free color printer practically every time you buy a computer, for instance. But you have to re-mortgage the house to pay for ink. You get a free "Fusion ProGlide" razor when you buy a four-pack of shaving gel -- but fresh blades cost a small fortune. Electric toothbrushes aren't free, but new brush "heads" can overwhelm the cost of the whole toothbrush set up in less than a year.

The good news? There are an increasing number of ways to work around the rip-off prices for ink, razors and even replacement heads for your electric toothbrush. You just need to know what to do and where to shop.

Printer ink: 3 Ways to Save
Jeff Bertolucci, a contributing writer for PC World magazine, is the go-to guy if you want to know how to refill those costly inkjet cartridges without breaking the bank. He's spent months running through pounds of printer ink, experimenting with bargain sites and refilling his own printer cartridges. His advice falls into three categories:

Do it Yourself: If you refill your own printer cartridges, you can get the cost of ink down to about 2 cents a page, he says. And the quality of DIY refilled-ink isn't half-bad -- even when you're printing photos. The downside? It's messy. You basically use a syringe to extract ink from bottles purchased online and inject it into your cartridge. It takes some practice not to end up wearing more of the ink than you refill. And if you ruin your Tommy Bahama shirt while saving a few bucks on ink...well, we all know that's no bargain.

Commercial options: Don't want to suit up in hazmat gear to protect your clothes from an ink spill? Office Depot and Cartridge World offer remanufactured cartridges, but Bertolucci doesn't recommend them. He says they're only marginally cheaper and not as good.

But he does recommend Costco's printer refill service, which is a poorly advertised option operating out of Costco warehouse photo departments. You drop off your cartridges and they'll refill them while you troll for a lunch (uhmmmm, samples), he says. The cost: $8 to $10 per cartridge, which is about one-third of the price of buying new -- and about half the price of remanufactured cartridges. It's not quite as cheap as refilling your own, but there's no mess or learning curve.

One trick you should know: You should refill the cartridges promptly when they run low of ink. That ensures that they don't dry out and gum up the print heads. Each cartridge usually can be refilled 5 to 10 times. After that, you'll need to spring for a new one.

Conserve: Another way to save on ink? Use less. Instead of printing with the standard quality settings, set your printer to "draft" or "fast draft" mode, which uses less ink per page. You wouldn't want to do this with photos or a color resume that you've designed to impress. But if you're printing out a recipe, letter or boarding pass -- anything that doesn't require photo quality -- the difference is insignificant but can significantly increase the number of pages you can print with each cartridge. To set the printer quality, go into "settings" or "preferences."

Did you get Gillette's free "Fusion ProGlide" razor with your shaving gel, but have an attack when you realized that Costco's bargain 14-pack of razor-head refills costs a whopping $44.99? It's a nice razor, but paying $3.21 every time you need a new blade is tough to justify when you realize that you can buy 52 disposable "custom plus" razors for $22.99 -- 44 cents each. For the math challenged, that's less than one-seventh the price of the blade refills.

But you really like a five-blade razor?'s $24.50 8-pack ProGlide refill is a slightly better deal -- about $3.06 per blade -- but only if you qualify for free shipping.

Another alternative? M5 Magnum offers a 5-blade disposable razor that costs a fraction as much as the ProGlide -- about $15 for the 18-pack at Costco, which works out to 83 cents a razor. Is it as good? I tested both and didn't see much difference. The Magnum isn't quite as heavy, but it appears to shave just as comfortably and close. Okay. It's black and orange, which wouldn't be my favored color pallet. But for a third the price, seems like the better bargain.

Electric toothbrushes
They're certainly not free, but with the Philips Sonicare "Essence" electric toothbrush 2-pack -- replete with three brush heads, two charger bases and two travel cases -- going for $89.99 at Costco, you've got to figure that each toothbrush costs less than $35.

The catch, of course, is that you're not supposed to use a toothbrush head for more than three months. And the "recommended" 6-pack of refill heads costs $57.99. Yep. That would be nearly $10 a toothbrush top. The brush heads double the price of your toothbrush investment in less than a year.

How do you save here? The first question, of course, is do you really need an electric toothbrush? If you don't have gingivitis or some other serious oral health issue, the standard 8-pack of toothbrushes costs $13.99 -- $1.75 each. You can get a battery-powered toothbrush for about $3.50.

If you do, you should know that Amazon has a "subscribe and save" service that can help cut the cost of anything you buy on a regular interval and offers free shipping, which can bring down the cost of toothbrush heads, sometimes to a price that's even less costly than Costco.

But when you're buying the toothbrush, the hot tip is to shop backwards. Instead of looking at the price of the unit, check the price of the refills first.

Checking the Oral B website, for example, you can see that their least-costly brush-heads, which run $4.25 if you buy the biggest package, work with the the Advance Power, Triumph and Professional Care tooth brushes. If you get the Sonic Complete toothbrush, you'll spend nearly $13 a brush head. Pulsonic and Cross Action brush heads ran $7.49 and $8.32 respectively.

If you're going to keep the unit for more than a few years, the brush heads are the real expense. Try to make sure you're buying the brush that is compatible with the less-expensive tops.

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