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How to turn ink into chocolate

What to do with those spent printer cartridges? Trade them for other things you want, such as coffee or sweets.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 2, 2012 3:55PM
Image: Chocolate (© image100/Corbis)One of my early posts for MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog was about buying Starbucks coffee for 99 cents a pound. I did this by recycling three empty inkjet printer cartridges at Staples, which gave me $9 in store credit, and paying the remaining 99 cents in cash.

That was half a dozen years ago. The price of coffee has gone up, and the ink-cartridge value has gone down, to $2. You also can't trade them in on the spot any longer -- rewards are issued once per quarter.

I still trade, though, because it's free money. But I don't use that credit for more ink. Instead, I've bought things like:
  • Loss-leader school supplies to donate to a social-services agency.
  • Clearance-bin items: a calendar, a stapler for my home office, stickers (my niece is a teacher) and "executive gifts" for next year's holiday season.
  • Sweet'n Low for my iced tea.
  • Coffee (always a welcome gift).
  • Godiva chocolate, which I give away on my personal website.

The programs are a little more restrictive than they used to be, but they can still be money savers. This is especially true if you use free cartridge credits to buy loss leaders.

For example, I recently saw paper for $6.99 per ream with a $5.99 rebate (which could be filed online). If you paid with store credit, you'd be earning $5.99 plus 500 sheets of paper.

The how-to

StaplesOfficeMax and Office Depot all accept up to 10 cartridges per month, but other program details differ. 

Pay attention to those details. The way these rewards are given varies from store to store, and you may accidentally cheat yourself out of some credit.

One universal rule is that none of the stores will issue credit until you've amassed at least $10 worth of trade-ins. That under-$10 credit does expire, however, usually on a quarterly basis. If you don't use much ink, hang on to the empties until you have at least five to turn in. (Post continues below video.)

Here are four ways to improve your balance: 
  • Ask friends if they recycle their spent cartridges; if they don't, offer to do it for them. (I've got a bag of 16 empties right now, most of which came from a pal.)
  • The office manager might be persuaded to save them for you, especially if you offer some of that free chocolate as a thank-you.
  • Put a note in the "wanted" section of The Freecycle Network. You never know.
  • Buy them on eBay. If you do this, factor in postage and make sure you aren't paying more than the cartridges are worth in trade.
Note: The credit can be used for phone, in-person and online orders. If you order online, do so through a cash-back shopping site. It's unlikely you'll get cash back on the amount covered by the free credit, but the rest of the order will be 1% to 4% cheaper.
Do you trade in spent ink cartridges? What do you buy with the store credit?

More from MSN Money:

Aug 3, 2012 2:02PM
I can't speak about the Office Depot program, but Staples beats Office Max. At Office Max, you can only get rewards if you spend money in the store first (without rewards). Staples doesn't restrict. They allow 10 cartridges per month. The reward certificates are issued by the 3rd week of the following month. If you save the certificates, you can have up to $60 (three months' worth) with a little bit of time (at least a week, I believe) before the oldest of the certificate expires. I usually buy things I wouldn't normally buy myself... Fancy tape for my Brother labelmaker, or things to donate, like you mentioned above.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.