When it comes to saving pennies, we'll take on any rival. Our new 800-number telephone directory is already well-thumbed. Press agents phone again instead of leaving call-back messages, because they know that we hate spending our quarters to hear how great their clients' products are.

And when we're formatting fancy or hard-to-figure layouts, Judi loads the AppleLaser printer that sits in her office with paper saved from first-draft and other experimental efforts. After all, one side of each sheet is still good.If you, too, tend toward penny-pinching, we sympathize. Computer supplies cost their weight in gold, compared to running pre-high-tech gizmos.

But we warn you: It may not pay to be cheap with computer ribbons. In our office, that kind of cost-saving turned out be spelled cheep, as in bird-brained.

It breaks our hearts to shell out $16 plus shipping every week or two for a a spool of black-coated typing film. But that's what it takes to get our Hewlett-Packard 2602 printer to hammer out crisp looking letters. So we went hunting, and found a company in Maryland that rewinds ribbon cases. We'd ship them our ribbon-spent cannisters, and they'd mysteriously fill 'em up anew for just $8.

We did this for several years with good luck. Last time, the cases came back looking just like before. But five minutes into the first important printing job, somebody noticed that our expensive foil-embossed stationery was printing out ivory on ivory. Try getting anyone to read that!

We tossed a couple dollars' worth of stationery in the trash. Frank caught some flak for his poor ribbon-loading and tried again.

This time, he stood around to watch. The printer hammered ink across the first dozen lines. Then it got lighter and lighter, like a chameleon sitting on aluminum foil. He tossed away that ruined sheet and readjusted the ribbon. Still no good.

Judi elbowed Frank over. She dug out the manual and followed instructions. Same blanching. By now, the whole office was involved.

Someone suggested trying other rewound ribbons in the same batch. Each one ran out of ink before the first page finished printing. We'd switched from the good stationery to our ever-ample scrap paper pile. But we'd already spent ten or more person-hours of time. Unfortunately, there's never much scrap time on hand.

Frank took command. Ribbons were never a problem before. They weren't the problem now, he said. That left the printer. He pulled out his toolkit and performed some mumbo-jumbo on the printer's vital parts. Satisfied, he slid a ribbon in place and sent off a letter.

Like the others, it came out half baked.

More fiddling with potions and parts. More reloading of ribbons. More tests. More wasted time.

Frank's not one to admit defeat lightly. But now he slinked into his office and phoned our favorite computer repair service. They were too busy for an emergency call, but not too busy to consult on the phone. Frank enumerated his efforts. They told him they couldn't have done much more printer trouble-shooting than he had.

It was over the holidays and the ribbon reloaders were partying. So necessity became the mother of invention.

Frank got desperate. He attacked one of the rewound cartridges, prying off the plastic top. He scrutinized the roll of ribbon, rollers, spring, cogs. They seemed shipshape. In desperation, he squirted a special lubricant onto the shaft supporting the heavy spool.

In the past, this magic moistener has cured everything from balky bikes to cruddy amplifier switches. It worked again. When Frank reassembled the case and tried one last time, the printer worked flawlessly until we called it quits for the day.

Alas, the next morning the problem was right back again.

Frank got out the oil and squirted. The miracle lasted barely 10 minutes. There went eight more sheets of expensive stationery, since we'd been over-optimistic.

But Frank got a new idea. He rummaged through the printer supply closet until he found a ribbon cartridge that had not been sent for rewinding. Feverishly, he forced it open. `Aha!' he exclaimed, prying out several tiny metal rollers.

He shoved them over the plastic rods in a rewound cannister. He closed it up. Tests on five sheets of scrap paper. Then the fancy stationery. A letter printed perfectly. The case was solved.

`Whoever reloaded our cartridges last time was a (censored)!' Frank said. `The cannisters he was rewinding must have tipped over. Out fell a bunch of little metal rollers. Without them, the moving ribbon rubs against rough plastic and soon stops moving altogether.'

It took only 10 seconds to calculate that all the cash we'd saved using reloads had been spent as time in our two-day misadventure.

Did we learn our lesson? Naw. The problem is, when our rewinding source heard our tale, he credited the cost of our last order. And since penny-pinching is in our blood, we're already packing up our next batch for reloading.

Since the supplier promises to sell to you on the same terms, we'll send you his name if you like. Just enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope and the words `I'm a cheapskate, too!'

And if you think saving $8 per ribbon is fun, watch for our column on how to save $50 per laser or copier cartridge!