I used to ignore coupons. Back in what I like to refer to as "The Good Old Days" when a comfortable teaching salary allowed for two vacations a year, the thought of saving 7 cents, 25 cents or even 75 cents on various grocery items seemed of minimal importance.

Then came a baby, and my husband and I decided that one of us (guess who) should stay home for a while and see if three could survive on the wages of one. The rest, as they say, is history. Quickly, very quickly, we felt our budget being pulled in a million different directions and realized that some "hard-core" economizing was definitely in order.

This, among other things, meant coupon saving. Being grossly inexperienced in this field, I started out by clipping nearly every coupon in sight. Who cared if we were both dieting, 20 cents off on cake mix was a good deal. Coupons for dog food (no dog) and cat food (no cat) cluttered up my coupon drawer, and shopping lists suddenly were determined by these "cents-off" wonders rather than need.

It took a while, but I eventually saw the error of my ways and successfully mastered the art of sensible coupon use. In fact, I became my greatest challenge.

Selectivity was now the name of the game, and there wasn't a newspaper magazine, boxtop or label in the house that hadn't been carefully scrutinized in hopes of finding a bargain of some sort.

What fun to watch an $80 cash register total be diminished to a more likeable $68.50 thanks to several dozen slips of paper that only took several dozen hours to locate. I was beating the system.

Then it happened -- a coupon addict's dream come true. Tucked within the colorful coupon page of our local Sunday paper was an ad for a book whose title boasted "1001 Free Items." For just $1.98, anyone could gain access to hundred's of dollars' worth of free give-a-way items from famous name-brand companies as well as valuable coupons for every necessary household product. What a deal!

Relapsing to those more impulsive days, I immediately filled in the enclosed form and didn't even cringe when the smaller print requested an additional 50 cents for postage and handling. After all, my elated state of mind was not about to question the value of spending $2.48 when it meant receiving a hundred times that amount in return.

Two and a half weeks later it arrived. A 64-page pamphlet that would soon be cut to shreds and provide my meager food allowance with a well-deserved boost.

With scissors in hand, I eagerly skimmed through its treasured pages and felt my heart do flip-flops as the wood FREE boldly stood out over and over again. Now it was time to do some serious reading.

Page one, page two, page three, page four -- on and on I read, trying not to let my spirits be dampened by the realization of what I was seeing. It was more like a catalog than a coupon book.When I wearily turned to page 36, which offered a "free pamphlet on California Redwood trees" and a "free illustrated book about George Washington," I slammed the book in disgust and untangled my trusty scissors from what had by then become a sore and sweaty set of fingers.

What a gyp! How could I have fallen for such a fraud? Well, dreams die hard and mustering up all the determination inherent to an avid coupon clipper, I decided to brave through the second half of the book.

Ah ha! Coupons finally did emerge, along with the ominous statement that "there is no guarantee we can meet all selections. Offers may change. Mail can get lost."

What about the free product samples? They were here, but in order to get my hands on them, I again would have had to fork out the cost of postage and handling which, when added to the $2.48 already spent, made the overall savings highly debatable.

So, what did I get for my money?

Well, to be perfectly honest I bought a rather entertaining little package.

Where else could one find an ad for $1 million worth of phony U.S. banknotes or have the chance to write away for an official set of National Marlbes Tournament rules? You could even order free live trout to enhance the beauty and charm of your private pond.

Mostly, there were books: "Take a Sandwich to Lunch" by the Jam Advisory Council and "Weight Watchers Diet Guide" by the National Macaroni Institute promised new and exciting nutritional data in these important, yet previously unexplored, areas of human nourishment.

But it was the unique variety of self-help books that really impressed me most. Consider what could be learned from: "Things to Make for Fun with Staples," "How to Select Floors," Creating with Saran Wrap," The Handbood of Milking," or, my personal favorite, "Parlezvous Japanese?". Boggles the mind doesn't it?

It just goes to show that whenever something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and it will, hopefully, be a long time before I forget that lesson.

As for "1001 Free Items," well, the fact that it was totally useless did not profoundly alter its original fate. For, after reading it from cover to cover, I quickly put scissors back in hand and did indeed cut that little booklet to shreds.