Queen of Cheap Shares Grocery Game Secrets

Teri Gault has been called both the "Queen of Cheap" and the "Coupon Queen," but the penny-pinching advice on her Web site, www.thegrocerygame.com, has helped shoppers save hundreds of dollars on their monthly grocery bills.

Now Gault, along with co-author Sheryl Berk, has compiled her tips and advice in a book, "Shop Smart, Save More," which provides step-by-step instructions on how to find and shop at the right stores, master the science of coupons, organize your shopping list, stockpile effectively and more.

Read an excerpt from the book below.

CHAPTER 1: Let The Game Begin!

I've been called a lot of things in my life (some I dare not even mention!). But the one title that seems to constantly follow me around these days is "The Coupon Queen." The followers of my Web site consider me this, for sure. I enjoy hundreds of e-mails a week from my happy Gamers, and thousands on my message board every day. The Grocery Game has completely enveloped my life--I eat, sleep, and breathe saving money.

I never envisioned that this would become my career or my reputation. Someone else ago, I was an actress. My husband Greg and I met in an acting class in February 1979. He was working on CHiPs (hey, remember Eric Estrada?) as a stunt man/stunt coordinator and second unit director. I had been in the business for about three years. I was really lucky; I got right into it without having to pay my dues. Mostly, I played one type of character really, really well: the dumb blond. You see, I met this girl at a party the night before I was going to read for a pilot. She was--in a word--a ditz. I watched her and talked to her and I decided to be her. So I got the pilot and a lot of other jobs just channeling this chick. Simple as that.

Greg and I got married in August 1980. We were both working, and we had a lot of money coming in. We had a beautiful 3,000-square-foot home on a horse property, a Corvette, a boat, a plane, even a helicopter (by far our most expensive "toy"). And I had this magnificent garden that would make even Martha Stewart green with envy. I had 42 hybrid rose bushes that I loved to spend hours pruning. We were also building a gorgeous new home in Malibu, one that would be even bigger and more luxurious. We patted ourselves on the back: this was the life!

I had clothes, I had jewelry. If I liked something, I'd buy it. Yet even when I had all that money, I loved a bargain and would always clip coupons. I was always talking about my deals: "Look, honey," I'd boast over breakfast, "I got this oatmeal for only $1.29 instead of $2.99…" Greg would just shake his head. He humored me (he probably secretly thought I was nuts). But it made me so happy to get something for less--the thrill of the hunt.

Then one day, it was as if the big, pretty bubble that was our life just burst. It can happen to anyone at anytime. You never see it coming, or maybe you do--and you just look the other way. All our work dried up. The movie and TV biz moved to Canada, leaving us behind (U.S. union members couldn't work there).

At first, we didn't realize how bad it was going to be. We thought, "We'll be okay. This drought won't last forever. Something will come along." But it didn't. In fact, it got worse and worse--my husband lost 90 percent of his work. At that point, I was a stay at home mom. I took three jobs to try and bring in some money. I taught music, wrote grant proposals, performed in schools--anything to make a few bucks.

I don't think it really hit me how bad things were until the day we had to sell our dining room table. It was an antique set with a buffet side table. I loved it. I loved to polish it, all those beautiful lines and details. But we were so broke, we had to sell whatever wasn't nailed down, and my beautiful table had to go. I remember staring at the empty dining room and thinking, "How did this happen to us? Why did this happen to us?" I threw a great big old pity party for myself. We had already sold our kitchen table; we found a Formica one on the side of the road, and that's what we ate our meals on. The chairs were all ripped and rusted, and I redid them as best I could.

When I tucked my kids at bed at night, I could barely hold back the tears (although I put on a brave face for my two boys). I would think to myself, "My kids could be homeless in about a month--and they don't even know it." These thoughts were always running through my head. The stress was unbearable; the fear choking. I stopped answering the phone after a while to avoid the harassing calls from the bill collectors. At one point, I even contemplated suicide (I thought I'd throw myself down on some train tracks and end the misery). We lost everything we had and then some. At one point, we had $35 a week to feed our family of four. Suddenly, my little hobby of using coupons was now the only way I could put food on the table for my family.

Greg was pretty amazed at how far I could stretch those meager dollars. I wasn't. Unfortunately, I had a lot of training before I ever met him. I didn't grow up privileged; just the opposite. I started using coupons when I was twelve years old. I was the oldest child of three, and my mom was often ill and in the hospital with an acute and rare form of pancreatitis. My dad was so sweet, and bless his heart, we had terrible medical bills. He did all he could to keep our heads above water. He didn't know anything about buying groceries. We lived within walking distance of a grocery store, and he'd hand me $20 and a list and say, "Teri, go get the food for the week." I remember his face: so sad and tired and drawn. He had so much to shoulder. The money wasn't enough--that was always the case. But I didn't have the heart to tell him. I couldn't bear to burden him more. So I started looking at sales and coupons, and I figured out a way I could get a lot more for that 20 bucks. He never even knew what I was up to.

So that's what I did when Greg and I were on the brink of disaster. I'd head to that grocery store, armed with my lists and coupons, and I'd leave with bags full of groceries for that lousy $35 we could scrounge together (we used to call it "Rolling Day" because I'd have to roll coins to pay for the food). My little talent attracted quite an audience: crowds would gather at the checkout cheering as they totaled up my purchases. People would stop me and beg me to teach them how to "play my game."

It was far too much to explain in the supermarket. I had a weekly routine of spending time at my kitchen table with calculator, sales ads, and coupons, before going to the store. I would map out my weekly savings strategy. Each week, I figured out how to get the most for my money, and over many years, developed most of The Grocery Game strategies that we still use today. There are checklists, worksheets, tips and tricks and tried-and-true formulas. It may sound complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy and fun and fulfilling. You see the savings instantly at the checkout. It's a high like no other--except maybe winning the jackpot in Vegas. I swear, no matter how many times they ring me up at that register, I get giddy when I see all those dollars and cents coming off the total.

"Shop Smart, Save More," by Teri Gault. Copyright 2009. Chapter printed with permission of Harper Collins.

Read more from "Shop Smart, Save More" at HarperCollins.com .