COUPON CLIPPING and refunding is a high-strategy game. First you have to be organized so that the POPs match their CRT's in case the manufacturers need proof. That's assuming you have the REQ form and there is NED. Then suppose you don't have a C/D (maybe you threw out the qualifier). Now you have to do a Round Robin and if you're lucky you can work out a 1-4-1.

That's couponspeak for the subculture of fanatic coupon clippers and refunders like Kathy Wrede.

In Wrede's two-bedroom Laurel apartment there are two children, a husband and more than 350 pounds of labels (qualifiers), POPs (proofs of purchase), CRT's (cash register tapes), NED (no expiration date) refund forms and filed forms with stated expiration dates. All these are memorized in anticipation of the C/D or complete deal (the required number of seals or labels and forms needed to take advantage of a cash offer).

Then there are stamps, envelopes and "discussions" with the postman who can't fit the refund checks and coupon newsletters into Wrede's mailbox. She subscribes to eight women's magazines, five local papers and nine of the 35 refund bulletins available. These are the hotline to the brotherhood of coupon/refund traders and sellers across the country.

It is serious business for Wrede, who with her husband, Bill, owns a medical delivery service that recently lost a $100,000 client. As a result the family has had to cut expenses.

Wrede and her children stop strangers on the street and ask them for their candy wrappers. She picks through her neighbors' trash, hunts in laundromat trashbins for boxtops, and scounts the waiting room at the bus depot for discarded discount offers.

Playing the manufacturers' game and beating them gives Wrede a feeling of triumph. It's a game anyone can play, and some winners do save 50 percent or more on the grocery bill. But not immediately and not without some difficulties.

It takes a pro about three hours a day to clip, file and organize coupons and qualifiers for products that may have minimal nutritional value. Coupons are usually offered on new products, especially convenience foods. Sometimes a free food coupon may offer fresh vegetables, milk or meat, but the consumer may still have to purchase enough of a convenience product, such as instant dried spaghetti sauce, in order to qualify for the free pound of ground meat.

A novice clipper should ask himself if the effort involved justifies the return, both in terms of savings and nutritional value for the money. Can I really use this product? Is the name brand with the coupon a better buy than the house brand or a generic? Is a store offering "doubling" (twice the face value of the coupon) conveniently located? Is it more expensive? The store absorbs the additional discount of the doubled coupon and it takes a careful and experienced shopper to detect price changes.

Beginners can start with coupon clipping: You have to make a shopping magazines and home mailers. File them alphabetically under general categories and note the expiration dates.

Intermediate clippers get into trading cents-off coupones with neighbors, by joining clubs or subscribing to a refunding newsletter. The newsletter plugs them into the network of collectors in other parts of the country where deals may be offered that are not available locally. Example: "Bugles Summer Refund, NFR, for $1 cpn send 2 POPs from Bugles snack and POP from soft drinks -- CRTC." That's where they learn couponspeak.

Coupon collecting may be a start, but refunding is what separates the casual clippers from the trash pickers.

Frantic refunders like Wrede are a competitive race. Offers such as "buy one get one free," or "send in 10 labels from Soy-Boy beans and we'll send you a $4 coupon for the groceries of your choice" are envious possessions hotly discussed between traders. They thrive on competitive talk of 80 or 90 percent savings from free food coupons and tax-free cash offers. (Wrede bought her husband a membership to the local golf club with money she saved.)

They get a charge from what they think is ripping off the system. And there is always the refunder bulletin to inform them of new offers that don't need the dreaded form. Forms offering cents-off coupons, when available in stores, are rarely doled out judiciously. Ardent collectors often take more than their share. This is where the bad guys come in.

Every game has cheaters and Wrede has heard of every trick in the book. There are people who steal hang tags off bottles or rip coupons off boxes in stores, ("Illegal. That's the same as stealing," cries Wrede). And there are refunders who sell cash-off coupons and free food offers in the ad sections of trading bulletins. A well-to-do friend admitted to trading in coupons for products she didn't buy; the checkers accepted her coupons without matching products. There are also incidents of store owners who redeem coupons for products never purchased by consumers, thereby earn a handling fee of 5 cents per coupon plus the discount, according to Jennifer Cross, author of "The Supermarket Trap." This fradulent practice has become such big business the postal authorities smashed one very successful ring last year.

Wrede is disturbed about the over-simplification of refunding and thinks coupon queen Susan Samtur who has recently been on an extensively covered tour selling her book "Checking In at the Checkout Counter," gives refunding a bad name.

"She makes people think that all you have to do is cut out coupons, send in refund forms and from that save 80 percent of your grocery bill. It isn't that simple," charged Wrede.

For example Wrede cites in Samtur's bulletin, "Refundle Bundle," offers of free subscriptions to people who send in original refund forms, thus giving Samtur access to refund offers all over the country. (Some cash-off coupons and free food offers are given only if POPs are accompanied by original refund forms.)

It is illegal to sell cash-off coupons. However they are offered under the "Switch and Swap" section of Samtur's bulletin described with words like "handling fee" or "surprise package for $1.50." The bulletin does begin with a notice: "The editors are not responsible for the content and legality of ads in Refundle Bundle." However, the stuff that keeps the zealots alive -- trading of cash-off coupons and selling of qualifiers -- is legal.

A recent trip to the Grand Union with Wrede showed the vast difference between them (the clippers) and us (those who never read the food ads, never clip coupons and never cared.)

Srede cruised up the aisles elbow deep in boxes, carefully checking the offers on the back of each, while flipping through a wallet-size file of corresponding coupons. If it weren't for the bumbling novice who lagged behind dropping coupons in front of the cat food shelf, Wrede would have finished her week's shopping in about 45 minutes. Even the shopper who accompanied her with only three weeks of clipped newspaper coupons saved almost 30 percent -- mostly for cat food and paper towels. But she disobeyed Wrede's cardinal rule: never shop without a list.

The time for the confrontation at the checkout counter approached and Wrede stacked up her groceries. The selection would not have pleased the wheat germ and yogurt brigade -- sugar-coated cereals, candy, cookies, ice cream, convenience foods, canned vegetables and little fresh produce. These are foods Wrede claims she was buying even before she started collecting. "Besides," she added, "I'm getting some of these items for free."

The cash register totaled $46.33. Wrede handed over her cents-off coupons which were doubled, a few free food coupons and free grocery item checks. No cash passed hands. She had left all her money at home. The store manager handed her 27 cents in change so in fact, she made 27 cents.

There was, however, one slight problem.

A Grand Union store manager refused to double coupons for seven specific items where the coupons doubled exceeded the price of the items by a penny or two. Wrede only expected to receive the item free, not the penny change. For example, a 50-cents-off coupon doubled for a box of 99-cent detergent would have equaled a dollar. She was only allowed the face value of 50 cents off.

Don Vallincourt, director of Grand Union's corporate communications and corporate affairs, explained this was against company policy and the Laurel store manager had no right to refuse her doubled coupon. "She should not have been refused these items. A policy memo went out to all stores that says we will not double on free items [two free items will not be given for one free food coupon], or cigarettes, or if the total of the coupon doubled exceeds the cost of the item, the customer will not receive money. However, they will receive the item for free."

Other stores in the area that offer cents-off coupon doubling specifically state the rules in their ads. For instance, A & P, which has a dollar limit, says in its ad " . . . we will redeem all national manufacturers' cents-off coupons up to $1 for double their value. Offer good on national manufacturers cents-off coupons only if it does not apply to A & P or other store coupons whether a manufacturer is mentioned or not, or to free coupons. Cigarettes and certain other items are excluded by law. Customers must purchase coupon product in specified size . . . One coupon per customer per item. When the value of a manufacturers coupon exceeds $1 or the retail of the item, this offer is limited to the retail price."

Acme and Super Saver also state the rules for the game. They do not allow doubling on cigarettes, milk, tax or lottery tickets. Nor do they have a $1 doubbling limit like the A & P. If the product is not available, which we found to be true at the Grand Union, especially for smaller items that gave a larger percentage discount when the coupon stated "cents-off on any size," A & P offers a doubling rain check.

When asked why Grand Union did not print their doubling policy on their ads, Vallincourt replied "There is no reason, really. We thought the rules were simple enough."

The rules might not be that simple, but the concept is. Instead of performing the tiresome task of throwing out your own trash, you can send it back to the manufacturer.