SO THERE I WAS, HIP AND FABULOUS in a little red minidress that was only slightly stained with baby drool, standing in a line outside MotoPhoto together with the coolest, most cutting-edge contingent of late-night party-hound suburbanites you've ever seen in your life. Birkenstocks, fanny packs, cell phones, moisture-wicking Lycra bike shorts -- so outrageous was the fashion parade that, as 3 a.m. gave way to 4 and the bouncer still hadn't let me in, I wished I'd worn the black minidress instead. I mean, the red one had been good enough to get me into Safeway, but Safeway was so, like, last week. Nobody went to Safeway anymore, even if they did have mangos on sale for 49 cents for club members.

"This is ridiculous," the lawyer behind me muttered. "Let's go to Sam's Club instead."

"Not Sam's," said his companion, watching as a fight broke out among some soccer moms who had been snorting white wine in the parking lot. "Let's go to the US Airways frequent flyer mileage club."

"Giant," said somebody, "is nearby."

"Giant," scoffed somebody else, "doesn't have a club!"

Me, I just stood there clutching the new card identifying me as a dues-paying "member" of MotoPhoto, wondering how it was that I, like everybody else, had become part of the contemporary club scene, which is to say the contemporary club-card scene.

Granted there wasn't really a dress, or a brawl, or a bouncer -- I invented all that. The real club scene was much more pitiful: just me, standing at the MotoPhoto counter one morning with some film to be developed, and the clerk on the other side of the counter. "Would you like to join our club?" she asked, as though the room were full of socialites, then launched into a recitation involving free duplicates and/or film and/or some sort of discount on Sundays. I hesitated, clubs being something I've always dreaded. Even in grade school I avoided becoming a Girl Scout, in part because I had a deep-seated horror of selling cookies but also because I had a deep-seated horror of large groups of girls, or boys, or men, or women. It's a sentiment that has persisted into adulthood. Even now I'm so spooked by anything clubby that I'm afraid to press the buzzer at Betsy Fisher, the Connecticut Avenue clothing establishment where, before you may spend $50 on a cotton camisole, a staffer must let you in.

On the other hand, I did belong to the American Airlines AAdvantage mileage-plus club, a one-airline-mile-for-every-dollar-you-charge Visa deal that, in all the time I've used it, has yielded me exactly one -- count them, one -- free domestic airline ticket, but that has so altered my buying habits that you'll never catch me paying cash for the gas I pump, the diapers I buy, or the groceries I purchase at Safeway, where I do, yes, compound my savings by swiping the club card through the meter. I also have a 10-purchase club card for our local bookstore, from which I may someday receive an actual $20 credit. Plus a coffee card from an establishment that closed before I could redeem it. Oh, and I'm also a member of not just Blockbuster but Video Warehouse; like wealthy donors who contribute to both political parties before elections, I want to keep my Saturday night rental options open.

And so I agreed, paying MotoPhoto $20 for the privilege of doing regular business there. What an idiot. An idiot among idiots. After all -- it occurred to me later -- if

MotoPhoto was a club, whom was I in this club with, anyway? Cat-haters? Aerosmith fans? Who knew? Like people whose names appear together in the "to" field of group e-mails ( < Thatcherm@gov.uk> ), I was now allied with a bunch of strangers whose kinship derived only from our residence in a common database. Probably, though, we MotoPhotoers have stronger similarities than that. The fact that we own cameras means we aren't dirt poor, but the fact that we want a discount means we aren't rich, either. Instead we're average folk who spend our money in dribs and drabs, and who are thereby courted by outfits that wish us to spend our dribs and drabs with them rather than bolting to Action Photo across the street.

Actually, we probably have more in common than that. As I fantasized about all of us MotoPhoto club members lined up for a night of hedonistic excess, I speculated that we were people who didn't belong to many clubs other than the ones in our wallets. Too obscure for the Gridiron Club, too self-aware for the Rotary Club, too socially isolated to belong to a country club and insufficiently eccentric to belong to a club, say, for dahlia growers or Harley-Davidson fans, we had managed -- without knowing one another -- to form a club for prudent consumers. No coupon-clippers we! But no spendthrifts, either! We buy things, but we like to think we buy them smartly. In the process we've created a new social marker in a country that has always relied more on clubs than you would expect from a democracy: In this society, at this moment, you know you're a loser when even Price Club won't admit you.

Liza Mundy's e-mail address is mundyl@washpost.com.