Let me begin by saying that I am a woman who grew up believing that it was a mortal sin to pay full price for anything. Of course, over the years I have been extravagant from time to time . . . but only when it was a bargain.

I also belong to a circle of friends who are congenitally unable to tell each other what something costs without also saying what it used to cost, as in "This blouse is $19.95-reduced-from $49.95."

Nevertheless, despite this upright background, I found myself standing in a shoe store last week trying on a pair of leather boots so expensive that I felt compelled to ask the salesman whether they came with the rest of the cow (preferably six steaks, two flanks and a tongue). He was not amused.

Even more shocking is the fact that today I am the owner of those boots, which, I rapidly calculated, cost me exactly what I took home during the entire first month I was employed.

How did this happen, you may ask, that a person as frugal, not to say crummy, as I ended up with gilded feet? Because, as I stood in front of the mirror, the salesman gently assured me that 1) these might well be the last pair of boots an ordinary human being like me could ever afford and 2) "next year, you're gonna wish you'd bought them" and 3) I should not consider them an expense but "an investment."

Thus, in one brief and hysterical moment, I joined the congregation of people who have redefined the word "bargain" according to the dictionary of inflation. A bargain is not something that costs less today than yesterday. It is, rather, something that will cost more tomorrow.

I am now a bona fide, up-to-date bargain hunter, and member of a new economic cult. We bargain hunters are not merely devout followers of the Windfall Prophet but also people who live under the national mantra: Buy Now, Gloat Later.

Like most new members, I was subtly recruited at testimonial meetings known as cocktail parties where founding members seduced me with the stories of their successes. There were, for example, the inspirational tales of The Homeowners.

These are people who read the real-estate pages as devoutly as their ancestors read the stock pages. They clip suburbs instead of coupons. They search the listings with the same obsession that others search the obituaries -- to reassure themselves that they are okay.

They win admiration and proper awe by regaling us with how they bought a house and 10 acres right after the war with $300 down and a GI mortgage.

Then there are also the Single Killing people. There is, for example, the famous lady who bought a hand-woven, scrimshaw-decorated Nantucket basket in 1959 for $25. She lived to bask in it. Although the basket is no less grotesque than before, it is, she says, pausing for the right effect, now selling for $600.

Most of us are also likely to hear from the Prophet's vineyard tender who bought a '61 Chateau Latour for $25 about 10 years ago. It is now, he confesses to the hushed assembly, worth $200. At that price, he does not drink it, of course, but from time to time he turns it and tallies it.

With these role models, who among us would not immediately rush forward to stand up for the Windfall Prophet? What more does the average inflation-worried American long for than the equal right to buy now, gloat later?

As fully converted New Bargain Hunters, we put our money into sofas instead of stocks, and into boots instead of bonds. We no longer "buy" a bracelet, pocketbook, fur coat, washing machine. We "invest" in one.

Instead of believing in savings banks, we believe in stocking our shelves. We don't worry about what we can have, but how we can hedge. If someone asks in the best West Coast lingo, "What are you into?," we answer: "Things."

Gloating is our delayed gratification.

Of course, there are some limits to the most ardent of the Thing collectors. The only way you can boast about a buy in kindling wood is if you don't light a fire. The only way to make a killing in steak futures is by eating a whole lot of spaghetti.

But as for me, I assure you these boots were not made for walking but for waxing. This year I will feed them mink oil and house them under a glass dome. Next year, when I tell you what they cost, you're gonna eat your heart out.