After Diana lost her job, she had trouble paying rent. Unemployment money came in, but it barely covered food for her and her teenage son, Cody. She would cook rice and beans. Soak the beans a day in advance. Cheap. It felt ugly, despite the savings. The beans were flavorless. They were punishment for being poor and unemployed. She must have done something wrong, even though layoffs had happened to almost everyone she knew.

She began to long for some of the old luxuries. There were the leather jackets, housecleaning services, velvet sofa. After all, she deserved them for all the years she’d worked diligently in finance. When she was growing up, no one was proud of her, not for doing well in school or winning at a science fair. Over the years, she became tough, a more-than-proficient software engineer who was proud of herself.

So, she started spending money on take-out meals of steak; rare for her, medium-well for Cody, with avocado salad. Then came eclairs from the bakery. After all, she had a credit card and was nowhere near her limit. Were credit cards real money? They were secured only by the promise to pay back, like a balloon without ballast. But having them made her feel rich, bringing sumptuous takeout meals. Diana’s salary could have been higher for the work she did. But why worry? Plastic had buying power.

She gained weight, but that didn’t bother her, at least not at first. Cody took note one day, frowning. “Are you going to have to buy all new clothes?” What a great idea! She started with Macy’s, then worked up to Nordstrom and finally graduated to Saks Fifth Avenue. The material was thick and lustrous. The fit was perfect. Good quality, for which she congratulated herself.

She bought beds with extra comfortable mattresses for both herself and Cody. He was thrilled since he’d been complaining about his last bed. He told her that the mattress was too hard. She had to admit that the new luxury bed improved her sleep. Melatonin and meditation didn’t always do the trick. Money did buy a lot, even if not happiness.

“Why aren’t we eating rice and beans anymore?” her son asked one day, hands on hips; “We’re supposed to be on a budget.” A defiant teen. He shouldn’t have been questioning any of this. His judgment wasn’t the greatest. After all, he wanted an earring.

“Not until you’re eighteen!” Diana proclaimed. His father agreed.

He didn’t understand that they were entitled to good things in life, little luxuries. They weren’t wealthy, but she had a good job. Well, she’d had one, and she’d get one again. She had no answer. Finally, she said, “There’s no budget anymore.” A true statement, though what she’d left out spoke louder than what she’d actually said.

“Oh,” he said, and walked away.

Her bank balance was dangerously close to zero. She could pay next month’s rent on credit, but she would not have enough after that. She should have been frightened. Other people lived on budgets. They didn’t need takeout steak or pricey clothes. They would have liked them, but it wasn’t a need. Something was seriously wrong with Diana’s perception of money. Why hadn’t she realized that her credit card was funny money? There was no wealth. She was just supposed to believe there was for the bank to earn its fees: an enticing illusion.

She forced herself to cook another rice and beans meal, but she was going to do it differently this time. The meal would be tastier, better quality, to make takeout less appealing. The beans came from a can since she no longer had the patience to soak dry ones. Canned beans were more expensive, but less than any take-out meal. She found some old saffron on the spice shelf to color the rice yellow. This meal was less ascetic than the previous regimen. Maybe she could stick to it.

Sitting down at the table, Cody squinted. “What’s this?” he asked.

“I’m so sorry,” Diana said; “I don’t know what came over me for the past couple of months. We do have to stick to a budget. I still don’t have a job.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” he comforted, putting his arms around her. Even though she was grateful that he was growing up to be kind, what she had done wasn’t okay. Not by a long shot. And she would need a lot more than just a job. Debt relief, for starters.

Sitting at her desk, Diana called while Cody was at school. In a whisper, she spoke aloud the total amount she owed. “Stop paying your debts altogether,” the woman said, her voice crisp. “Your current bank will try to take what you have, so get a new bank. You must have loans with them.”

Diana grimaced and bit her lip.

“Then, you start paying us,” the woman continued; “We’ll negotiate with your creditors. The balance will be paid off in five years.”

Was this just some sleazy scam? This organization had gotten top ratings from independent sources, so it probably wasn’t. This was scary. “And you have to understand,” the woman went on, “That your credit rating will take a hit.”

Diana wanted to do the right thing, but this wasn’t comfortable. That afternoon, she flung open the door of her bank branch wearing her new cashmere coat. She waited patiently in a hard-backed chair until a man in a suit beckoned her into his cubicle. “What can I do for you today?” he said and smiled.

“I want to close out my accounts!” Diana folded her arms. She just wished it hadn’t taken so long to change the way she cooked rice and beans. Total deprivation didn’t help, and imaginary wealth looked so good.

Elizabeth Morse is a writer who lives in New York’s East Village. Her fiction has been published in literary magazines such as Scoundrel Time, The Raven’s Perch, and Bright Flash Literary Review. Her poetry chapbook “The Color Between the Hours,” is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in late 2023.