By Kristen Oliveri

I always love getting asked the question, “What do you do for a living?”

The answer should be simple. “I’m a journalist” or “I’m in media,” I should say, but I can never seem to allow myself to go the easy route.

I often simplify it to the degree where it goes a little something like this: “I’m a writer. I cover food and finance.”

That seems to be good enough for some people. Others probe. Depending on what they do for a living, they’re often more interested in one or the other. I find myself engaging in many different types of conversations given their interests and playing up whichever side they seem to be more taken with.

What can I say, I like playing to a crowd.

But I think it’s time to come clean. The truth is that I love living in two worlds that are sometimes interconnected and other times completely separate. Variety is the spice of life, my friends, and I love the existing dichotomy in mine.

I’ll start from the proverbial beginning. I began my career in financial journalism. After a short stint looking for food, travel and theater writing jobs, I quickly got the memo that being an “arts” journalist was never going to make me any money. With frightening student loans looming over my head, I took a job working for a financial newsletter covering wealth management.

I knew nothing about finance. Absolutely nothing. I studied journalism, English lit and theater. In retrospect, a few business classes wouldn’t have killed me.

When I was hired to cover this sector called “wealth management,” I panicked. I was told, “Relax, you don’t need to know about finance. We’ll teach you and you’ll learn your beat.” And so I did. I dove right into the world of rich people and how they save, invest, and give away their fortunes.

Before I knew it, I was going to conferences learning all about advising families of wealth to do just about everything you can imagine, from estate planning and trusts to philanthropy and family dynamics. As I became more involved in the sector, I began getting invited onto yachts in Newport, private clubs in Las Vegas, and cocktail parties in mansions, hobnobbing not with celebrities, but people with real money. Serious money.

At the same time, I was still following my desire and passion to write about the food and travel world. After many years of relentless pitching and countless blog posts, I started to get some real writing gigs. Next thing I knew, I was being invited around the world to write about beautiful restaurants, hotels, travel destinations, all while interviewing some of the biggest names in the culinary world.

Whether it was food or finance, I began to have these first-rate, world class experiences that I would never have dreamed possible. And both worlds only helped feed my “street cred” in the other. I would be speaking with my contacts in the wealth management space and letting them know about the boutique luxury cruise line I just went on or about the top rated Michelin star restaurant I had the pleasure of writing about and somehow, somewhere, people started to think I was one of them.

I naively assumed people would know that I was not a person of wealth. I was just the kind hearted, spirited journalist — the outsider who could relate but didn’t exactly belong in their world. But some seemed to think otherwise. Maybe it was my one nice Prada bag, or my one expensive Cartier watch, that gave people the impression that I myself was a high-net-worth individual. To some, I fit the bill.

The moment I realized this to be the case was during a business conference. I was going through a tough breakup and everyone seemed to be personally invested in my romantic life. They wanted to help me, to set me up, and to ensure my future happiness.

In one such discussion, my friend asked me what I was looking for in a potential partner. I took a moment and said, “I want someone smart and kind and someone’s who funny who wants to travel the world with me.”

To which he responded, “OK.  What net worth?”

How could this be? I couldn’t even wrap my head around the idea that someone would marry for money or that would even be a factor in the dating world. Then I realized, of course they would. Look at the world I was playing in. And while I always thought of myself as an outsider with a VIP pass in and out whenever I wanted, they thought I was one of them.

The reality was that when I would come home from a business trip to Europe or after a five star meal in some Napa Valley resort, I came back to a small apartment to live a relatively lean life. I found myself beginning to think I “belonged” and was spending outside of my budget while on trips.

After a while, reality sunk in and I began promising myself that when I was back home in New York, I would cut out the crazy expensive meals, the Sunday Fundays with friends in the East Village (that always start out being budget-friendly and wind up being quite expensive), or the weekly mani-pedis and other beauty maintenance musts that added up in the grand scheme of things.

I would have friends who would invite me out to their birthday celebrations that I had to politely decline because I didn’t want to shell out the $150 bucks per person at an over the top group dinner. Friends would get mad at me, throwing snarky side comments like, “Weren’t you just in the Caribbean? And now you’re telling me you don’t have enough money to go out for a night on the town?”

But that was the only way I survived for many years. One minute I was “bougie” living the high life with decadent bottles of champagne and the next I was completely “budget” going to the supermarket to spend a cool $50 on groceries and figuring out how many meals I could possibly make.

Eventually my friends’ comments got to me. I didn’t want to say no to seeing them when I was in town, so I started searching for fun things to do in New York that wasn’t going to break the bank. My conversations started turning into: “Could we possibly go to that awesome Yoga to the People class for $5 dollars and then grab some arepas at that funky Venezuelan joint Caracas where a filling meal can cost you $10?”

I began getting a kick out of finding these great deals or these inexpensive ways to spend an afternoon that were hip and fun and downright fabulous.

Even though I get sincere joy out of my budget activities, it doesn’t mean I’ve left the life of luxury behind me. I very much enjoy my long weekends at health spa writing about the culinary scene or my finance events hosted at 5 star resorts with tasting dinners and wine pairings.

I don’t like one life more than the other. I enjoy them both equally and I feel blessed to experience both worlds.

The neat thing is that on most days, I feel like a double agent; I can enjoy the pleasure of living in both worlds on the same day. For instance, the other afternoon I met with a finance friend at the Grand Havana Room. He’s a big cigar and wine connoisseur who very much enjoys sharing his passions with his friends; I happened to be the lucky friend that day.

The hours ticked by and when I bothered to notice my surroundings, I saw former Mayor Rudy Giuliani sitting just a few tables away. My friend’s comrades showed up and while I tried to politely excuse myself, they insisted I stay. After a lovely evening, I thanked them for the Cubans, the wine, and an unforgettable night in New York City.

I hailed a cab and came home to my modest studio apartment. It was a touch unkempt and I found myself debating whether or not to call the maid to come in the next week.

She only charges $40 to clean the whole place, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to splurge. Perhaps I’ll save that for my next trip, I thought. I could put it towards a spa appointment, after all.

My double agent life is something I’m thankful for. I don’t want to be in one world or in the other and quite frankly, I feel I belong in both. They both have their pluses and minuses, and I’d like to think I try to take with me the best and learn life lessons from the worst.

In the end, whether I’m living “bougie” or “budget,” I’m just really happy I’m living.

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