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How 'Bling Empire's Kevin Kreider went from $26,000 in debt to reality TV star making 6 figures

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How 'Bling Empire's Kevin Kreider paid off $26,000 in debt

Kevin Kreider isn't entirely sure what he does anymore.

Technically, he's filming the second season of his Netflix hit "Bling Empire," the reality show that follows a group of ultra-wealthy Asian Americans in LA.

But the rising public figure has worn a lot of different hats in his career, starting off as bodybuilder and personal trainer after college, then moving to New York City to pursue modeling and acting, and most recently finding a groove in Hollywood after his Jan. 15 "Bling Empire" debut opened up new speaking and advertising opportunities.

At this point in his life, Kreider, 37, says he's finally feeling more secure in his career and his finances.

Unlike his crazy rich castmates, including reclusive billionaire Anna Shay and celebrity plastic surgery businesswoman Christine Chiu, Kreider tells CNBC Make It that he expects to finally hit the six-figure salary mark for the first time in 2021.

He says that after growing up middle class in Philadelphia, he always viewed crossing the $100,000 threshold as a marker for success. Meanwhile, "here in LA., it's a little bit different. Six figures is the baseline. But to me, it's a huge success."

With a new show season and lineup of gigs on the horizon, "it's the first time that I don't feel anxiety," Kreider adds.

Racking up credit card debt

The sense of stability comes after nearly 14 years of "failure after failure," Kreider says. He was able to make a pretty decent living as a personal trainer in Philadelphia, though he says that focusing too much on bulking up physically came at the expense of his mental health. After a few years, he left all his clients in Philadelphia and moved to New York, hoping to lean into his interests of improving Asian American representation in media, and speaking up about perceptions of Asian masculinity and mental health.

He went into modeling after being inspired by the likes of Ford model Daniel Liu and Godfrey Gao, described as the world's first Asian male supermodel. But the unsteady work hit his budget and his ego: "I went from doing personal training, to all of a sudden catering. It was very humbling."

Around the same time, Kreider says he wanted to pursue acting and took classes for it, but without a steady income and already scraping by, he relied heavily on credit cards to cover everything from tuition to headshots to food to everyday living: "It was literally just trying to survive."

At its highest, he says he racked up around $26,000 in credit card debt. It was around this time of financial strain that Kreider started losing hair in chunks due to stress — which was ultimately a catalyst for him to prioritize his mental health and wellbeing.

At times he'd make a dent in his debt, like after he booked his first big commercial in 2012 and put the entire $5,000 paycheck toward it. But it wasn't until 2014, after a year of chipping away and eventually having to move back to Philadelphia, that he finally cleared the balance.

"It was such a big accomplishment," Kreider recalls. "I didn't realize how much a burden and weight it was holding over me."

Life in LA

A 2014 visit to LA inspired him to move there, and he quickly built a support network among some of his now-castmates, including hair stylist Guy Tang, entrepreneur Kelly Mi Li and real estate heir Kane Lim.

Unlike his castmate Jamie Xie, who said she paid $19,000 in rent, Kreider just recently settled into the first LA apartment without roommates at a more modest $1,700 monthly rate.

"This is luxury to me — I have 515 square-feet just to myself," Kreider says. "Some people think that's small, but I tell people, 'this place is huge! I can't fill it up.'"

Having experienced the stress of credit card debt, and as a working creative who's not always paid regularly, he says his No. 1 financial habit is to not spend money he doesn't have. With that said, he's had to learn to spend more freely on things like self care.

"For the first time of my life, I don't feel like I have to be stingy on myself," like going out to dinner or getting a massage, he says. "That feeling — I can't put a price on it. I know what it feels like to have to worry about every penny you spend and not knowing if it'll come back. That's one thing I've learned, too — to always have a cushion of safety in my finances and not overspend it. So it's something that I learned the hard way, but it's something that I stand true by."

Though he's feeling more financially unburdened, Kreider is quick to debunk rumors that his net worth is in the millions. But he hopes to get there one day.

"I'll let everybody know when that does happen," he says. "For a long period of time, I felt like my most successful years was when I was a personal trainer. And now after the show, I see that my most successful times are still yet to come. And they're happening right now."

Check out: How the model minority myth holds Asian Americans back at work—and what companies should do

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