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Social Justice

Martin Lewis: ‘I can’t shut up because there really are lives at stake’

Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis says desperation is rife across UK society as the cost of living emergency bites.

Martin Lewis is hitting full stride. “I try and do 20,000 steps a day, that’s the aim. I missed that 16 times last year. I never miss 10,000. It’ll be six years in October,” he says, no trace of being out of breath.

“I’ve got plantar fasciitis at the moment [inflammation of tissue connecting the heel bone to toes] but there would have to be some serious problem for me to miss 10,000.”

Well, there are plenty of serious problems at the moment – not least the cost of living crisis – and Lewis is positioned on the frontline.

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If you have a problem (who doesn’t?), if nobody else can help (they can’t or won’t), fortunately you can find Lewis and his essential financial advice on Money Saving Expert.

The website has 16 million visitors per month, 7.5 million are signed up for the weekly Money Tips email, and 2.2 million people are members of the MSE Forum.

Martin Lewis is a champion for the vast sections of society being battered by soaring energy prices, their budgets further squeezed by spiralling food and housing costs. When he encouraged the public to submit meter readings before the energy price cap was lifted, websites crashed, and Lewis was accused by one energy company of “bringing down Britain”.

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His journey from money tips curator to the UK’s most influential activist didn’t happen overnight. And it’s a strange position for the 50-year-old to find himself in, with countless people depending on his advice.

How can he keep up his walking workouts when presumably, there’s somebody trying to stop him on every corner?

“There are a couple of ways,” Lewis begins pragmatically. “I work around Central London. Of everywhere in the UK, that’s the place you get stopped the least. People look down and carry on. And they’re too cool to talk to somebody like me.

“The difference between being in London and being anywhere else in the UK is monumental. The factor of being stopped goes up by five to 10 times.

“My rule is, always talk to people, be nice and smile but, if possible, try not to stop. They can walk with me for a bit and ask a question. I simply don’t have the time to stop and talk to everybody, and certainly not to go into the details of their finances. That doesn’t make me sound a prat does it?”

Accompanying Lewis on the phone as he clocks up the steps, it’s clear how analytical and efficient he is with his time, words and ideology – not to mention money issues.

The day we speak, a not-completely-serious poll has revealed Martin Lewis’ money saving acumen as the talent Brits envy most. Joint second was Gordon Ramsay’s cooking and Adele’s singing.

“I think Adele has an innate talent. I think Gordon Ramsay probably does as well. Mine’s just hard work,” Lewis says.

“Most of what I do is about teaching people how to do it themselves. If you read one of my guides about choosing a credit card, I don’t do what a comparison website does and put the products at the top. We put them at the bottom. You’ve got to understand how to choose them. Should you be getting a card? Is it right for you? If you do get it, what’s the best way to use it? Then you pick the right card.”

Lewis is halted by a group of people asking for selfies. He obliges but encourages them to all get in the same picture to save time.

Leaving the selfie stoppers in the dust, he explains, “People say, ‘I can’t believe it’s you!’ But from my perspective, it’s always me. The surprise is always very one-sided.

“So where was I…” He recalls trumping Adele in the skills department. “While it’s very flattering, the school-teacher in me wants to say to people, ‘Well you can have it!’ I save other people money on what’s important to them. You don’t need that. You need the skills to be able to save yourself money on the things that are important to you.”

There has always been an element of the showman to Martin Lewis. Born in Manchester, he grew up in Cheshire before studying government and law at the London School of Economics. He worked in finance but moonlighted as a stand-up to “relieve the tedium”.

He returned to university to study a postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism in Cardiff. This led to spots on BBC TV and radio and at the turn of the millennium the ‘Money Saving Expert’ was born on the short-lived channel, Simply Money. “I had all this research for a small TV show and a column in the Sunday Express, then it was chip paper. I was doing detailed number crunching and I felt it needed to live somewhere.”

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This is how, for an outlay of £80 paid to a web designer in Uzbekistan, Money Saving Expert arrived online in 2003.

“I hoped that would help me get more gigs on the telly. That was why I set it up, to promote my fledgling broadcast career. It had absolutely no way of making money. I could never have envisaged in so many different ways the position that I would find myself in.”

It is a unique position.

Money Saving Expert has become renowned for its successful campaign-ing. An early success was helping people claim back £1 billion in unfair bank charges.

His template letters to claim back PPI have been downloaded millions of times with the resulting refunded claims totalling up to £10bn.

For 15 years Lewis has appeared weekly on BBC Radio 5 Live. He regularly graces the couches of Lorraine and This Morning and Good Morning Britain(as a guest presenter, too). Since 2012, The Martin Lewis Money Show has been a primetime ITV staple.

Also in 2012, Lewis sold Money Saving Expert to the moneysuper-market.com group for £87 million. Today he’s worth over £100m. But just as you appreciate a tubby chef, you want your Money Saving Expert to be loaded, right?

Lewis stayed on as Money Saving Expert’s Executive Chair and is still at the heart of operations. The site itself is vehemently independent; it makes money from affiliated links, but only if those products and services have been deemed good enough to be listed.

I have a huge email bag that runs right across society, and I can see the desperation out there

Martin Lewis

In 2014, Martin Lewis got financial education added to the curriculum and distributed hundreds of thousands of textbooks to schools. He’s set up a free ‘Academoney’ course with the Open University. He founded – and funds – the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, focussed on the “vicious” link between money and mental health and has donated millions to charity. His 2014 OBE was upgraded to a CBE this year.

Then as the pandemic locked down life as we knew it, he really stepped up, ensuring furlough was an option for those whose new jobs had fallen through as well as people on maternity and paternity leave. He also helped hundreds of thousands of self-employed people receive grants and informed home workers that they were entitled to tax relief to pay for extra electricity and heating bills.

Not bad for someone who admits they had no vision when Money Saving Expert began.

“Over 20 years, people would think that you could map what’s going on in the economy by the rise or lowering of demand for the work I do,” Lewis says. “Actually, I look back – we had bank charges in 2005, then we had PPI, the financial crisis. We had interest rates plummeting. The pandemic and now the cost of living crisis.

“There have certainly been peaks. And we are in a particularly bad time right now. In terms of delivering the information, the problems have changed but the demand has been pretty constant.

“What’s changed more is my position – my political voice.

“I’m more careful about what I say, as someone who tries rigorously – it can be difficult at times – to be party apolitical,” he says, carefully. “I’m happy to be political – my job is political. But I don’t want to be party political.” 

With politicians failing, how does it make Martin Lewis feel to know that more and more people are looking to him for help? 

“Petrified and sick. I have a huge email bag that runs right across society, and I can see the desperation out there: ‘I can’t feed my children and I’m not eating because of it’. ‘What on earth do I do?’ 

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“When the volume of those increases, it can be very depressing. Clearly that’s nothing compared to what the people in that position are going through. But it does surround you with a murky cloud around your head. I try and waft that away because I can get lost in it. 

 “That is when you move out of the money-saving sphere and into the political sphere. And that is a tough place to be. It’s tough to say these things without it becoming party political because clearly the only people who can actually change it are the current governing party. 

“There’s a tightrope to walk but, ultimately, I feel I have to walk it. I can’t shut up because there really are lives at stake.” 

He cites the fact that even before the pandemic and current crisis, 400,000 people a year in England alone contemplate taking their lives because of financial problems. One hundred thousand attempt it. 

“Finance is not about money, it’s about wellbeing. It’s not trivial. It’s absolutely the core of relationships, the roof over our head, mental health. It is a far bigger subject than just number-crunching or penny-pinching.” 

Rather than government and large companies being supportive of his attempts to help people, they often attack him. For example, this post from E.ON on its Twitter account the day before the price cap was lifted: “Unfortunately the website and phone lines of every supplier are being hammered today. Martin has once again created unprecedented demand bringing down Britain.” 

“I’m not sure I’m quite that powerful,” Lewis says about that now. “But perhaps, when I’m lucky, I have enough power to start a debate.” 

However, he’s not sure the current leadership is paying attention. 

“Do I get listened to?” he muses. “I had regular meetings with the Gordon Brown administration – not necessarily senior people, but I had some – the coalition and Cameron government was the same. 

“It became more of a struggle during Brexit time because the debate became so focused and intense, everything else was frozen out. And then we had the pandemic. 

“I have found that the current government, certainly Number 10, has been the most closed. Although I have had decent engagement with the chancellor. Engagement doesn’t mean he necessarily listens. No, that’s unfair. Engagement doesn’t mean he does anything I suggest.” 

Lewis has been called the most trusted man in the UK. What advice would he have for politicians in dire need of winning the electorate’s trust back? 

“The way to be trusted is to be trustworthy. The structure of our political system is built in such a way that destroys trust. And it will destroy trust in virtually every individual who is within it. 

“The system is adversarial, so instead of people negotiating in backrooms and trying to come to consensus, we sit them face to face opposite each other in a political chamber and get them to throw verbal bricks at each other, rocking the faith in both sides. 

“It is worth saying that most – not all – politicians I meet are hardworking, dedicated, trying to do the right thing. That does not mean that I agree with the methods. But I concede that what they’re doing in their head is trying to help people. 

“They are doing a tough job. I certainly would not want to be an MP. It is a thankless task.” 

If you were Prime Minister for a day what’s the first thing you’d do? 

“There’s very little that you can do in a day.” 

A week then. 

“What would I do…” he considers. “I would try and get through legislation that required every council in England to properly publicise and communicate the ‘severely mentally impaired’ council tax discount scheme.” 

Because of this, he explains, up to 100,000 people could be being overcharged in the UK. Lewis has already had success campaigning in Wales, where backdating of missed payments has also been standardised. 

“It would be an easy thing to do,” he continues. “And I could probably actually achieve that if you gave me a week in politics. That’s not the same as saying it’s the biggest issue but it’s an achievable issue and if I could only fix one thing, it wouldn’t be that bad. It’s an absolute lifeline for many vulnerable people.” 

While we’re on politics, Lewis brings up a much-quoted recent phrase – when he said he was “out of tools” to protect people. Given that so many look to him for hope, it was a crushing admission. Though he wants to clarify its meaning. 

“That was a qualified statement at the time,” he says. “It was talking about 1) energy bills and 2) people on the lowest incomes. And the phrase I actually used was: ‘I’m virtually out of tools.’ 

“I don’t want to say to people there’s no point in listening, there’s nothing you can do. For many, there are still lots of things you can do. 

“There are just very few things that you can do in terms of energy, and very few things if you’re on a very low income and you’ve already cut that. A little bit of me winces when I see ‘I’m out of tools’. 

“Over time, the subtleties of the message you’re trying to get across get lost. That was a statement directed to the government – the idea that there are budgeting methods that will prevent people on lower incomes from choosing between starving and freezing is a fallacy.” 

It was said to presenter Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning politics programme. 

“The chancellor was on the same show, and therefore, me being out of tools was a point made very deliberately knowing the chancellor was in the room. Don’t throw this to the individuals and say, ‘hey, you’re not doing enough to fix it for yourselves’. We don’t have tools – you do. 

“There are elements of my work I wish I wasn’t doing,” he continues. “Talking about poverty is one of them. 

“People will say, ‘I’m terrible with my finances, you can’t help me!’ If you’re terrible with your finances, you’re easy to help. It’s the people who are really good with the finances, the people who’ve done everything, that are more difficult to help.  

“A lot of people at the lower end have done everything they can. There’s not much room left. We can say we need to go back to Cromwell-era austerity where you live only the most never-smile-life and just have enough food to get by. Well, we don’t want that. It’s not what one of the richest countries in the world is about.” 

He’s stopped by another passing group of selfie requesters. 

Martin Lewis been called the most influential, most important man in the UK, the real shadow chancellor. What title does he like best? 

“My obvious favourite description is daddy, above all else. Professionally, I just like the Money Saving Expert. 

“I am not a saint. Very far from it. I can be petty, I’m sure I’ve been mean to people over the years. 

“A lot of what I do, I do because I don’t have to be paid for it. I had fortune very fast without trying for it. That’s not a driver for me and that gives me a clarity and a cleanliness that other people in the same position do not have.” 

The same reason he walks is the same reason he wants to help people. 

“I do it because I choose to, because I have the option. Therefore, I want to do it.” 

A couple of thousand steps on, Martin Lewis shows no signs of flagging. As far as he’s come, there is still a long way to go. If only more people in positions of power could keep pace. 

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