Martin Lewis is in his happy place. The keen walker is sitting in an outdoor cafe in a London park he loves, and, a couple of days shy of his 50th birthday, is a contented family man who assiduously expunges any swearing from the record in case his nine-year-old daughter happens to read this piece.
When he left a postgraduate journalism degree in Cardiff more than 20 years ago, he had a seemingly simple idea: “I always wanted to be the person on This Morning talking about money. When you watch something like that,” he says, “you see the stylists and you see the hairdressers and you see the cooks and you see the psychiatrists, you see all of these people and they talk about changing people’s lives. Well, you can’t do any of that without money.” It’s an idea that has gained him great wealth – the Sunday Times rich list puts it at £123m, mainly due to the sale of his website MoneySavingExpert, which he built in the early 00s for £100, to the price comparison company MoneySuperMarket. But also household-name status and, more recently, adulation.
The admiration didn’t come overnight. It was first noticed during the tortuous Brexit debate, when he was voted, in a general poll, the most trusted voice on the issue. When I suggest that he’s now a new-wave Marcus Rashford – in that he is offering a forceful critique of the status quo, from a place you weren’t expecting – he says: “Well, I’ve been around a lot longer.”
Yet despite his success, his manner is anything but carefree. And while that has many causes, the immediate one is the cost of living crisis. On this he has emerged from a sea of wilful political obliviousness as one of the most trenchant and steadfast voices. Two weeks ago, he says, “I made a deliberate, nuanced and specific comment, which is that I’m virtually out of tools when it comes to helping people on energy, especially the poorest.” It was a shocking statement from anyone, but more so from Lewis, thanks to his uncontroversial persona.
He wrestled with saying this, “because it was an obvious, political (small-p) comment”. And there was criticism ranging from, he says, “tweets like: ‘You’re the problem because you put a sticking plaster over the system and you basically should never have helped anybody because all you’ve done is inure them to the dangers of capitalism’ [I sense he is paraphrasing a bit] to: ‘Come on mate, say it as it is. Call them [the government] out.’ Well, even if I wanted to, that’s not who I am.”
Plainly, though, what makes this situation “shocking and scary and anxiety-driving” – he says this with feeling – is not his own standing but the situation itself. This is very much the end of the road, and even while he describes that in very neutral, almost bank-manager-y language – “micro-money management is no longer a suitable tool for many on the very lowest incomes to get through this” – he’s on the side of the consumer. In other words, while he sounds and dresses a bit like the Man, he’s on our side, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. I think that’s partly why people like him so much.
As an indication of how serious things have got, he describes a section on his website, MoneySavingExpert. It’s called Heat the Human, Not the Home and is a granular look at ways to layer your clothing, the best power-heated gloves and heated insoles – all so that you’re spending 40p not £40 on keeping warm. The fact this could be so essential is depressing. “None of this is good. I regret having to produce this guide. But I have to provide options for people who tell me they cannot heat their home. I think it’s absolutely legitimate, but slightly tragic for my site to be doing that.”
It also puts him in a delicate balance; if he comes out against the government, he loses his impartiality, which is partly why he is so trusted. “If you’re asked to be independent as you give a view, you’re not independent any more.” But he has a strong sense of justice, around energy bills in particular: “Unless you’re in a super big house, most people’s energy bills are roughly similar, whether rich or poor. So it’s a poll tax. That’s why it’s so visceral, even if people don’t define it as that in their heads.” Besides, he says: “If politicians had my mailbag, you would understand the genuine, real problems that are happening out there. And therefore we’d have to solve them.”
His pronouns slide all over the place, from “they” to “you” to “we”, in his anxiety not to sound as if he’s hectoring a “them”. “I want the government to listen. I want them to fix this. I am not saying these things to try and make the government lose the election. I’m saying these things to try and make the government help people. It’s about praying, convincing, you know, desperately crossing my fingers. Please, please … begging them to listen.”
This is, as he’s the first to point out, “an enormous distance” from the Martin Lewis of 2002, doing Deal of the Day on the satellite channel Simply Money. Then, he was a young man, “thinking: ‘Look at me, I’m being so clever and I’m playing the system, and nobody has done this before.’” He still takes a lot of delight in his devilment, reminiscing about the time he showed anyone who was listening how they could use a cashback offer on a credit card balance transfer twice in one week to walk away with £500, and he’s still laughing now as he concludes “the whole marketing of finance has changed because of what we did. They would never put that stuff out there now because they know I’ll tell 8 million people in a minute, and it’s gonna cost a lot of money.”
But over time, his focus changed – first, towards customer rip-offs, and then two massive campaigns. “We got people £1bn back on bank charges and then £12bn on PPI, right?” he says casually, as if he found £12bn down the back of a sofa. Later, he sounds more sombre: “Boy, could we do that with that now.”
Gradually, he became more preoccupied with people who were going under, either being deliberately ripped off or just not equipped to deal with the complexity of the system, particularly, but not exclusively around social security. This led him, among other things, to devise a financial literacy element to the school curriculum, and launch the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute in 2016, the work of which is essentially bug-fixing for society.
Take bailiffs, for example. “There are special requirements on how they deal with vulnerable customers, which is as it should be. Currently we assume that you don’t have a mental health problem. But – we’re still working on this, so I’m going to leave it as a grey stat – 50% of people who have a bailiff visit have a mental health problem. If you can be hospitalised for anxiety and meet a bailiff the day you came out, that is not a civilised society.”
This led to the creation of Breathing Space, a debt-respite scheme launched by the government last year. It’s refreshing how he brings exactly the same tenacity to everything, whether it’s saving you 50p in Pret or making sure you don’t get sanctioned by the benefits office. He doesn’t have a special tone of voice he deploys to talk about the “vulnerable”, the way so many do. “My work is to help people be better with money. I don’t differentiate.” And yet, because a lot of life has happened to him during his career, it has changed the way he thinks. “When you navel gaze, and you do it for so long,” he says, “you do end up developing a philosophy.”
He hit a hump in the road about 15 years ago, when he was 35. “I realised my own fallibility. My mental health wasn’t as robust as I thought it was.” Before then, he had thought he was invincible. He’d had an uneventful, rural childhood. “I didn’t grow up with money, but nor did I grow up poor”. But when he was 12, his mother was killed in a car accident. The rest of his school years were capsized by appalling grief and anxiety; he was almost housebound with it at times. When he got to the London School of Economics for his undergraduate degree, it was only the third time he had been to the capital. “Then I just exploded with life and confidence. I thought: ‘Wow, life is here, and I can do things.’ Coming out of years of grief and trauma. Which can be very annoying,” he reflects.
“I was very in your face. I was nice; I wasn’t horrible. But I was just OTT.” This buoyancy carried him all the way through his 20s, working for Brunswick, the financial and corporate PR company, then doing journalism at Cardiff, and bursting into consumer finance like a dog with a really good-value bone. He always had a new idea. And he thought he would probably go into politics eventually. But then he had what he describes as one of his “dark times. When I find life difficult to deal with. I remember the first time that really hit me hard, thinking: ‘Thank goodness I can take time off work, and I don’t have to worry about paying the bills.’ This interlinking of money and mental health is so profound. I vowed to myself that, when I was in a position to do something about that for others, I would.”
Once he started talking to charities – he mentions the Citizens Advice (CA) and National Energy Action, but mental illness charities speak incredibly highly of the relationships they have had with him, too – his compassion met his inner terrier. During the campaign against unfair bank charges, he produced a template letter, and someone from CA told him 15% of people weren’t taking “Your name” out before they wrote their name, while 5% weren’t writing their own details in at all, they were just sending the template in blank.
“That was one of my epiphany moments. One in 20 people who’d had money taken off them unfairly couldn’t understand that you need to put your own name and address in the template letter. They’ve been ripped off, and they’ve got so desperate that they tried, but they can’t do it. I still find that quite a moving statistic now.”
He rattles off all these grotesquely complicated modern bureaucracies – how the form for universal credit is too complicated for some people to fill out, yet the paperwork you have to do to assign someone else to do it for you is more complicated still. And he’s in no doubt about the gravity of the situation: “These stats are a couple of years out of date, but debt is an absolute monster. It’s debilitating. Four hundred thousand people consider taking their own lives each year because of financial issues, and 100,000 attempt it.”
Now his mission has crept again, because a person who spreadsheets in his sleep cannot not join dots, so he’s looking down the line to the energy hikes in the autumn and says the figures for household bills are looking “amazing, awful, awesome in the worst sense. What I’m trying to get across to politicians is: ‘You have to do something or people’s lives are gonna be destroyed.’”
In the days that follow this interview, the picture unfurls as Lewis said it would: the new forecast for October’s energy cap is £2,800, an unthinkable amount for millions of people. He takes no pleasure in being right on this stuff: in an ideal world, he would be helping people make a sound decision between a VW Golf and a Ford Focus. But his combination of pragmatism and empathy has landed him on the frontline, where he’ll stay and fight.
This article was amended on 25 May 2022. An earlier version said Martin Lewis created and sold the comparison website moneysupermarket.com. This has been corrected.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org