The millionaire founder of MoneySavingExpert could retire tomorrow – but Covid-19 has transformed his job and means he is needed now more than ever
Martin Lewis is pounding his treadmill while talking 19 to the dozen. It is classic Lewis – busy, busy, busy. After taking it relatively easy for a while, the money expert is back at full throttle. You can hear it in his voice – urgent, enthusiastic, edgy. Sometimes sentences crash into each other as he struggles to keep up with his thoughts.
His work has been transformed since the pandemic. Now it is more complicated than telling people how to save cash or bollocking them for not doing so – he has been mediating between the public and the government.
“I have to be careful what I say,” he says. This is also classic Lewis – cautious in what he tells you, but desperate to get it out there. “I’m doing an entirely different job to the one I did three months ago. Ninety per cent of my work is a new subject that didn’t exist. The thing that’s been really different is the feeling of being an intermediary. It’s something I’ve not done before.
Can he give me an example? No, he says. Well, yes – but he is not naming names. “In the early days of the pandemic, one of the big missed-out categories were people who changed jobs after the end of February to somewhere new. Effectively, that meant they couldn’t be furloughed by their new employer. There was a rule that said employers who’d made people redundant could rehire and furlough. So I said: ‘What about if people had left?’ and the first answer was: ‘Well, there’s nothing in the rules that says they can and nothing in the rules that says they can’t.’ And I said: ‘Well, can they?’
“Eventually, I got back the answer: they can. I managed to persuade the government to give me a quote, which worked for a chunk of people, then two weeks later I got them to change the guidance to say it was allowed. And that meant many thousands of people were able to be furloughed who hadn’t been before.”
This is only one of the areas in which he has persuaded the government to support people. So you would assume Lewis, 48, is pretty happy with himself. But he is not. He is worrying about the loopholes he has not closed, the groups excluded from the government’s pandemic support system, members of the public who are screaming at him for not having done enough.
Lewis, once described as “the Dumbledore of debt”, is unusual in so many ways: a Robin Hood who has become unimaginably rich by fighting the corporates on our behalf; a fearless campaigner riddled with anxiety; a money geek with a sideline in standup comedy (he plays The Blue Danube on his nose and ears); a shy self-publicist (he reminds me he has been labelled the most trusted and the most Googled man in Britain: “Being the most trusted man in Britain is a great soubriquet”).
After studying government and law at the London School of Economics, Lewis did a postgrad in journalism at Cardiff university. When his fellow students told him they wanted to be heroic foreign correspondents, he said he dreamed of getting a job on a morning TV show telling people how to save money.
That, of course, happened – and then some. In 2003, he founded the website MoneySavingExpert.com (MSE), later getting regular slots on Good Morning Britain and This Morning. He has written bestselling books, was given his own TV show on ITV in 2012 and has fought successful campaigns (against bank charges and PPI, to name but two). When the website started, there was no way for it to make money. Gradually, it introduced affiliate links to some of the deals and offers it recommends, from which it earns commission. In 2012, Lewis sold it to the price comparison site MoneySupermarket for £87m. He is worth an estimated £125m.
After selling up, Lewis became editor-in-chief; he is now the executive chairman of MSE, which has more than 100 people working for it. Yet he says he is not quite sure what he does: “I often struggle to define what I am. It’s an existential issue for me. I am first and foremost a journalist. That is my training and my trade. But I am a campaigning journalist.”
What is the difference? “I don’t just factor in the story, I factor in the outcome.” He gives as an example the collapse of Northern Rock. “Had I got the story and I knew that by breaking it I would potentially risk lots of people losing their money, there would be a question for me about whether I covered the story or worked on trying to make it better, which is probably what I would have done. Whereas a pure journalist would say: ‘I want the front page tomorrow.’”
Lewis is hugely influential – 13 million people receive his weekly email. If he says a product provides great value, it can make a company; if he says it is a rip-off, it can break it. Does he think people listen to him because they are aware of how much damage he can do if they don’t? “They may understand that, but that’s not necessarily a threat I would use.” Pause. “That’s for them to decide, Simon, not me.” At times he sounds saintly, at times mafioso.
Initially, he says, he was impressed by the government’s response to the pandemic. Soon enough, he spotted cracks and assumed they would be filled. Now he is losing patience as the cracks turn into fissures. There are so many people not protected, he says. “Limited company directors, people who started a new business since October 2018, those being unfairly rejected from bounceback loans; I could go on … The government is trying to reduce the number of people on state support mechanisms right now, not increase it, and I can’t see any of those fissures being closed. What we need is classic mortgage payment holidays, credit-card payment holidays.”
He splits the workforce into four categories. First, people at the top who were doing well and are probably saving money in the pandemic; second, those who are just about keeping their heads above water – they may have been furloughed and should be OK when they get back to work; third, those at the bottom who are in the financial mire (“We need radical societal change for these people. This is not just a pandemic issue”).
But it is the fourth group he worries about most: those who were doing fine, but for whom the pandemic has been a financial catastrophe. “Many of those will be self-employed or limited company directors or people who have missed out on furlough; young people who changed jobs and had no savings. They have to be the main focus in the short term, because you have to get them through the pandemic and out the other side without them moving into the category that is permanently in the financial mire.”
Lewis admits that the pandemic knocked the stuffing out of him professionally. “I’m the guy people come to for answers and I didn’t have them because there weren’t any. And I found that very difficult.” That was when he started looking for the gaps in provisions, negotiating with ministers, fighting for new solutions.
But, he says, he still felt inadequate. So he set up a fund to raise money for small charities to help with coronavirus-related poverty. Lewis has contributed £2.1m of his own money to the total £3.4m raised. “In some ways, it was very selfish. I can assuage my own guilt for the people I can’t help by making sure there is food in the food banks and that type of stuff.” After he set up the fund, he asked for contributions from other “high net worths”. He says he was uncertain about calling on others to give. Why? “I just thought, was it a bit of a wanker thing to do, frankly – to go out there and say: ‘I’m giving millions of pounds, why don’t you, too?’”
As a young man, Lewis considered going into politics. Have his recent dealings with politicians refuelled that ambition? “I would never go into party politics. I would never obey a whip. I find people not liking what I do tough enough in my privileged position where not many attack me right now. To have people whose job is to oppose what I say, I couldn’t deal with that. My mental health couldn’t take it, nor could my family.”
In 2016, Lewis launched another charity, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute. In the past, he has spoken about suffering from periods when he did not want to get out of bed, but has left it at that. These days, he is more open. He tells me of his childhood in Manchester and then Cheshire, where his father was headmaster at a school for children with special needs, growing up in a contented, middle-class Jewish family. Then, two days before his 12thbirthday, his mother was killed in a road accident and his childhood was over. He became anxious and withdrawn. “I didn’t have a teenagehood. I never went out.” He would not leave the house, because he had been out when his mother had died in a collision with a lorry while she was horse riding with his older sister. “I couldn’t cope with the thought of leaving the house, because something else could happen.”
Then he went to the other extreme. His mother’s death gave him the drive to succeed, but for a while it gave him too much drive, he says. “I felt I had superpowers. There was an arrogance that I could do anything. Nothing could get to me, because nothing could hurt me as much as I’d already been hurt. Everything else was trivial.”
At university, he became loud, overconfident and, the way he tells it, a little bit obnoxious. When he stood for the leadership of various societies, there would invariably be an anti-Lewis candidate. “Just having a life was so exciting, so somebody not liking you or something going wrong just didn’t touch me.” Does he like that young man, looking back? “I probably want to put my arms round him and give him a cuddle, because I know where it came from.”
After he became well known, he endured another bleak period. Then, in 2011, he married the TV presenter Lara Lewington, with whom he has a seven-year-old daughter, Sapphire. He adores them and says they have transformed his life, but he admits they have done little to ease his angst. “Since I’ve had my own family, the underlying vulnerability has come back. I’m much more anxious, much more human.”
When Lewis started out, he used to say that a company’s job was to screw you and your job was to screw it back; he could not understand people who did not think the same. When I last interviewed him, 12 years ago, he gave me a two-hour roasting for not taking my finances seriously enough. “Now I understand that many people aren’t capable of doing the things that I do and therefore there is an obligation to help them.”
How has money changed him? It has not, he says. “Look, I’ve got a beautiful house and we go on lovely holidays.” The truth is, he says, he is not that interested in spending. “I’m not tight at all. Lara is the tight one in the family. Everyone thinks it’s me. She’s much more worried about spending money than I am. My whole shtick is to maximise happiness with your money. Having money is not happiness, but not having money is sadness and destroys lives.” The best thing money has bought him, he says, is the freedom to choose whether he gets out of bed in the morning.
Lewis says unemployment is set to rocket when the furlough scheme ends and that the government is going to have to support unemployed people like never before. “The old ‘Get on your bike and sort it out yourself’ approach doesn’t work now, because the things we encourage people to do to help themselves in normal times are not open to them. Those working in the hospitality or travel industries, those shielding, those looking after their children. You can’t be entrepreneurial.” So what is the solution? “We have to support people. We need to keep roofs over people’s heads, we need to not damage their finances unfairly. We need to make sure people can feed their children.”
Never has there been a better time to rebuild Britain’s infrastructure, he says. “Instead of leaving people for years in the mire with no work and no income, we have to think how we can give people opportunities to improve their qualifications and skills and do something that betters our society. We’re going to have this labour force available that we weren’t expecting, so what can we do that will put our country in a better position for the next 20 to 30 years? That’s the real challenge.”
And then there are his personal anxieties. He was recently made aware of another group not being looked after by the government – PAYE freelancers. “When I realised I hadn’t helped them, I felt sick. I thought: ‘God, I can’t believe I’ve missed it.’ They’re right, I haven’t done enough. I’ve been working flat out, but I was very upset with myself.” Lewis is extraordinarily self-lacerating. He talks faster and faster, his pitch getting higher and higher, as he beats himself up more.
He finally steps off the treadmill. Lewis has walked another 10K while we have been chatting. He is sweating now, but I am not sure if it is due to the exercise or anxiety. You are so wealthy, I say, why not just call it a day? “I would like to stop at some point, but I don’t feel I’m able to do that yet. If I go, I think quite a lot of impact would also go. That may be really arrogant of me, but I just don’t see that there’s anybody else who can step up and fill the gap, and it’s needed. I think the role I fill is important.”