When Martin Lewis sold his website MoneySavingExpert.com for £87m in 2012, he bought a Van de Graaff generator and a theremin. Each cost under £100 on eBay.
Giving tips on saving money, it turns out, can make you a lot of it. Everyone was asking what he was going to do with his wealth, and he felt he had to make a frivolous purchase. It’s an impulse you suspect he doesn’t often indulge.
“I could never work out how to use it properly, the theremin – I couldn’t play it. That was the worse one of the two,” he reminisces down the phone, amid chattering birdsong as he paces around a park near his London home. (He is “obsessed by steps” and hasn’t walked fewer than 20,000 steps a day since early February; it will be five years in October since he last missed the 10,000 mark.)
Lewis, 49, personal finance guru and consumer rights champion, will often conduct meetings with his 100 staff at MoneySavingExpert.com (where he remains executive chairman, after selling it to price comparison firm MoneySupermarket for £87m nine years ago) from his cross-trainer.
“They are all used to it, now, hearing the noises that go on.”
Christening himself the “Money Saving Expert” during his first on-air job at satellite channel Simply Money in 2000, the broadcaster has regular slots on This Morning and BBC Radio 5 Live, recently guest-presented Good Morning Britain, and has anchored The Martin Lewis Money Show on ITV since 2012.
Behind David Attenborough and Graham Norton, he is the third most popular TV personality in Britain. Seven months ahead of the EU referendum in 2016, a poll found he was the most-trusted public figure in the country.
Taking on unfair bank overdraft charges, mis-sold PPI and Facebook scam ads over recent years, Lewis is as much a financial justice campaigner as the go-to guy for the best ISAs on the high street or McDonald’s discount hacks.
During the pandemic he has been reborn as a people’s champion – holding the government to account over flaws in its emergency coronavirus funds. He delved back into a full-time editing role, working 15 hours a day as he tried to work out the benefits and flaws in all the new schemes.
Thanks to Lewis, a lot of people are in a much safer financial situation than they would have been without a pedantic TV personality picking holes in the emergency policies the government rolled out last March.
The Treasury’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was tweaked so that people who had left their jobs for new ones that fell through when Covid-19 hit could access furlough via their former employer. He also helped ensure that workers on maternity and paternity leave returning to work after the furlough application deadline would be allowed onto the scheme.
After lobbying for months on behalf of freelancers omitted from the self-employment support by the cut-off date, Lewis eventually saw to it that 600,000 self-employed people whose first tax returns were filed in 2019/20 would receive grants.
And more than two million home workers during the winter months benefited from Lewis clarifying that if you were asked to work from home for one day during the pandemic, you could claim two years’ worth of tax relief for footing extra heating and electricity costs.
“When we first spotted this, I couldn’t quite believe it,” he wrote on the MoneySavingExpert.com blog, revealing he rang up HMRC to make sure it was true.
Meetings with politicians come up “rather a lot” in Lewis’s schedule, and though he believes most are “trying to do good”, he is frank about their shortcomings.
“Throughout my career, I’ve realised quite how little politicians know on most subjects once you get in-depth – it is quite staggering,” he says. “When you talk to the politicians about their own finances, you realise they don’t understand it, and that’s just in my narrow area.”
Over the years, during select committee hearings on subjects such as energy bills, Lewis has put his “head in my hands at the complete ignorance and showboating of the questions asked, which just fundamentally misunderstand what’s going on”.
After the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s most recent Budget in March, Lewis secured an interview and politely grilled Sunak about why limited company directors had missed out on support. He felt “depressed” that no other journalist had asked the same question.
“The economic correspondents were focusing on trying to get the big hit: ‘What’s going to happen to the economy?’” he recalls. “And the truth is, we were in a much more granular situation where what people – certainly my audience – are interested in is what affects them.”
When editing articles, he will often scrawl through a headline to ensure it speaks personally to the reader (eg. “There are 1 million people not claiming marriage tax allowance” becomes “Are YOU one of the 1 million not claiming marriage tax allowance?”).
“Political reporting is very important, and there’s some amazing political reporting out there. But sometimes I think when we talk about the Westminster bubble for politicians, some of it is fed by Westminster media as well,” says Lewis, who sees himself as a campaigner as well as a journalist.
“We need a broadening of appeal; I think we can get too carried away on the soap opera of politics – and boy, are we in the midst of that at the moment – and we can forget the practicalities of doing some stuff that affects real people’s lives.”
Universal Credit, for example, has been “set up to fail” vulnerable people who have difficulty accessing the online system without help, according to Lewis. He learned about these welfare issues through the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, a charity he set up in 2016, which is informed by a panel of 5,000 people whose mental health has been affected by money trouble.
His political activity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public. A focus group of swing voters in January conducted by JL Partners even confused Lewis with the leader of the opposition. “Is that that money guy?” one woman asked, when asked if she knew who Keir Starmer was.
“I wouldn’t say I’m de facto leader of the opposition,” Lewis laughs. “One of my biggest problems with politics in our country is the adversarial nature of it. Sometimes my job in the pandemic was to explain what the government was doing and how to utilise it and get help. Other times, it was to explain to the government how it wasn’t working and push them to change the system… So, no, I would hope I wasn’t seen as the leader of the opposition.”
Lewis, whose application to become a cross-bench member of the House of Lords was rejected in the David Cameron years, refuses to be drawn into party politics. “Life is shitty enough without having someone who’s paid to oppose you! I do not need to deal with that,” he says. “My mental health isn’t robust enough. I wouldn’t put myself or my family through that.”
Although he will “never take a whip”, he would “happily consider” applying for a peerage again. “But I’d like not to be rejected.”
In any case, he doesn’t “have a natural political home”, much to the disappointment of centrist parties that have approached him over the years. “People try and pigeonhole my politics all the time. I’m accused of being a raging Trot on many occasions, and I’m accused of being Tory scum as well.”
When it was launched in 2003 – with the only capital outlay being £80 paid to a web designer in Uzbekistan – the MoneySavingExpert website’s original motto suggested an anti-capitalist streak: “A company’s job is to screw you for cash, our job is to screw ’em back.”
Over nearly two decades, its message has mellowed. Lewis believes capitalism has become “less predatory” since then.
“I’d soften it a bit now and say: a company’s first job is to make money, and your job is to keep it in your pocket, and often those two are in opposition,” he says.
“I do think actually we’re starting to see many corporates realise that it’s being weighed up how green they are, gender pay, how well they treat their staff, how they deal with vulnerable customers.
“Through a mix of public awareness and regulation, it’s actually changing… Of course, there are always sharks out there, don’t get me wrong. But the mainstream has changed.”
Technology, however, has become more predatory, according to Lewis. And data mining is the new consumer rip-off.
“We are not getting good value for our data. There are many free services out there where, let’s be honest, the way you pay is by giving your data – that’s the model,” says Lewis. “I’m about value and I don’t believe individuals are necessarily getting the value for their data that they should.”
Yet it’s tips, loopholes and deals that are the bread and butter of the Martin Lewis empire. His weekly Money Tips email has become something of a legendary resource for Brits seeking to save, with 7.5 million subscribers, and the MoneySavingExpert site attracts more than 16 million users each month.
“My whole thing is personal empowerment through consumer finance,” says Lewis, who rejects the label tabloids once gave him of “The Tightest Man in Britain”. “Money is there to be enjoyed and make our lives better.”
The Lewis philosophy is to “maximise the well-being we get out of our finances… I would love to be able to free up somebody £1,000 a year by being more efficient with their bills, and if they then choose to go and have a holiday with it, or buy this amazing pair of shoes that they’ve always dreamt of, I don’t find that wrong, I find that joyful!”
Speaking about money in Britain is “one of the last stigmas out there”, Lewis observes, lamenting that people “will talk about sex, politics and religion ahead of money”. He asks people all the time to tell him their salaries. “They’re doing it privately and it’s like showing your genitals to a doctor,” he laughs. “It would be great if people talked about money a little bit more.”
At 33, he remembers making his first significant purchase when he began earning good money – a Smart car. “I absolutely couldn’t believe it! That was an absolute joy,” he says.
When asked about his own finances, Lewis (whose net worth was reported by the Sunday Times Rich List as £123m in March) is refreshingly open.
“I don’t need to work,” he says. “I don’t work for money. I could retire tomorrow if I wanted, and I could go on the beach somewhere. But this is my passion and my small-p politics.”
He adds: “I’m going to sound incredibly worthy now or, even worse, I might even sound woke, but honestly the greatest thrill of having a lot of money, as I do, is that I get to choose why I get out of bed. That’s the ultimate freedom.”
Lewis was one of the first to predict the unequal impact of Covid-19 and its ensuing restrictions on the population’s finances, and personally donated £2.1m to his Coronavirus Poverty Fund last year. “I’ve got money in the bank, more money than other people, and there’s an implicit injustice in that, so therefore you have to try and use it honestly and you have to give back.”
When he thinks too much about the number of people relying on him for advice, however, he finds it “intimidating” – and admits his role in society can feel like a “burden”.
“This sounds a little arrogant, but I think I was the right person in the right place at the right time to become who I am, and if I disappear I’m not sure there will be another,” he says, completing 8,000 steps by the end of our conversation. “I’ve not yet seen that there’s any legacy.”