Martin Lewis: Money man

The penny pincher and people's champion lost his Supreme Court battle this week. But his brand is flourishing in a time of recession
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The Independent Online

He's been called "the Dumbledore of debt", "a fiscal superhero" and "the UK's financial anorak". He knows more about the baffling arcana of credit card "typical APRs" than anyone alive.

He's the nation's top financial adviser and the embodiment of a type: the friend-of-a-friend who can get you AA membership for a fiver, the tightwad who collects vouchers for two-for-one lunches, the bar bore who promises he can get anyone a council tax rebate, the loud-voiced shopper who demands "value for money", the golf partner who tells you how to juggle credit cards to make 6 per cent interest.

Martin Lewis is a consumer champion who, thanks to the recession, has become a national hero. His website is visited by eight million people every month. His monthly email, Martin's Money Tips, has 3.8 million fans. His advice column in the News of the World is required reading for the financially stricken. His appearances on GMTV, ITV1's Tonight and Five's It Pays to Watch have given him the credibility among debtors that Barbara Woodhouse used to enjoy among dogs. Last year, an online "competitive intelligence service" revealed that Lewis was the most searched-for personality by internet users in the run-up to Christmas 2008, ahead of Barack Obama and Leona Lewis.

He's in the news because of a rare disappointment in the surging trajectory of his career. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court dismissed a legal case, brought by the Office of Fair Trading, which sought to win compensation for millions of bank customers who've been hit by unauthorised overdraft penalty fees. The OFT's case has rumbled along for two years, since it launched a test case in July 2007 against eight banks: Abbey, Barclays, Clydesdale, HBOS and Lloyds (since merged), HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Nationwide. The case has been accompanied by a campaign part-run by Lewis, who became its promoter-in-chief.

His contribution has been to offer consumers free model letters on his website, which they can download and send to their banks, in expectation of refunds. They took off like a rocket. In three months to February 2007, 850,000 people had downloaded them. By summer this year, six million people had used them to bombard the banks, who complained that Lewis was promoting a "compensation culture". Lewis was loftily unconcerned: "I'd describe it as a reclaim culture," he told The Independent. "These banks are unlawfully taking money out of your account without your permission. By complaining, you're simply claiming back money that is rightfully and lawfully yours."

He greeted the Supreme Court's ruling just as he greets other statements by consumer authorities – by looking for loopholes in the small print. Noting the judges' suggestion that a successful challenge might still be possible, Lewis said: "It reveals the court's coded message to the OFT: 'You can't take the case in this basis, but there may be other avenues under Clause 5 that you could try.'"

And of course Lewis will try them. He is the most tenacious burrower in loopholes since the earthworms in Noah's Ark. At times he seems to be on a one-man mission to educate the country about debt: how to go into it cheaply, spend no more than you need, and get out as fast as possible. He revels in his status as crusader. His website calls for "consumer revenge".

He was born in Manchester, 37 years ago, and grew up in Cheshire, the son of a headmaster of a special-needs school. After studying government and law at the London School of Economics (where he was president of the students' union), he worked in the City, briefing companies about their communication strategies. "I'd come from being a rabble-rousing political speaker in my own little pocket," he later recalled, "and I went into a job that was about communicating a corporate message. It was uncomfortable."

So he did a postgraduate degree in broadcast journalism at Cardiff and plunged into the media carousel. His first break was at the BBC business unit, where he was business editor of Radio 4's flagship Today programme. Personal finance became his niche and he moved to a Sky Channel called Simply Money, offering advice on money saving. "Within a week, we realised that they [the channel bosses] didn't know their ISA from their elbow, so I got promoted to correspondent," he wrote. "A week later, I got promoted to on-air editor." Soon he was writing a column for the Sunday Express. His first foray into television was on Open House with Gloria Hunniford, in a slot called "Money Saving Expert".

The website of the same name started up in February 2003, for an outlay of £100. Lewis is proud that he's never needed to advertise the site, when word of mouth did it for him. He doesn't allow companies to advertise and the site is free to use (it makes money by a trade-off with "affiliate links" to finance comparison sites) if a consumer clicks into the links, but Lewis is wary of seeming to favour any financial organisation over another. It would be disastrous to his integrity as value-for-money watchdog sans pareil.

There's little doubt he will become a much bigger star of the airwaves. His natural boyish energy, his vivid striped shirts, his obsession with having people spend as little as possible on such things as dinners, holidays and bank loans, his instant retrieval of a thousand fiscal details mark him out as a natural performer, a combination of Mr Memory from Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and Esther Rantzen, the first popular consumer watchdog.

The critic Antonia Quirke wrote on the FirstPost website: "He is genius breakfast TV casting: possibly lightly gay, irreverent without ever dropping his manners, not remotely nervous... Ever since he's been on the channel [GMTV], the other presenters have been infected with his good sense."

Not everyone is as smitten. Matthew Wright, former tabloid journalist turned presenter of Five's The Wright Stuff, where Lewis was a panellist in early 2006, says: "I've never met anybody who works so obsessively on his subject. He makes for great telly but I don't think I'd want to be stuck in a lift talking banks with him." And there's something of the penny-pinching miser about a man so relentlessly in search of the bargain, the "save-£££" option, the Why-Pay-More? thrift store.

Some may read Lewis's penny-wise pronouncements – "My hope is that, in a year, if a man doesn't pay with a restaurant voucher on a first date, she won't go with him again because she'd think he wasn't safe enough handling money" – and think there must be more to life than calculating how to minimise the bottom line every day.

For now, though, he is unassailable as a popular messiah, performing miracles, healing mismanaged money. It's not, however, much fun being Mr Infallible Money Man. He cannot now pop into a McDonald's without a queue of advice-seekers forming. A hundred times a day, someone says, "Can I ask you a quick question?" He stopped using the London Underground after a woman threatened to kill herself, there and then, unless he helped her disentangle her finances.

His shrewd advice has brought him wealth (he bought his flat in Kensington with straight cash) and happiness (he's married to Lara Lewington, the Five TV weather girl), but "I can't see myself doing this in 10 years' time," he told The Scotsman in April. "There's a huge amount of pressure on me now. I work hideous hours [and] the pace never stops – it's always frenetic and exhausting. At some stage I'd like to retire from the TV and website [but] I want my legacy to continue."

An understandable ambition; but it's doubtful if his millions of fans will let the saviour of their savings slip through their fingers so easily.

A life in brief

Born: 9 May 1972, Withington, Manchester.

Early life: Grew up in Norley, near Delamere Forest in Cheshire. Studied at the independent King's School in Chester before reading government and law at the London School of Economics, where he was president of the students' union. He later completed a postgraduate degree in broadcast journalism at Cardiff University.

Career: Before going to Cardiff he was a spin doctor with the PR agency Brunswick. He briefly did stand-up comedy in an attempt to "relieve the tedium". He worked in the business unit of the BBC, as a producer on Radio 5 Live and as editor of the business slot on Radio 4's Today programme. Developed the Money Saving Expert brand on Simply Money, a Sky Channel, and wrote a column for the Sunday Express. Television credits on Five's Open House and The Wright Stuff followed, along with GMTV and This Morning. In 2003 his website was designed at a cost of £100; earlier this year it had more than eight million users with nearly four million readers of his Money Tips email. He also has a column in the News of the World, a fortnightly column in The Sunday Post, and has written two bestselling books.

He says: "This is a game. It's about screwing big companies before they screw you."

They say: "I've never met anyone who works so obsessively on his subject. He makes for great telly but I don't think I'd want to be stuck in a lift talking banks with him." TV presenter Matthew Wright