To most people, he is the Money Saving Expert whose advice on all things financial are gold nuggets of wisdom, particularly during a global pandemic and the cost of living crisis.
But less widely known is that Martin Lewis’ desire to help others climb out of debt was inspired by a Jewish boarding school in the Cheshire countryside.
The 51-year-old’s father was the headmaster of the Delamere Forest School in Cheshire, a school for Jewish children with special educational needs. As a child, Lewis would spend time at the school, which is now closed, often eating meals there after his mother died.
“I'd sit at the table with all the kids, almost in a semi-supervisory role. I remember there was one boy and when he was 15 - it still chokes me today - he could tie his shoelaces after three years of learning, painfully going through that process. That was the greatest achievement I've ever seen anybody accomplish in my life.”
The consumer champion added: “When you grow up in that environment, you realise that good mental capacity is a blessing. When you realise you’re good at something, I think you have an obligation to share it, and do it in the right way.”
Addressing an audience at South Hampstead Synagogue, where he was in conversation with Rabbi Shlomo Levin, Lewis said that helping people’s mental health was at the heart of his work.
“Finances are at the core of most wellbeing issues in our country. If you want to improve somebody's life, you put a bit more money in their pocket,” he argued.
“You're four times more likely than everybody else to be in crisis debt if you or your partner has a mental health condition and the clinical treatment time for depression is thought to be exacerbated by 18 months if you have a financial problem,” he added.
Even before the cost of living crisis hit, 100,000 people in England alone had attempted taking their own life due to financial issues every year, and 400,000 people had contemplated it, Lewis said.
“Why do I do this? It’s about mental health,” he said.
Seven years ago, the personal finance guru set up a charity, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute after chatting to a friend, a mental health caseworker, who said she spent “half her life" on Lewis' Money Saving Expert website on behalf of her clients.
Alluding to his “own dark days”, Lewis said: “I’ve thought: ‘Thank goodness I can take the day off. Just imagine if I wasn't able to do that.’ And that was the day that I promised that when I had the money and the time, I'd set up Money and Mental Health.”
One of the aims of the charity is to help those with severe mental illness who “find admin panic-attack-level difficult and are incapable, in many cases, of dealing with certain forms of communication”.
The consumer champion believes personal finance and mental health are closely linked (Photo: Mark Thomas)
Described as a “do tank”, as opposed to a think tank, by Lewis, the charity has been at the forefront of numerous finance-related mental health campaigns, including putting gambling blocks on credit cards.
Repeatedly ranked among the most Googled people in Britain, Lewis said he found fame “tough”, explaining: “You’re judged on levels that other human beings are not judged on.”
Although comfortable addressing an audience of thousands, he dreads the small talk afterwards: “I'm a shy showman. I love being on stage. I love my audience. It’s thrilling. But I'm also very shy.”
He added: “I presented the athletics at the 2017 World Championships in front of 80,000 people. My heart didn’t raise a button. But if you ask me: ‘Come and hang out with 10 people you've never met afterwards’, I'm in panic.’”
Discussing his Jewish identity, Lewis, who shares a daughter with his wife, fellow TV presenter Lara Lewington, said that revealing his religion had not always been met with the most positive response. “A well-known television presenter once said: ‘No wonder you’re good with money’, just because I’d mentioned being Jewish. I was fuming.”
“My answer is: ‘I’m a money-saving expert, and I’m Jewish. I’m not a money-saving expert because I’m Jewish.' It’s as simple as that.”