LAST year, I worked for a social enterprise, helping unemployed people find jobs. Every day I’d strap on my headset like a pilot without a plane and settle in for a sometimes-turbulent stream of phone calls. One day, I chatted to a man who had just spent a long time in prison. As well as trying to find work, he was adjusting to a world that looked very different to the one he’d left behind in 1997. He couldn’t figure out what broadband to get, or even if it was affordable, and was having problems with his energy provider. “Have you heard of Martin Lewis, Money Saving Expert?” I asked breathlessly, butterflies flapping in my stomach because I knew I was about to impart a life-changing tip-off. “No,” he replied. “Who’s that?”

Now, that’s a difficult question to respond to in a professional manner. You can’t say, “A sort of dad-husband hybrid of a man who has taken care of me from a distance for my entire adult life, kind of a deity really, who I love with my entire heart”, because then you’re the one that sounds like they should spend some time locked up, albeit for different reasons. But I find it hard to talk about him in anything other than effusive terms. I honestly don’t know where I would be without our Martin, the only person who has given me and millions of others in the UK some semblance of a financial education.

When I moved out of my parents’ house and into my first flat (a truly stunning £150-per-month, beetle-infested dive just off Sauchiehall Street), I had no savings, no clue what council tax was, and – having just graduated with an arts degree during a recession – what felt like no career prospects. I was earning a pittance working part-time in a shop and, though I’d held down various jobs since I was 15, this was the first time I couldn’t sprint to Topshop on payday to blow all my wages on future fashion regrets. For the first time in my life, I had to budget.

It wasn't a totally alien concept to me. Growing up, I'd accompany my mum to the supermarket and help out by taking charge of the calculator, punching in the cost of every item as we added to the trolley. I understood that if I wanted to buy a copy of Smash Hits with my pocket money, I couldn't also raid the Woolies pic'n'mix. But I'd never had to forgo treats in favour of bills and bin bags. What fresh hell was this?

That was probably the exact question I typed into Google to find the website that would become my oracle: Discovering it was like walking into the Virtual University of Adulthood. I spent hours reading everything I needed to know, and everything I didn’t know I needed to know, about money. Little things, like how I could claim tax relief for washing my work uniform (though curiously there was no tax relief for processing the trauma of wearing a straw boater hat and clumpy safety shoes to work – thanks, Tesco). Big things, like how ISAs and pensions worked. I learned about how credit cards weren’t actually a bad thing if used correctly, and that switching energy supplier was far less of a faff than it sounds. Martin Lewis, my sweet angel, was demystifying a subject that had previously felt inaccessible and overwhelming. He was teaching me about my rights as a consumer. And he wasn’t charging a thing.

I don’t know if you’ve ever hung out on the forums on that website, but I spent a lot of time lurking there as a young, skint graduate. There were groups of people supporting one another as they strove to become debt-free; bargain hunters swapping tips on where to find the best deals; hustlers sharing all the ways they’d found to make a bit of extra cash online. Between them and Lewis, I developed enough financial literacy that when I did start earning more than £9k a year, I understood what to do with it.

What happens, though, when you have no money at all to be canny with? Millions of people in this country are slipping into poverty, and when you don’t even have a belt to tighten, a spot of yellow-sticker shopping isn’t going to save you. Martin Lewis said as much on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme back in March: “I am out of tools to help people now. It’s not something money management can fix.”

Yet he’s still trying more visibly than any politician to provide a life raft to struggling households. In January, he donated £100,000 to National Energy Action so that the fuel poverty charity could set up a web chat advice service. A few months later, he compiled a survival guide, How to Heat the Human Not the Home, on ways to keep warm without switching the heating on. He has made repeated calls for action from our “zombie” Government, stressing that if predictions are correct and the energy price cap soars to an unfathomable £5,000 next year, we will face a “national crisis on the scale of the pandemic”.

He knows this because he is at the coalface, so to speak. On a recent episode of the Ask Martin Lewis Podcast with Nihal Arthanayake, he spoke about the messages he receives from people who are in “extreme catastrophe, calling for help and who sometimes talk about taking their lives”. Understandably, Lewis had planned to take a break from social media this month. But last week he was so alarmed by the “national cataclysm” that lies ahead that he couldn’t remain silent, warning on the BBC’s Today programme that Liz Truss’s plan to cut tax is a “sticking plaster on a gaping wound” and that millions will be left destitute and endangered this winter if nothing more is done. It is a damning indictment on this Government’s abysmal policies that the man we once relied on to help us save money is now focused on saving lives. How much longer can we go on like this?

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