1. Tell us a bit about the Money & Mental Health Policy Institute?

Money and Mental Health is a new charity working to break the links between financial difficulties and mental health problems. Living in financial stress can lead to mental health problems. The more debts a person has, the more likely they are to develop a mental health problem, even after adjusting for income and other factors. Financial difficulty can also worsen and prolong mental health problems. People with depression who are also in financial difficulty are 4.2 times more likely to still have depression when contacted 18 months later than people without financial difficulty. One in four people experiencing a mental health problem are also in problem debt. Money and Mental Health conduct research and develop policies for banks, lenders, regulators, the health service and government to help people with mental health problems protect themselves from financial difficulties and get out of debt.

2. How is Martin Lewis involved in the project?

Martin is the founder of Money and Mental Health. The website he founded, MoneySavingExpert.com, is the UK’s biggest money site with over 14 million monthly users. Through the site and his work as a campaigner, broadcaster and newspaper columnist, Martin realised that there’s a toxic relationship between financial difficulties and mental health problems, and that we need policy leadership to break this link once and for all, rather than just helping people when they get into difficulties.

3. How responsive has the financial services industry been to what you’re trying to do?

I’ve been really impressed so far at how enthusiastic the industry has been about our work. Many of the issues we’re talking about, like how people can stop themselves from taking out credit when they’re unwell, or what we need to do to help carers help people with mental health problems to manage their money, are complicated problems for the industry to solve. Nonetheless we’ve had an almost universally positive response, and seen a real willingness among banks, building societies and lenders to step up and work out what we can do to make sure people with mental health problems don’t get into financial difficulty as a result.

4. If you could change one thing about the industry what would it be?

I’d like to see a focus on helping consumers to manage their money day to day. The industry has come a long way in changing how it behaves when a customer gets into financial difficulty, but there’s a lot more that we can do to help prevent people getting into trouble in the first place. New fintech tools could play a really exciting role, giving us a much better understanding of our financial behaviours and making this information much easier to see, just a tap away on our phones rather than needing a slog through spreadsheets. We’re all full of good intentions, when it comes to  our diets, exercise and our finances, but we really struggle to implement the behaviours needed to fulfil those intentions when we’re tired or busy.  We need support and reminders to change, a step at a time. Just as fitness trackers and apps have started to change our relationship to our health, I think there’s a huge opportunity for consumers to gain control of their finances, reducing the numbers of people getting into financial difficulty and improving financial wellbeing.

5. What are your pet peeves?

Putting things in the ‘too difficult box’. Working in public policy you inevitably come up against complex problems to which there’s no obvious solution. It can be easy to shrug and say it’s too complicated, but I’m a big believer in the second-best solution – if the ideal isn’t achievable, it’s still better to do something to help than sit back.

6. What would you spend a windfall of £10,000 on?

While it feels a bit weird to say, I’m already financially secure and evidence suggests that £10,000 wouldn’t make someone like me that much happier. So if it did magically fall into my lap, I’d give most of it to a charity like GiveDirectly, who make grants to the very poorest households in Sub-Saharan Africa through mobile payments systems, and for whom even a very small share of that cash would be life-changing in a way it wouldn’t be for me. Safe in the knowledge I’d some good, I might save a little bit for a holiday – I went surfing in Morocco a couple of years ago and I’d love to do that again.

7. What hobbies do you have?

InIn my spare time I run a Brownie group for 7-10 year old girls which keeps me pretty busy! We meet every week in school terms to do things like crafts, sport, cooking and exploring outdoors. I love it – the kids never fail to perk me up and inspire me with their enthusiasm even after the most hectic day at work,and I think I learn as much as they do!

8. What would you do if you were PM for a day?

I’m constantly amazed by how little we know about the financial wellbeing of people across the UK. Even though most of us store and spend our cash through bank accounts, where you’d think it would be recorded, actually the best information available to researchers like me is survey data. It’s just not enough. So if I was Prime Minister for the day, I’d take the opportunity to push my pet project – a major data study of financial difficulty. It’d follow the model of a ground-breaking medical project, the 100,000 genome project through which about 70,000 people are donating their DNA to medical science so we can decode rare genetic diseases and cancer and find new treatments. In a similar way, I’d recruit 50,000 volunteers to provide two or three years of their financial transactions history, along with biographic and demographic information. With all that data together, I’d invite researchers to explore the financial situation of UK consumers and work out where problems are arising. Once we know what’s going wrong, programmers could start to build fintech tools to build pre-emptive support for consumers into the system, providing tools which can spot signs of possible financial difficulty and help consumers find strategies to overcome the problems. It’s a huge project and would of course take longer than a day to see results, but it would be wonderful to get the ball rolling on a radical project which could completely transform our understanding of household finances and our ability to improve financial wellbeing.

9. What is the one column or website that you read every day?

It’s only published once a week, but I love Azeem Ahar’s Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about changes in technology, political economy and society. It’s a brilliantly curated list of long-reads which I dip into on my commute most mornings.

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