ouseholds in Britain are suffering the hardest knock on their incomes than any other G7 nation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported. In addition, the Office for National Statistics reported nine out of 10 adults are experiencing increased living costs.
Born and raised on a council estate in Tower Hamlets, the East London borough that has seen one of the highest rates of child poverty in recent times, Emmanuel’s own childhood circumstances are not unlike many others in today’s Britain amid the cost of living crisis.
“Growing up, my mum worked hard, my dad did as well; just working really hard, but then not having much,” he says. “Growing up, and having things like school trips, where they go away and so forth, and knowing that I wouldn’t even be able to ask my parents because I knew they had no money, so I knew they were going to say no. Things that other people had as normal, for me were luxuries.”
Today, Emmanuel is a financial adviser. He appears on national television, travelling across the UK to help people live better financially. One of those people is Emma Houton, a single mother from the village of Shortstown in Bedfordshire, who we watch Emmanuel teach financial security to, in BBC One’s latest documentary in their ‘We are England’ series.
Emma, along with her 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, was trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, working yet hardly surviving before they met Emmanuel, for whom the memory of living in a crowded home hung on.
“As I grew up, Limehouse is very close to Canary Wharf, so I used to see the buildings in Canary Wharf. I always tell people if I left the light on in the kitchen, I used get into huge trouble in my house, because when you don’t have much money, the light being on represents money being wasted,” he says.
“I remember that when I used to go to bed and look out the window, I’d see all these buildings in Canary Wharf with all the lights on, and everyone had gone home, and in my young mind, that told me they must have so much money that they can leave all these lights on and go home and so because of that I was like, I want to go and work in Canary Wharf. That was my vision.”
It was a vision he realised early on. By age 19, those buildings dotted with lights became his everyday reality. At 22, Emmanuel was the youngest financial adviser at Barclays Bank. But it wasn’t how he had imagined.
“Canary Wharf is in Tower Hamlets. I was born in Tower Hamlets. So, I thought when I get to Canary Wharf, I’m home. I’m here. I can walk home, I’m that close. But when I got there I was a stranger, because I became a financial adviser at 22. All my colleagues were 45+. The average age of financial advisers is 55. All my colleagues could have been my mum or dad. All of them.”
Other factors compounded his sense of being out of place: “I’m Black. I was the only Black person on my team. The only other Black people I knew that worked in the same job, worked in Brixton, Lewisham. Black areas in Birmingham and Manchester.”
“But also, I didn’t drink or smoke. In those times, they used to go to the pub, and I would be staring with an orange juice, looking crazy.”
“We’re comedians, we’re entertainers, we’re sport stars. We’re not the experts.”
/ David Terry/BBC
However, like a drug, this double life wasn’t one he wanted an escape from.
“I remember wearing a suit to work and the second I get closer to home, I start taking off the tie and trying not to look like I forgot where I come from.”
“And sometimes it can be a weight on your shoulder because you feel like ‘I’ve got to represent for my hood or for people from my area’ but now you’re going to the City and you’re rubbing shoulders with people from a different lifestyle, and you feel like you’re almost faking it.”
He added: “When I got my first job at 22 I was at Barclays and making serious money. At that point I was making more money than a lot of my uncles, the male figures in my life.”
“And you know what I did? I went and brought trainers that I couldn’t buy when I was a kid. They weren’t even cool anymore but to me, they were the image of how I wanted to be.”
But it wasn’t until the life he had plunged into forced him out that he snapped out of the spell. He’s been made redundant four times, the last time when he had just had his fourth child: “What they would say was that it was a business decision. They hired, and things were tough. I knew part of it was business but I think a lot of it was culture. I was different to everyone else.”
“I was younger. I was cooler. I don’t act like they act. I don’t talk how they talk. I’m not from that. Although I was really good at sales, and doing my job, I wasn’t necessarily fitting in with the other advisers, the company, and I didn’t do as they do. When it came time to make cuts, I was always the first one to be let go,” he tells me.
Authenticity, he says, is what matters most to him. Leaving his career was no easy task, but it was “liberating”.
“The biggest thing I tell people is that it is about loving yourself. I think that’s something we don’t talk about when it comes to finance. One the of the biggest problems is we take our value from the things we can buy, the holidays we can go on, the cars we can drive, the house we can live in. That’s our value.”
“And because we take value from that, it is never enough. So, once you get a car, you see someone else with a nice car, now you wanna get a new car, even if your car is only six months old. Now you don’t like it anymore because someone else got something better,” he says.
“What I teach my clients is to love yourself, and that you are already valuable and no clothes, no shoes, no car will make you anymore valuable.”
His mum returned to Nigeria for the first time in years, “and I got to pay for that”.
He transitioned from an environment he saw no value in. Growing ever disillusioned by the hustle of helping billionaires manage their finances, so they could go from earning £2 billion to £3 billion, he decided to repurpose his skills. Emmanuel moved on, advising youth groups, congregations at churches and students from schools not so different from his own school, where to not be dependent on free schools meant you were rich, for free.
As things started to pick up, he founded Eman Effect. Now five years old, his financial advisory company isn’t the conventional, and “serious” kind. Instead, he tells me, he uses humour unique to him.
“I started what we call the Uncle Eman, where I go online and I roast people. I’d be like, you are out here driving a really nice car, you got really nice clothes, but you live in your mum’s house and share a room with your little brother, and you ain’t got no money.”
“People just found it hilarious. It’s so true. The kind of reality where you spend money you can’t afford, and you know you can’t afford it.”
“I just used to roast people but I did it under a character, so people didn’t take it personally and understood that it is a bit of banter and you’re not necessarily personal, but it’s like giving a child medicine but with a sweet, making it easy to digest.”
He laces hard truths with amusement. But would those buried in debt and locked up in cold, damp houses believe they had the power to better their situation?
He acknowledges seeing light in a dark world is difficult. But having spent 15 years meeting people in similar circumstances, he tells me making sacrifices for “your end goals” is the only solution. To make those sacrifices, he says, you need also to know your worth. For Emma, his client, his advice was the same.
“She’s blaming herself. Sometimes, you could do ten things right but you do one thing wrong and you just focus on the one thing you’ve done wrong. That was Emma; she couldn’t see past the issues she was bearing.”
Entertainment, he says, is an important part of his job because he had no role model growing up.
“There wasn’t really anyone I could look up to.You look on television, and we had Trevor McDonald who I really respected in my house. And when he would come and do the news, we would listen, but he didn’t relate to me.”
“We’re comedians, we’re entertainers, we’re sport stars. We’re not the experts. We’re not the person that people go to when they need advice. And so, me doing my financial advice company, me being on TV has changed that and made people feel like, yes actually we can get advice from this community or from somebody from this background because I haven’t been to Oxford or Cambridge or I don’t talk like I’m upper class.”
He extends this thought to the cost of living crisis. Most might describe it as turmoil but for Emmanuel, it is nothing new. “We talk about the cost of living crisis but for my parents growing up, we had a cost of living crisis before there was a cost of living crisis. We used to have bucket baths; we never had a shower. We had one bucket of water, we had to make that last the whole day.’
He says the crisis has given people “a much better consciousness”.
“The cost of living crisis made more people focused on their money. I have been talking about inflation for my 15 year career, and everyone’s like its a myth, like I just made it up. Now, people on streets are like ‘this inflation is crazy’, and it’s like ‘oh, I wasn’t lying’. I feel like this generation is being educated on finance more, and they understand the Bank of England,” he says.
He creates bespoke financial plans, with the aim of empowering them to make the wise money decisions that were only luck for his own parents. Emma, he says, came out of the month long support he’d given her as a different person. “She walked different, breathed different.” But she remained the same person.
He believes his own story is unique. “I know I’m rare. I know that It’s not normal, but the good thing is that because I exist, more and more young people from that community believe that its possible.”
“You’re not defined by your council estate,” he remarks. “You know that Nelson Mandela quote: ‘It always seems impossible till it’s done’. That’s one thing I walk around and say: it’s been done.”
But for this, support from those in power is crucial: “The simple things like playgrounds are closing, youth centres – to them, that’s a numbers thing, you cut back costs. And I understand you need to cut back costs. But the reality is that without having those services I wouldn’t be the person I am because I would have been on the streets, and if I was on the streets, I would’ve been with the wrong crowd. That would have changed the trajectory of my life.”
Emmanuel says he is a “shining light”, but much like those countless lights at Canary Wharf, “there’s loads more of us now that are a light to people to let them know that it’s possible”.
‘Money and Me, Our Money-Saving Story’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.