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Jobs & Careers

Unpaid internships – how to financially support yourself

Worried about how you're going to make ends meet during your unpaid internship? Here are some money-saving tips to help you.

sign with words paid and unpaid and woman sitting behind laptop

Credit: (left) Stoatphoto, (right) Mentatdgt Shutterstock

As much as we think they should be banned, unpaid internships and work placements are unfortunately still a thing. And, for many, they can be the only foot in the door of a competitive industry.

If you are faced with the prospect of doing an unpaid internship, you should know your rights. Although not all unpaid internships are illegal, in some cases they are. This can include if you've got a contract for future work, or you're doing jobs that would otherwise be done by a paid employee.

However, if your unpaid internship is legal, and you think it's the right choice for you, here are a few money-saving tips to help you get through it without draining your bank account.

Surviving an unpaid internship

Here are our tips on how to afford an unpaid internship:

  1. Negotiate basic expenses

    Make sure to ask at your interview about any payment or expenses. In some cases, companies will be more than happy to cover your travel and lunch expenses. However, this is often only the case if you take the initiative to ask about it.

    With that in mind, don't be afraid to explain your situation to them. If you're having to travel a long way to make it, and/or stay in expensive accommodation, they might be able to make an exception and bump up your expenses. It's worth a shot!

    Also, try asking about expenses again at the end of your placement. We know it's not exactly fair, but if you've worked hard and impressed them, they might be willing to offer you more.

    It's also worth trying to negotiate your working hours. This could allow you to manage a part-time job on the side.

    Or, even if you're not able to get a part-time job alongside the internship, you could ask for flexible hours around peak transport times. Travel will be less stressful at quiet hours and a lot cheaper.

  2. Stay with friends or in cheap accommodation

    If your internship is near your home or uni accommodation, figuring out where to stay won't be an issue. But if you're having to travel for your internship, this will be your biggest expense. You should get it sorted out ASAP.

    First, see if there's a relative or friend you could stay with. Even if you can't think of anybody suitable, post an Instagram story about it to see if you get any responses. You might even find there's a friend of a friend with a spare bed.

    Also, have a look for any schemes that could help you get free accommodation. For instance, PressPad pair up those doing unpaid media internships with hosts who work in the industry and have room to spare. That's free accommodation and a useful connection in the sector.

    If you do end up going for private accommodation, make sure you properly hunt around for the best deal. You could try hotels, hostels, Airbnbs and whatever else you can find.

    If you're interning over the summer, see if any local universities rent out their student halls during the holidays. These can be cheaper and just as nice as a hotel.

  3. Book travel in advance

    pile of train tickets

    Credit: Alan Parkinson - Flickr

    If your employer has agreed to cover travel costs you won't need to worry about this too much. But, if not, make sure you book tickets early to keep costs low.

    If you're travelling by train, always use your 16–25 Railcard and check ticket-splitting sites for extra opportunities to save.

    Our complete guide to getting cheap train tickets has even more tips. And don't forget to claim compensation for delays.

    If you're commuting every day, add up the total travel costs for the week and factor them into your budget. Check for alternative options like cycling, walking or car-sharing (a great way to save money while driving) to keep costs as low as possible.

    If you do have to get public transport every day, look for bus passes or season tickets. It could work out much cheaper in the long run.

  4. Keep food costs low by bringing lunch to work

    It sounds boring, but make sure to plan your meals for the week. Lunch can get pretty expensive if you're splashing out on a meal deal or fancy a panini every day. You could try these delicious but cheap sandwich ideas instead.

    That being said, if there's an opportunity for work lunches, go for it! These will almost always be paid for by the company (check first!) and are a great way to build relationships with your colleagues while getting some free food.

    You can also ask your colleagues if they know of any cheap places to eat nearby. They might know a hidden gem of a coffee shop or a cheap sandwich place that could otherwise take you weeks to discover on your own.

    And don't forget to check Karma and TooGoodToGo to see if any restaurants in the area are handing out surplus food.

  5. Buy budget work clothes and shop in charity shops

    girl shopping for clothes

    Another expense of being an unpaid intern is the work wardrobe. It can be pricey if you don't know where to look.

    First of all, figure out what the dress code is. Will everyone be in corporate suits or dressed more casually? There's no point in investing in super-smart gear if it's not needed.

    When you head shopping, you could try places like:

    To avoid buying clothes that you're unlikely to rewear often, look into renting clothes.

    You can also check apps like Depop and Vinted to buy second-hand clothes.

    There's no harm in checking out your local charity shop too. They often have some hidden gems.

    And remember, we've got a whole guide on dressing for work on a budget. It also includes what you should be buying for different dress codes.

  6. Get your money's worth

    An unpaid internship is a serious investment of your time and money. You have to make sure you're getting as much out of the experience as you possibly can.

    Once you're in there, it's all about networking. Talk to as many people as possible, soak up their advice and make sure they remember your name.

    Just think, if you get offered your first graduate job at the end of the internship, you can start evening out that dent in your student bank account. If you're enthusiastic and give 100%, it's bound to pay off in the end.

There are some great alternatives to internships if you don't think it's the right step for you.

Jessica Murray

WRITTEN BY Jessica Murray

As an Editor of Save the Student, Jessica Murray has written extensively on student money news and money-saving tips. She was co-host of our podcast, No More Beans, and is now a journalist at the Guardian. Her tips and insights range from fun guides for freshers, to information for graduates entering the workplace.
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