How to support yourself financially during an unpaid internship
Worried about how you're going to make ends meet during your unpaid internship? Here are some money-saving tips to help get you through...
As much as we think they should be banned already, 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, firstly know your rights! Although not all unpaid internships are illegal, in some cases they are – especially 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:
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, but often only if you take the initiative to ask about it (stupid, we know).
With that in mind, don't be afraid to explain your situation to them. If you're having to travel a fair 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 really impressed them, they might be willing to offer you more.
Finally, if it's going to help, try and negotiate your working hours. This could allow you to manage a part-time job on the side, but if not, try asking for flexible hours around peak transport times. Travel will be less stressful at quiet hours and a lot cheaper.
Stay with friends or in cheap accommodation
If your internship is near your home or uni accommodation, then you're sorted for somewhere to stay. But if you're having to travel far for your internship, then this will be your biggest expense and you should get it sorted ASAP.
Your first port of call should be to try and find a relative or friend to stay with. You might think you don't know anyone suitable, but put out a Facebook post and see if you get any response. It only takes a friend of a friend with a spare bed and you're sorted.
Also, have a scout around for any schemes that could help you get free accommodation. For instance, Press Pad 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 – try hotels, hostels, Airbnbs and whatever else you can find.
If you're interning over the summer, have a look to see if any local universities rent out their student halls during the holidays, as these can be cheaper and just as nice as a hotel.
Book travel in advance
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 get booked up nice and 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, make sure to add up 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, have a look for bus passes or season tickets which could work out much cheaper in the long run.
Keep food costs low by bringing lunch to work
It sounds really 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 panini every day – try out 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.
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 super cheap sandwich place that could otherwise take you weeks to discover on your own.
Buy budget work clothes and shop in charity shops
Another expense of being an unpaid intern that students often forget about is the work wardrobe, which can be pricey if you don't know where to look.
First of all, suss 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, try places like:
And remember, we've got a whole guide on dressing for work on a budget, including exactly what you should be buying for different dress codes.
Get your money's worth
Remember that an unpaid internship is a serious investment of your time and money, so 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 then you can start evening out that dent in your student bank account! So be enthusiastic, give 100% and it's bound to pay off in the end.
Remember there are some great alternatives to internships if you're unsure about whether it's the right step for you.