Navigating an Unpaid Internship


An internship with a company in your projected career field is a valuable opportunity that can pay off in the long run. Unfortunately, if it’s not paid you could be in a tough situation.

Until you start earning a wage for your work, you can take measures to minimize your expenses during the internship and ease the financial burden you’re under.

Track your expenses

No matter what age you are, it’s always wise to create a budget and stick to it, tracking your expenditures and saving the receipts. Start this habit now, while your income is meager. It will help you keep your spending under control and monitor where your money is going.

“Before applying for the internship, write up a budget that includes exactly how much money you will need to live on for the duration of the internship,” says University Language Services in an article for the Houston Chronicle. Make sure you can afford to take this internship and know exactly how much you can spend each week.

Minimize the cost of housing

The biggest costliest expense during an unpaid internship will probably be lodging. Monthly rent at an apartment can drain your savings, leaving you in a financial state that’s worse than where you started.

Employment expert Jessica Aszkenasy wrote in an article for Save the Student, “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 in luck!”

It might be awkward contacting someone you haven’t spoken to in years or weren’t very close to when you knew them, but you have to prioritize your financial needs.

If you can’t find someone you know or trust in the vicinity to live with, look in the want ads for roommate requests. You may find someone trustworthy and reliable who’s in a similar situation you are — willing to split the cost of renting an apartment.

Don’t deplete your savings

When you’ve built a safety net in your savings account, do your best to keep it intact. Don’t shrink it with frivolous spending during the internship. You need to hold onto that money to cover future expenses after the internship, such as student loan bills, a down payment on a car, a security deposit for an apartment or emergency medical expenses.

If your coworkers frequently go out after work for happy hour or order takeout from a nearby restaurant, don’t feel bad about turning down those invitations. Ultimately, you’re in this position for the work and resume experience, not to fit in with your teammates and make friends. You have to think of your financial situation foremost.

Find another source of income

Unless your internship is working you morning to night, you should have free time during the day before or after your shift. Instead of spending that time watching movies on the couch or hanging out with friends, find a way to generate some income — even if it’s just enough to pay for groceries.

Many students turn to restaurants and department stores, but you’re not limited to those jobs. “If you can’t see yourself waiting tables or folding clothes, there are plenty of other side hustles that you can pick up,” points out Amanda Dixon, a writer for Smart Asset. “In fact, you don’t even have to leave your room. You might be able to earn money by freelancing or monetizing your YouTube channel.”

The gig economy is booming right now, and there are plenty of opportunities for you to work a couple of hours delivering food or babysitting.

Negotiate for some benefits

An unpaid internship doesn’t necessarily mean that your temporary employer won’t pay you anything for your work. There may be other benefits or expense coverage they’re willing to provide.

Start by having a conversation with your supervisor to discuss what personal expenses the internship requires of you. Aszkenasy says, “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.”

Even if you aren’t able to secure monetary compensation, perhaps you’ll be able to negotiate to receive other perks, like flexible work hours to accommodate a side hustle.

An unpaid internship can be a worthwhile opportunity to jump-start your career, but you don’t want to leave the job in a worse financial state than when you started. Be wise about your spending, and your bank account will thank you.

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