How to NOT Go Broke During An Unpaid Intership

As college students, internships are an integral part of learning what you want to do after college and gaining experience in your field. But they’re often offered as an unpaid position in exchange for class credit. Most college students are broke as is, so accepting a time consuming, unpaid job may seem out of reach for some, but it doesn’t have to be. Let this be your guide to surviving an unpaid internship.

First, you must ask yourself if an unpaid internship is right for you. If you are supporting yourself with no help from anyone else, and struggle to keep yourself afloat as is, an unpaid internship may not be right for you. An internship experience is important, but if you can’t afford to work for free, you may want to consider finding an internship or part-time position in your field that is paid.  Do not put yourself in financial disarray to boost your resume, there are many other ways to secure jobs after graduation without internship experience, such as being active on campus, networking and earning online certifications, just to name a few.  

If an internship is doable given your financial situation, I cannot stress how important it is to start saving. If you cut out some unnecessary expenses before your internship starts, you may be surprised how much you’ll be able to save. By saving money, you are giving yourself something to fall back on when times get tough as an unpaid intern (and believe me they do).  Here are some of my favorite saving hacks to get you started. 

Related: Fyi, Self-Care For Your Finances is a Thing & How I Save Money in College

Next, you’ll want to negotiate with your employer. This sounds like a daunting task, but if you need to be comped for your expenses such as your commute to work, lunch or lodging, you should discuss this with your employer. More often than not, they’ll be understanding of your situation and willing to work with you. Alongside negotiating expenses, you can negotiate what hours you work. You’re offering your services to your employer for free, so they should be flexible in the hours you can work. I know negotiating seems intimidating, but I promise the worst thing someone can say to you is no, so don’t be afraid to speak up.

I would also recommend picking up a part-time job or having a side hustle. By having even a small source of income, you’ll be able to go out with your friends, buy necessities, etc. Also, by being preoccupied with this other commitment, you’ll be too busy to spend what money you make anyways. The summer before my junior year of college I interned (unpaid) at a non-profit for 3-days a week and then had a part-time job for another 3-days a week. Being busy 6-days a week gave me no time to actually spend any money that I was making and I ended up coming back to school with more money than I originally anticipated. If you don’t have the time or ability to get a “traditional” part-time job because of your internship, try a side hustle. Find anything you’re good at or passionate about, whether that’s baking, art or even thrifting and turn it into a source of income. You can make an Instagram page or even start an Etsy shop to sell your items. These options can be less time consuming than a part-time job and since you are your own boss, you can work as little or as much as you’d like. n

Lastly, create a budget and actually stick to it. By creating a budget, you are setting yourself up for financial success. You’ll have fixed expenses such as rent, bills, etc. that should be prioritized first when preparing your budget. After budgeting for your fixed expenses you’ll have a few more needs to plan for such as groceries and toiletries that will vary in cost week to week. Then whatever is left over is yours to spend on your wants, this consists of things like going out to eat or buying new clothes you don’t really need. Once you create a budget, you’ll be hyper-aware of where all your money is going and (hopefully) this will encourage you to slow down your spending. 

Here are a few more tips and tricks on how not to go completely broke during your unpaid internship:

  • If possible, get an unpaid internship near or around your hometown so you only have to commute to work from home. By commuting, you can save so much on not having to pay for rent. 

  • If you are commuting to work, try to take public transit or carpool. They’re both cheaper alternatives than driving your own car. You can save on gas, parking and these are better options for the environment. 

  • Seek financial aid. You can apply for scholarships and grants that are specific to assisting students who are completing unpaid internships.