Five steps to surviving your unpaid internship

You've got your big chance, but how are you meant to fund it? Student money saving expert David Ellis shares his guide.

To say unpaid internships have been done to death risks an understatement; by now the arguments are well documented, and rightly so.  

Sadly, these internships persist as the hashtag #unpaidinternships will attest. Though there's a chance they will one day become a welcome relic (no doubt to become a point of pride: ‘you know, in my day, we had to work for free...’), for many they are a necessary, slimy first rung on the career ladder.

So long as the right chance is offered, there will be an inbox somewhere bulging with applications. Surviving unpaid, though, is a difficult game; desperate times call for more than customary relative-begging or bouts of staring at the dog wondering what riches he’s hidden in his basket. As the applications open, bear these tips in mind for living on nearly nothing.

Choose your internship carefully

Unpaid internships work because they suggest, rather cheaply, that a little free work now is required for riches later. This often isn’t the case, and the sting of being mis-sold is painfully multiplied upon realising that working for free actually means paying to work.

If two internships seem similar, pick the one which has the best guarantee of work at its conclusion, and, if neither do, be sensible - just this once - and choose by location (which is cheaper to get to?), costs (what exactly are the ‘expenses’ they cover?), and hours (which leaves room for other work?).

Negotiate everything

Now is not the time to be polite about money. If a company offers to cover your travel costs and your train fare is, for instance, £32.82, don’t be coy and do collect the pennies. Besides adding up, it makes a statement if you’re precise. Your employer is using your brain for free: get what you’re entitled to.

Ask if the working hours are set or flexible; if your role doesn’t work to tight deadlines, try to push back your shift so you arrive and leave later. Though it’ll eat up your evening, travelling to and from work during off-peak times means off-peak fares. For an intern commuting from Reading into and around London each week, a peak-time monthly railcard will cost £451.60, even with the invaluable 16-25 railcard. Conversely, an off-peak day travelcard is £14.35, which works out at £315.70 for a working month, based on the average 22 working days each month, though of course more would be saved should there be bank holidays or any other days off.

Enquire to see if you are required five days a week. If not, or if you are capable of doing the work in fewer days and can successfully argue your case, then use leftover time for a part-time (paid!) gig. 

Get a part-time job which pays - and provides

Working on a checkout will get you much-needed funds but you’ll be tied to the hours and, worse, regulated pay. Apply for positions in a bar or restaurant, where you’ll earn tips aside your wage. Tips mean you can theoretically work harder (as opposed to longer) to earn money quickly.

Working part-time in a local café is an ideal solution because besides tips, you’re likely to get free lunch thrown in which can suffice as the main meal of the day, reducing your weekly shop to breakfast and light evening meals.

An alternate is to tutor, which pays well and offers such flexible hours that you should be able to fit it around even the most demanding schedule.

Finally, obviously: use the skills you’re learning during your internship elsewhere. Plenty of freelancing websites exist for most skillsets - well, apart from astrophysics and, we must pray, medicine. Build a CV, respond to adverts and build paid experience in your field.

What constitutes ‘expenses’?

If you’re on some expenses, have a chat with whoever is clearing your costs and know how they’re paid to you – if you must hand in receipts for every claim you make, spend what you can legitimately. Your modesty with their accounts is unlikely to factor into whether they wish to employ you or not, so while treating your expenses as a blank cheque is perhaps ill-advised, there’s no harm in ensuring you’re well fed and watered.

Smaller businesses sometimes operate more flexibly. Rather than offering to pay for a sandwich and a latte from the local deli, they may provide a stipend for food. Instead of spending it on something shop-bought, claim the money and relive those primary school days of packed lunch. You’ll eat as well and the money left over can fund the rest of your shopping. It may be a little cheeky, but, I’d suggest, no worse than demanding you work for free.

Get your hands dirty and your rent cheap

Paying for a room is perhaps the most daunting challenge of working unpaid. Many decide to live with parents or close friends, which should lower costs. If you have good friends near to your work, explain the situation – including that you’ll be out most of the time – and make your case for a spot on the sofa. 

Offer to scrub the flat each week, be the one to do the food shop, go to town with the DIY. Does everyone else hate sorting the bills? Organise them. Find out whatever will help, do it, and pay for your bed that way. At the very least, you can hope for reduced rent.

David Ellis is the editor of studentmoneysaver.co.uk

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