Interning on a Modest Budget

Updated: November 12, 2019

So, you’re ready to get some hands-on internship experience in what you hope will be a long, fruitful, and fulfilling career. That’s a worthy investment, of course—but “investment” just might be the key word. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 60.8 percent of internships are paid, leaving nearly 40 percent of internships unpaid.* This is particularly true in certain fields, such as social services.

Keeping this in mind, the question is: Can you afford to do an unpaid (or low-paid) internship? And, if so, is it worth it?

Consider other benefits

First of all, there isn’t a single definition of “unpaid.” Some internships only “pay” you with an impressive entry on your resume, references, and hands-on experience. And before you ask, while there’s been increasing debate lately about whether such unpaid internships are lawful (or, for that matter, moral), they are indeed legal—provided they give students training and mentorship that benefits the intern more than themselves.

Other internships, however, don’t provide an actual salary, but do pay for housing, travel costs, and/or transportation. While this certainly won’t pad your savings account, it could allow you to squeak by for a summer (albeit on a steady diet of ramen). Employers also offer a variety of other internship benefits, from social activities to tuition reimbursement, that can help offset costs. It’s important to keep these in mind as you plan.

Build your budget

Experience is priceless—until you’ve emptied your savings account and can’t afford rent. Everyone’s in a different place money-wise, so it’s important to know your personal financial situation before you make any decisions about what you can or cannot do internship-wise. The best way to do that is to make a budget and stick to it. Then, if faced with an alluring internship opportunity, you’ll know right away whether you can afford to take it.

Now’s the time to learn about managing your money. You can find tons of free budgeting tools online with a quick search. By entering all the suggested information in each category, you can budget the money you anticipate having, as well as the amount you’ll need to live on for the duration of your internship, be that a summer, break, or semester. By better understanding your expenses, you’ll be able to determine where you have wiggle room and where you can cut corners—and where you can’t. Then, it’s just a matter of actually sticking to your budget once the internship comes around.

Stay home for the holidays

Housing is almost always the most expensive cost associated with an internship. Luckily, 58 percent of employers offer housing assistance or travel reimbursement. For those that don’t, it’s worth considering geographic location as a factor in your search. If you can live at home and drive your parents’ car every morning, you’re more likely to be able to do an unpaid internship than someone living in New York or San Francisco on their own.

Additionally, even if you land a paid internship in one of these cities, you can still end up losing money in the long term. An internship in a high-priced city can cost you thousands of dollars in rent (and then there’s food and transportation), so if you’re making the average intern salary of $18.73 an hour (thank you, 2018 NACE Internship and Co-Op Survey!), you can easily get priced out of the internship market. But before you give a prospective employer a definitive “no,” be sure to discuss the situation with them. They already want to work with you, and they’re familiar with the city; they just might be able to help out. Who knows—maybe one of your colleagues has a spare bedroom you can use!

If an internship in your hometown isn’t on the table, you can alleviate some of your financial woes by being smart about the location of your internship. Although New YorkChicagoLos Angeles, and San Francisco are the domestic hot spots for summer internships, there are plenty of other interesting and affordable locations that offer great unpaid and paid internship opportunities. Finding an internship in a college town can also help, as many universities offer inexpensive housing in dormitories when school is out. You can’t always control where you end up, but limiting your search to cities with a lower cost of living can save you a lot of money. An added bonus: less competition for those sought-after positions!

Another option to keep in mind as you attempt to keep down costs: doing a remote internship. Since you can work from anywhere, you don’t have to worry about housing costs. In fact, since employers don’t have to worry about having you in the office, they often offer remote internships during the school year, so you can work from the comfort of your dorm room.

Explore other options

If your wallet says that dream internship is impossible, but you’ve searched far and wide and still haven’t found anything that lives up it, don’t disregard it quite yet. There are other ways to make ends meet. First, be sure to explore other funding options, such as scholarships or a part-time job. Oftentimes, you can negotiate a flexible schedule with your internship supervisor.

Time to get started

An internship is an investment. It’s an investment in your future, your education, and your growth as a student and future employee. It’s worth it to make it work—but you also don’t want to stretch yourself too thin. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to balancing internship experience with your personal finances. Weigh all your options and make the decision that’s right for you.

If you’re ready to get searching, you can explore the many internship opportunities available now on Chegg Internships. Paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time, in Kansas City or New York City, we make it easy to find the internship that fits your needs—and your budget.


*Crane, Andrew, “Understanding the Impact of Unpaid Internships on College Student Career Development and Employment Outcomes,” Dec 2016