How to financially prepare for unpaid internships  

By Spencer Pipkin

Interning is one of the hallmark traditions of college and in some cases, a requirement. Regardless of major, alma mater or one’s enrollment time, it is one of the few mass-shared experiences of university students across the country.

As students, we are often told the benefits of interning, like making connections and potentially receiving job offers. At the University of Georgia, approved internships count as a form of experiential learning that satisfies a graduation requirement while allowing the students to receive academic credit for their work.

The rewards are plentiful, but we as students often overlook the negative factors. Unpaid internships can become costly, especially in a large city. Using data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and The New York Times, CNBC has reported that interning unpaid could cost the intern up to $12,986 in missed wages, transportation costs, housing and other necessities.

Such a large financial burden regularly prevents socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals from applying, creating barriers to workplace education and entry. Rising prices from inflation may now also be a factor in many students’ decisions, as the Consumer Price Index increased 5.3% since August 2020, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

I learned valuable lessons while preparing for an unpaid summer internship. Planning is the first step to starting an unpaid internship with minimal, long-term financial burdens. This step takes time and should not be rushed. Keep an open mind as to various internship opportunities and cities. In my case, I already had an internship, so I concentrated my planning phase primarily on housing, meals and transportation accommodations. Maintaining this strategy allowed me to weigh all my options in an unbiased manner.

Step one goes far beyond the accommodations and internship itself, but also into financial preparation. This is the phase when it is best to create a budget, set savings goals, apply for scholarships and grants, and determine if a loan may be necessary. It is also a proper time to decide whether the timing of the internship is right, or if waiting is more optimal.

The second step is to step back and check your expectations—determine how realistic the plan is. As much as I wanted to live in Washington, D.C.’s Eastern Market or Georgetown when I was planning for my summer internship, I knew it was well out of my price range. I knew it would also increase the likelihood of an even greater long-term financial burden, despite saving in transportation related areas, such as the Metro or Uber.

The final step is securing the necessary accommodations. I learned quickly that housing prices change based on market demand. Demand rapidly increases in the summer months between interns and families traveling, so see if area universities open their housing to interns in other colleges or universities. My mother found this option, and it saved me about $1,800.

Rather than either of my first two choices, I ended up in Brookland, a quaint community located on the Metro red line. I rented an apartment, without roommates, from Catholic University of America, and it was perfect. It was a six-minute walk through campus to the metro line from my fifth story apartment, and I felt safe the entire time with campus police and Washington Metro Transit Police patrolling the university grounds.

My time in Washington and on Capitol Hill was an unforgettable, life-changing experience, and it was partially like that because of the detailed planning that was involved, with both my parents and me. Because of our planning and attention to detail, I was able to save, use scholarship money, and plan to take a federal student loan, and my parents were able to assist me throughout the process.

Spencer Pipkin is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.

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