This article was written by freelancer Eleanor Langford

It’s true, we all love a freebie. People will queue round the block for a free doughnut or a complimentary MAC lipstick. But when it comes to giving up our time and working for free – we’re really not as keen – and for good reason. Unpaid internships are still advertised all over the internet for various careers and disappointingly, there remains a lot of ambiguity over what constitutes paid work or not. The government says internships have “no legal status” on their own, but that if someone on a work placement or internship is called a “worker”, “volunteer” or “employee” they definitely need paying – at least minimum wage, apparently. This is still far too vague for my liking (I don’t believe anyone should ever work for free) but before you undertake any work experience, you should check the terms of your agreement and read the wording of your job very carefully to see if you’re legally entitled to payment.

A recent study by the Sutton Trust notes that it costs at least £1,019 a month to undertake an unpaid internship in London or £827 a month in Manchester. That’s a a super hefty price tag for a few week’s industry experience, and unless you’ve got lots of free accommodation sorted, or a bucket-load of cash, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to afford to do one. I get how inaccessible many placements still are, and I get that working for free is rubbish. That’s why I’ve rounded up a few simple tips to help you boss your placement without breaking the bank, or going insane…

Plan ahead

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It’s your first day. Great! You rock up to the station in your snazziest intern outfit, head to the ticket office and WOAH the ticket costs double what you thought it would. Your budget is shot and you now have no money for lunch. First. Day. Ruined. Always make sure you think ahead. You can plan your commute and make sure you double check prices, and don’t forget railcards aren’t always valid on peak time trains! If a season pass is your cheapest option then try to buy one ahead of time to avoid hassle in the mornings. And, if money is super tight, then consider walking or cycling part of your route to save a few extra pennies. Make yourself stick to a budget by avoiding shop-bought lunches. If you’re in a big city it can be tempting to eat out morning, noon and night, but you mustn’t give in. Make your lunch at home, and prep ahead to save you valuable time. Be sure to pack plenty of snacks too, so you’re not tempted by a cheeky croissant from the office canteen.

Know your worth

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This internship may cost you more than you think. It’ll eat into your savings, fill up your free time and take you off the job market for a little while. Yes, you’ll get some awesome experience, but is it definitely worth it? Consider the opportunity carefully, and weigh up costs/hours/inconvenience against experience gained.

Let’s say you’re interning at a national magazine. Scenario one: the team has you assisting at photo shoots, researching articles, sitting in on meetings and writing up notes. Scenario two: the editor has you washing up tea cups, tidying the cupboards and alphabetising the archives until late every day. I don’t know about you, but I know which scenario I’d rather be stuck in. If you find yourself in scenario two, make sure you’re actively asking for more interesting and relevant tasks. People can get busy and it’s easy to forget about the work experience girl/guy! If, however, your placement does end up as more ‘work’ than ‘experience’, it may be time to start looking for other opportunities. You’re giving them your time for free, don’t be afraid to expect real experience in return.

Double check & negotiate

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Unpaid internships are poorly regulated, so it’s good to be wary and double check everything. How many hours are you working? When are your breaks? Who will you report to? What office perks are you entitled to (e.g. can you use their fancy Nespresso machine)? If they’ve promised you expenses then double check before you start how you can claim them. It’s best to have all the facts so there are no nasty surprises – I once got caught out after a great week at a magazine because I forgot I needed to keep travel receipts, and so couldn’t claim my expenses, how harsh is that?

Once you’ve checked the terms of your placement, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Ask if you can start/finish later to avoid peak fares, or request to work a four-day week so you can work a part-time job. There may also be some wiggle room on expenses, too. Keep your inquiries polite, but firm; they aren’t paying you, after all. It isn’t unreasonable of you to ask for a little flexibility.

Keep your rent low

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Commuting is great if you’re near a big city, but what if you live in the middle of nowhere? Hotels aren’t cheap, but fear not!, there are plenty of ways to keep your living costs low. First call, seek out any friends and family in the area with a spare room or comfortable sofa. If they’re not keen on having you crash then try and sweeten the deal by offering to do the dishes or chip in for bills. Nobody you know in the area? Ask your friends if they know anyone, then ask your neighbour, his friend, the hairdresser, the postman’s friend’s – you get the idea. Basically, stay safe and only consider accommodation offers from people you know and trust, but be sure to exhaust your network. If you must splash out on accommodation then be sure to shop around. For short stays, Airbnb offers cheap room in London, or check out Spareroom for long-term house/flat deals.

Find a part-time job

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Stacking shelves or pulling pints might not be your dream job, but it will bring in some much-needed cash whilst you’re interning. If you’re able to juggle both, a jobs in hospitality or retail alongside your placement could be ideal. Bar and restaurant also mean extra income in the form of tips, too. If your hours aren’t regular, then casual work may be your best bet. Events staff, delivery drivers, tutors; these are just a few jobs that are super flexible and can be picked up whenever. Freelancing is also an option. Use the skills and contacts from your internship to seek out some freelance work. Or, keep an eye on Twitter and job sites for any freelance opportunities. The money might not be as good as a job at Asda, but it’s a great way to get ahead in your career whilst also earning some dollar.

Make the most of it

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All this unpaid internship stuff is costing you lots, so why waste it?! There’s no point paying £1000 a month to sit silently at your desk playing Angry Birds (not that we recommend doing this at any internship, ever). Come prepared and researched. The more you know, the more confident you’ll feel. Find out what your colleagues do, and target their skills accordingly. There’s no point asking Karen in Accounts about the company’s Marketing strategy. Think up plenty of insightful questions that will ‘wow’ everyone and keep you in their thoughts when a paid role opens up.

Get stuck in wherever you can, and go the extra mile! Is the big boss complaining they are short of ideas for the big presentation? Come up with some of your own and pitch them. Your boss might say no, or you could find yourself selling your own ideas to real clients. Don’t wait to be asked, offer your help wherever you can. You never know what you could find yourself doing.

Stay positive

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Unpaid internships are illegal when you’re acting like a worker, and placements that only offer expenses or very little renumeration are far from ideal. But if you find you’ve no other choice but to work in one, always check the wording of your job description to see if you are legally entitlted to a wage, or you can claim something back in the future. Let’s hope the law becomes a lot more clear-cut when it comes to the legal status of internships and placements…

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