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How to survive on expenses

How to survive on expenses

Students might be used to living on a shoestring budget, but internships can introduce a whole host of other costs. This guide will help you cope with them even if the wages are minimal.

In many industries having an internship or two is a good way to improve your chances of graduate employment. However, while there are a lot of opportunities out there, many only pay expenses or minimum wage. What’s more, they are usually based in places like London, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live and work in. This isn’t very helpful if you come from a town at the other end of the country, like Inverness or Aberystwyth. In order to redress the balance we’ve put together this guide on how to survive on expenses.

Agree your budget before you start

Before you commit to any internship or work experience placement you should know roughly what kind of budget you are going to have to play with. Wait until you are offered the position before you bring it up though – you should never ask money questions in a job interview. An expenses budget could be anything from £2.50 a day for lunch, to £250 a week for accommodation, travel and living costs.

It may be worth negotiating the amount, but be prepared to defend your position with evidence. Investigate how much other companies pay for expenses, and how much it is actually going to cost you. Once you know how much you are allowed, you should build up a buffer of the same amount in your account. This can either be as an overdraft or as your own money, but the safest bet is to have both. This is because expenses work by paying back the money you have spent.

You should also find out how quickly your expenses cheques will be processed. If you need them to arrive quickly, then you should make this clear to your employers. You will also need to set aside time in your lunch break to deposit cheques, and remember that they may take a couple of working days to appear in your account. Some banks do open on Saturdays.

Always get receipts

Some vacancies may give you an allowance at the start of the week without asking what you’re spending it on. However, others will only give you a cheque for the amount you have already spent. If you can’t prove that you’ve spent that money on that item, you’re not going to get any money at all. For this reason you should always ask for a receipt.

Some travel tickets have the price printed on them, but if you’re buying a season ticket to economise then you probably won’t want to staple it to an expenses form. Most companies will accept photocopies as evidence, and you can also take the real thing along and show them if they ask. It’s worth having a pen and paper in case you have to pay with change or the merchant doesn’t have a machine. A safer bet is to check before you pay anything.


Tickets for travel usually cost more at peak times. For example, train fares drop considerably after 9am, and you are also allowed to use discount cards then. Your employer may be willing to let you come into work late if you leave later, or work through your lunch break, but make sure this is understood beforehand.

Get familiar with the landscape too. The London Underground map can be very deceptive. The routes from Leicester Square to Covent Garden, and Embankment to Charing Cross are particularly famous. They each last less than a minute and set you back the best part of a fiver. Walking or cycling is often a smarter choice, even if you’re in a hurry.

If you know how long you’re going to be there, a season ticket could save you a lot of money. Or you might be able to arrange to carpool or car-share. Giving someone a lift is one way you can actually make money instead of having to claim on expenses. For longer, one-off journeys, the Megabus can be really cheap if you book in advance.


Finding somewhere to stay is often the flaw in the plan for many people who want to intern in London, but it doesn’t need to be. On a minimal budget you won’t find anywhere decent to rent, but some landlords are willing to drop their prices in exchange for help with babysitting or pet-sitting. House-sitting is another option, although you may have to move in and out at the whim of owners.

Couch-surfing can also help, although many sites ask you to offer up your sofa in exchange. Poor etiquette is severely frowned up. If you have any friends in London, you could ask to sleep on their sofa. The problem with both of these is that they are not long-term solutions and you may need to move on after a couple of nights.

However, one perfectly feasible option is to stay at a youth hostel. Even in the city centre they can be as cheap as £10 a night and you can often save money by working part-time for the hostel. Alternatively, you might find that it is cheaper to head back home for a couple of nights a week. If you talk to your manager, they might be willing to let you work from home some of the time.

Food and drink

For both accommodation and diet, location is important. Meals in the City are going to be pricey, but a mile up the road they could be much cheaper. If you’re going out for the night, consider sticking to a cheap and cheerful chain pub, rather than going clubbing and spending drinks money on the door. It goes without saying that supermarkets like Aldi are cheaper than Waitrose.

People who have been to uni probably won’t need lessons about eating on the cheap. However, if you’re only getting expenses for one meal a day, a bit of planning can help it go a long way. For example, aim to get the most filling meal you can from your daily budget. You don’t have to eat it all; if you leave enough to fill a doggie-bag then you’ve got dinner covered too.

Another option is to spend your lunch money on ingredients. If you buy a loaf of bread, cold meat and some mixed lettuce, you’ll have provisions for sandwiches for a couple of days. You can then spend that lunch money on food for dinner. You could even try ‘freeganism’ – eating supermarket food which is otherwise destined for the dump. Or you can simply shop late at night, when items are reduced to clear.

Getting the government working for you

You are allowed a personal allowance of up to £10,000 a year before you have to pay tax. If you’re a student, you will still be eligible for council tax exemption, but if you moved to work you may need to send evidence to the local authority.

Some graduates might be eligible to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), although this is a bit of a grey area. It is possible to apply for JSA online, but it might be better to explain your circumstances in person. If you stress the temporary nature of the work and the fact that you are not receiving a fixed wage, you’ll have better odds. Remember that work experience providers are obliged to give you time off to go to job interviews.

Earn on the side

As we have already pointed out, working outside of your internship can help you when you’re trying to survive on expenses. Informal jobs are a good bet. For example, you could work as a dog walker or babysitter. If you have the skills you could even work as a home or music tutor, both of which have a respectable hourly rate.

Bar work is an obvious option. It is possible to get shifts that fit round your placement which will leave you enough time for sleep. Other options include waiting at restaurants, or street teaming for clubs and gig venues. However, if you’re going to be there long enough to get an evening job, you should ask whether the internship deserves a salary.

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