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A Complete Breakdown Of How One Unpaid Internship Costs $52,498


Earlier this summer, I published an editorial on my decision to only take paid work. I passed on multiple opportunities to do unpaid internships at prestigious organizations because accepting those opportunities would mean sacrificing three months’ to two years’ worth of pay. I weighed the risk of incurring debt against the opportunity to build my professional network in the framework of an internship -– and I ultimately chose financial stability. Certainly, at times, I struggle with that decision and wonder if my healthy bank account cost me the opportunity of a lifetime.

Nevertheless, I bought the freedom to build my career in foreign affairs with minimal debt on my shoulders. Frankly, unpaid internships most often reward those individuals who are privileged enough to afford to donate their time -– without any guarantee that they will acquire hard skills (or employment leads) on the job.

At best, unpaid internships are a risky investment. Interns work from 15-40 hours per week, and many programs demand a minimum commitment of 12 weeks (or three months). After that time, there is no guarantee an intern will:

  • acquire any hard skills in this position
  • receive an offer of contract upon the internship’s completion
  • increase their chances of finding paid work

Many internships at some of America’s most recognized organizations are located in some of the country’s most expensive cities -– plus, these oft-unpaid apprenticeships are only available to students. In strictly financial terms, this means interns are paying for the mere access to work for free. In that case, how does one determine if an internship opportunity is an investment or an expense?
To make that daunting judgment call a little easier, I’ve made a cursory calculation of the real expenses behind a full-time, unpaid internship in major American cities. The typical intern is responsible for the following costs:

  1. University tuition
  2. Rent and utilities
  3. Transportation
  4. Food
  5. Medical insurance
  6. 40 weekly hours during which one cannot earn salary

In my calculation, all these costs will be totaled on a monthly or annual basis. Costs that vary greatly based on industry or location (rent) will be broken down more specifically to provide practical examples. I hope this helps any of you (who are contemplating unpaid work) make a sound, detailed judgment call!

1. Tuition

Last year, the average costs of tuition were pegged at:

  • Public universities for state residents: $18,943 (with fees, $23,410)
  • Public universities for non-state residents: $32,762 (with fees, $37,229)
  • Private universities: $42,419 (with fees, $46,272)

University education in the U.S. is notoriously-expensive. The above educational costs include room and board, which hover at $10,000 to $11,000 for public and private schools, respectively.

Often calculated on a per-credit basis, tuition is billed to students at the beginning of each trimester or semester. Average tuition (including room, board, fees) rates break down according to the type of institution. For reference, per capita income in the U.S. hovers around $28,000 dollars (to give a practical example, a minimum wage worker in California ($10 per hour) working 40 weekly hours earns $325 weekly, or $1,300 a month).

The median income for bachelor’s degree holders is $50,000 annually. In mathematical terms, education as a first professional step is financially out-of-reach for millions. In technical terms: it is fucking expensive.

2. Rent & Utilities

Basic utilities for a small apartment in the U.S. average $145 monthly and internet averages $54 monthly. These costs do not vary greatly, with the exception of certain states such as Hawaii, where the typical electric bill reportedly comes in at over $200 (yikes).

Students who choose (or need) to live off-campus also need to consider the cost of rent. Given that most students share apartments, the calculations below are based on the rental cost for two-bedroom apartments. Looking at several major cities in the U.S., a cursory picture of the rental landscape looks like this (per inhabitant):

  • San Francisco: $2,378
  • New York City: $1,826
  • Los Angeles: $1,500
  • Boston: $1,574
  • Washington DC: $1,453
  • Seattle: $1,398
  • Chicago: $1,158
  • Atlanta: $879
  • Houston: $766
  • Columbus: $527

These are average calculations that naturally fluctuate by neighborhood and proximity to modes of transportation.

3. Transportation

Average transportation costs in the U.S. comes in at $75 for a monthly pass on public transportation, and $2.25 for a one-way public transport ticket. This monthly cost goes up for major cities.

  • New York: $116
  • San Francisco: $83
  • Boston: $84.50
  • Chicago: $100
  • Washington DC: $85

4. Food

Basic nutrition often seems like an afterthought when a student juggling an internship with full-time duties and schoolwork likely clocks 60+ hours of weekly work (including class time, homework, and internship hours). Total food costs are impossible to calculate based on the sheer range of retail prices for food, dietary restrictions, etc. Still, the average American family expects to pay $868 per month to feed a family of four. As a single person, therefore, you can expect to pay $217 per month for groceries.

All restaurants, cafes, and bar expenses are excluded, here! A quick look at the prices of the U.S. average price for certain grocery staples:

  • Milk (1 liter): $0.99
  • Bread: $2.56
  • Eggs (12): $2.77
  • Apples (1 pound): $1.94
  • TOTAL: $ 8.26 (or, adjusting for prices in New York City: $10.94)

5. Medical Insurance

In 2010, the average private sector employee contributed over $1,000 dollars annually to their single Health Insurance premium. American students are often covered by their parents’ insurance plans until they turn 26. However, those who opt for their university’s health insurance plan can expect to pay at least $2,000 in annual premiums. Yeah.

6. The Takeaway

All told, this is a bunch of numbers. So, let’s have a drum roll and put ourselves in the shoes of one American student facing the choice between an unpaid internship and other opportunities. Let’s ask ourselves…how much does that internship actually cost?

Let’s make an example of the hopeful young diplomat, studying for a B.A. in International Relations at a private university in New York City and interning 40 hours a week for an unpaid gig at the United Nations. (Note: Based on the statistics above — with NYC as substantially more expensive — my calculations will not represent national averages. Instead, these are the total costs per year a student in New York can reasonably expect to pay while working for free).


Tuition: $46,000

Rent: ~$12,000 annual (included in tuition; based on $1,000 per month, in outer boroughs)

Transportation: $1,392

Food: $2,604

Medical Insurance: $2,000

1 Starbucks Americano: $2.15 (x 187, aka most weekday mornings) = $402.05

A proper winter coat: $100

GRAND TOTAL: $52,498.05

FIFTY TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS AND CHANGE. Add to this the cost of 40 hours of your time: working full-time earning $20 per hour brings home about $2,000 a month or $24,000 after taxes.

If we believe the old adage that Time Is Money and include the cost of free labor (aka, lost income), a full-time free apprenticeship can cost up to $76,000 dollars per year.

Bear in mind that tuition at some NYC universities alone reaches figures like 53,000 or 70,000 dollars per year. And bear in mind that the above estimates do not account for any entertainment, travel, personal purchases, or food beyond basic survival. The figures are daunting, but financial responsibility begins by equipping oneself to make strategic decisions. One must decide how to take out loans strategically, how and where to work, and how to assess where it’s best to invest your skills, energy, and time.

Unpaid internships face increasing legal scrutiny in the United States, particularly in New York and California because this system of unpaid internship often comes at the expense of the worker, consuming time, skills, and credit scores. Moreover, this system is one that puts the financially-privileged at a considerable advantage. The likely candidates for these internships are students who have access to a college education to begin with and the means or know-how to rally the necessary financial resources to pursue these opportunities.

Unpaid internships do not support diversity in the workplace, nor do they support diversity in any given industry. Look at the intern team of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see theory in practice: 214 mostly white (and gleefully unpaid) interns smile and work for him for free. It seems that even those who run the “free world” forget to the importance of hiring the staff that represents their jurisdictions.

The ethical problems with unpaid work extend to the United Nations, as seen in a hotly-debated publicity stunt devised by a Geneva intern. The New Zealand native claimed he was forced to live in a tent when he could not afford Swiss rent during his stint at the UN headquarters. He was criticized when the press revealed he actually came from an upper-middle class background, but his stunt brought the conversation to the table. The UN has the endowment to pay interns; it’s just a pain to reconfigure pay grades.

In 2015, publishing giant Condé Nast settled a lawsuit with a cool $5.8 million payout after New York courts ruled that its 7,500 interns were underpaid for their work. Other major corporations facing lawsuits include Hearst and NBCUniversal.

Quite simply: hard work deserves fair pay. Full stop.

There are internships, and then there are Internships. There are many that do become the opportunity of a lifetime. There are corporate internships that pay upwards of $30 per hour. And there are also internships that are worth taking out an extra loan for the privilege of pursuing (consider the evidence that suggests that a paid internship is more likely to result in a job offer). Nobody should fault the impassioned student for taking a risk to pursue a dream; the ethical responsibility of unpaid work belongs to the industry that demands it.

But, before you take that great leap forward and plunge into an unpaid gig, I hope you don’t make that leap into the dark. I hope that if a position rewards you with more opportunity than it does paychecks, you now (after reading this cost breakdown) have the tools to calculate that risk. Work hard, and live long, and prosper.

Veronica works in imports and exports by day and as a political researcher by night. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking and making friends with dogs.

Image via Unsplash


  • LynnP2

    I think unpaid internships are criminal; they perpetuate wealth inequalities because often the only people who can afford to take an unpaid internship are those with wealth parents to support them. That said, the biggest expense here is tuition, and it’s not as if people are going to school solely for the opportunity to get an internship, so I really don’t think it makes sense to include it here.

    • Veronica M Glab

      Veronica, Original writer here. Many unpaid internships require that the intern be enrolled in a university program to qualify for the internship to begin with. Hence, the tuition.

      • LynnP2

        Yes, but as the commentor above said, the student is incurring those costs ANYWAY. They are not enrolling in school solely to get an unpaid internship.

  • Erin Marie

    I agree unpaid internships are bad news but this article makes my economic heart hurt. This is not how a cost-benefit analysis works. You can’t compare an internship to doing nothing, it needs to be compared to the next available option, for example taking a minimum wage job. And whether you are an intern or not you still need to pay for food (and likely tuition, people probably don’t go to school just to become an unpaid intern).

    • Veronica M

      Dear Erin,

      Veronica here again. Please note the several instances in which I reference wages sacrificed at a minimum wage job or a paid internship. This article is a cursory guide to realistic costs, designed as a tool to make better informed decisions about the cost of living in major American cities.

      Moreover, one of the operative conditions here is that a VAST number of internship programs require applicants to be enrolled in universities. Conversely, many universities (notably grad programs) have a credited internship requirement. This means students either take the internship to earn the school credit–or substitute another permitted course. In either instance, students must pay for the credits. It´s not always mutually exclusive, but internships and higher education are intimately linked–for better or worse.

  • GBee

    I believe full time unpaid internships should be illegal. There is just no way to justify having someone work for 40 hours a week without pay, or 30 hours for that matter.

    However, I do think there is room for some type of unpaid internships. My senior year of college I was able to intern for the federal government unpaid for ~16hrs/week for college credit. The only cost to me was the gas to drive from college to DC plus my metro fare. I wouldn’t personally include college in my costs because I would have gone to college with or without the internship (same with food). Also, I hands down would not have been able to work where I did unless it was unpaid (so much red tape – ability and experience truly do not matter in the government unless you are already a fed). It definitely worked for me because I got a call about 4 years later asking if I was interested in a grade 13 position. Even though I only worked a few hours a week I was able to make a strong impression.

    Long story short: there needs to be a cap on the amount of hours a person can work unpaid. And that number needs to be well below 40 hours/week.

  • Maya

    Working 40h/wk as an unpaid intern while also attending school full time is working a 9-5 while also attending classes, which seems unrealistic. In my experience, summer internships require 40h/wk while academic year internships are usually 15-20. The economic calculus is different. Working during the school year, you’re already paying for food tuition and housing so perhaps the best cost benefit analysis is comparing it to what you’d do for the 20hrs, whether it’s an extracurricular or a minimum wage job. Over the summer, that’s usually rent in a new city, working full time without the option to pursue paid employment (unless you do another job nights and weekends) and food/transport costs etc. that, I think, would have been the right cost to calculate. this is an interesting idea for an article imo but the calculation doesn’t make much sense.

  • rockwithyourleft

    This is a serious topic that I agree with, and it’s not that this is factually incorrect or that I’m doubting the numbers, it’s just…..that’s not how that works. The hypothetical student would be paying their tuition/medical insurance/winter coat/etc bills regardless.

  • Nom

    Like the commenters below, I don’t think that including tuition makes sense here. I went to college in a small town where internships were not really available. To take a summer internship, I would have had to pay for room and board, transportation, etc. in a large city far from where I lived. I think that this kind of analysis would have been a lot more effective. What is the cost of that? Internships, even if you are enrolled in school, or required to be, incur costs above and beyond college. That’s what’s interesting here. The cost of college (and college room and board for that matter) is independent of internships. If you want to talk about that, please do it in another article.

  • Rachel

    TFD, I try to love you, but publishing articles like this really makes it difficult. Clickbait headline, no logical sense, incorrect facts. Come on, you can do better.

  • Lesson of the day: Unless you can financially support yourself, don’t take an internship full time. One thing that isn’t mentioned in this article is most students don’t take on internships full time. Most internships are part time, so you can supplement your income with a part time job. That’s what I did in college.

  • My college would fund one internship per student so that everyone (theoretically) could access their benefits. It was not enough to pay to live in most cities for the time of the internship, but it helped a lot.


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