Sliding Scale or Slippery Slope: What Should You Charge for a Massage?

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LMT daydream pricing

The pretty, but simple painting I saw at a local show was priced at $650. “Seriously, that artist wants to make $650 per hour?”, my previous self might have scoffed.

Thinking about the painting, the painter, and how to put a fair price on something unique got me to consider how I price my bodywork sessions today, and how I did it in the past.

If that painting sells, the artists doesn’t make $650 per hour–probably not even five. Our situation as massage therapists is similar. Most of our work happens outside of massage sessions.

Are you a massage therapy student? Or already a seasoned therapist? Since you’re reading industry-related blog posts, you are better informed than most of our colleagues. You already know that the price for a one-hour massage session is not even close to your hourly income.

How can you decide what to charge?

Here are two different strategies:

1. Look at what colleagues in the area are asking for comparable work.

That’s what most of us do, and it works–we just have to be careful not to compare apples and oranges. A business run out of somebody’s house, if zoning laws allow it, will have a much lower overhead than a professional clinic. So don’t only check the prices you see on websites–make sure you have an idea of what type of business it you’re looking at.

2. Determine how much income you need per week (to pay all business expenses and to have enough to live on) and divide this by the number of sessions you want to work on average.

If you need $1000 per week, and you’re planning on averaging twenty one-hour massage sessions, your price should be $50 per session.

Keep in mind that to average twenty sessions, you’ll need to have time available for thirty to forty, since there are always gaps in the schedule. You’ll also need vacations and continuing education.

Very few massage therapists who run their own business actually average twenty sessions per week; ten is more realistic.

I had heard of this approach to pricing years ago, when I was in school for oriental medicine. It sounded crazy to me at the time.

So here’s what I actually did

When I opened my first practice for naturopathic medicine, my sessions for bodywork and acupuncture were priced based on what my friends could afford–I was still living in Germany, and most of them made little money. I asked for twenty Euro to cover a half-hour session, and usually I went past the half hour.

My one-hour sessions were theoretically fifty Euro, but few patients booked those.

I had established a sliding scale: people with little money would get longer sessions, and many of them would pay twenty Euro for the whole hour.

Normally a sliding scale looks more like this:

“My rates are on a sliding scale between $30 and $90 per one-hour session.”

Why isn’t the sliding scale a third strategy?

Isn’t it the nice thing to offer? The socially responsible thing?

Unfortunately not. A sliding scale rewards your worst clients, and punishes the best ones.

Think about it: Who considers themselves really wealthy? Only two of my clients do. A lot of others who have several houses, drive new, expensive cars and send their kids to private schools think they’re doing ok, but that sometimes it’s tough to make ends meet.

On a sliding scale they’d pick a price somewhere in the middle.

People picking the lowest price are often not the neediest, but the ones who feel entitled to grab every discount. Those are the ones who assume that massages are too expensive anyway–the ones who tell my staff, “But my therapist only charges $30 per session–don’t you want to beat that price?”

Now think about the kind of people who don’t have much money, but appreciate your hard work and respect your professionalism and integrity. They would pick a price in the middle, too. It still would make them feel guilty, so whenever they could, they’d tip you. Often they would apologize that they really can’t afford to come in more often.

Those wonderful regular clients would not choose the lowest price, because they don’t want to take advantage of your generosity. And they would still not feel good about it.

Do you see now what I mean when I say a sliding scale rewards your worst clients and punishes your best ones?

Here’s my third strategy:

Find out how much you really have to work. If you don’t have your own business yet, sit down with other therapists who do and interview them.

Ask specific questions:

How much time do you spend on daily tasks like

  • Talking on the phone?
    (This time includes scheduling and question-and-answer interactions with potential clients, as well as time spent on calls to other service providers, troubleshooting, and networking.)
  • Sending and answering emails?
  • Blogging, social media and other online networking?
  • Networking in person? That even includes the neighbor you run into who asks you “How’s business?”.
  • Planning and maintaining your schedule?
  • Sessions with clients?
  • Laundry and cleaning?

And how much time do you need weekly for

  • Organizing your office?
  • Bookkeeping, invoices, insurance billing?
  • Ordering and maintaining supplies?
  • Reading business books and blogs?

Now consider monthly and yearly tasks like paying bills, taxes, continuing education, and more.

What is a fair hourly wage, for all that work in your own business?

You’ll probably have to live with very little, even if you charge $100 per massage hour.

Most massage therapists can hardly make minimum wage if they correctly consider all the time they spend working.

Please make sure you get to at least minimum wage. You deserve it.

What is your experience in pricing? How much are massage therapy places in your area charging? What are they paying their therapists?

I look forward to your comments!

  • Stefan Smith Maphis

    Saw this on Facebook and wanted to give kudos – Great and important advice! I found that it applies just as easily to my industry (ballroom dance) as well, and probably to many other industries as well.

    • Lu Mueller-Kaul

      Thanks so very much, Stefan!

    • Toni Crabtree

      I agree with you. This is a terrific article that applies to my profession, Health Coaching as well. Very thorough and complete. Thanks Lu for this excellent article!

  • Jane Lee

    An excellent article. Well thought out and expressed. Well done…. and I do SO much agree!

  • Beau Laurence

    I do offer a sliding scale, but I price my 90-minute sessions well above the going rate in my area. this lets potential clients know that I value my time, and I do make it clear on my website how my skills exceed the average therapist’s. I have clients who can afford my full rate and happily pay it, because they value my work. but even if they pay me $20 less, it’s still a good wage for me. part of what I ‘sell’ is the pay-it-forward principle – if you can pay full price, that allows me to work with [demographic client] for $10/session. I have built in charity work as part of my unique MT service, and it works pretty well.

    • Lu Mueller-Kaul

      Thanks a good way of dealing with the urge to help we all have, Beau! Thanks!

  • Melanie Blinstrub

    Offer discounts. NOT the buy 6 get 1 free … only the wealthy get the deal :/ . I offer a linen discount. $5 off if you bring linens. Some years back I had a cancer patient that came every week. She brought her own linens , tossed them in a bag when she left (kept in her car) and used them for 5 visits (5 hours time on sheets) then washed them. She saved $25 :) and the environment !!! (The sheets cost $2 at 2nd hand store) . The other discount .. $5 off if you re-book WITHOUT CHANGING (ie.. my secretarial disc. hehe) . If they booked for 2 months out and changed 3 weeks before because of a vacation .. it was ok, since no real ‘juggling’ of my calendar was involved. But when people cancel, I would have to fill in gaps etc. Gives an incentive to rebook and not cancel at last minute. THESE discounts benefit you , and saves the GOOD CLIENTS money ♥

    • Lu Mueller-Kaul

      Wow, great ideas!! Thanks, Melanie!