Many people enter the field of massage therapy with the I just want to help others attitude. That’s noble.
It’s also unrealistic, unless you’re independently wealthy and just working for fun or performing community service.
It’s hard to help others when you are worried about how to make your rent or your car payment. In addition to being massage therapists, we’re also consumers—just like our clients. This is why we need to—on a regular basis—raise rates.
Our rent goes up; the cost of our utilities and other services rise. The necessities of life, like gas, groceries, insurance, health care, child care and everything else increases for everyone—massage therapists included. Many massage therapists also graduate from school with debt from student loans.
And yet, many massage therapists hesitate to raise rates.
I’ve seen many new graduates over the years who open their own practice and set their hourly rate well below what the market will bear. I’ve conducted social media surveys and found that self-employed therapists were charging as little as $30 an hour in rural areas.
Some new therapists may recognize they are lacking the experience of the therapist down the street who has been practicing for 20 years, so they decide to charge a little less.
However, it will not endear you to the other massage therapists in your community if you charge substantially less than the going rate. That is particularly so in rural areas and small towns where there may be a smaller customer pool to draw from. Those nearby therapists may also have some specialty that you don’t, and you may need to refer to them.
Being priced too far below other therapists in your area can also have the opposite of the desired effect: If massage consumers in your locale are used to paying $80 an hour, and they see you’re only charging $40, they may jump to conclusions about why you’re worth half the going rate.
There is certainly nothing wrong in offering a grand opening or introductory special to get your business off the ground, but it’s best to avoid letting that go on for too long or advertising it in a manner that gives people the impression that is your permanent rate. Make it clear that it is your introductory special.
Setting your rate at a fair and reasonable amount from the outset will serve you best, and relieve you of the need to raise your rates within a short amount of time, which could give clients a bait-and-switch impression.
While it’s prudent to raise rates as the cost of living increases, that’s not the only consideration, and you can’t necessarily raise them commensurate to your increase in expenses. The cost of my health insurance doubled in a year—but it would be a shock, and possibly a deal-breaker, to most of my clients if I suddenly doubled my rates.
Experience does count for something. So does improving skills through continuing education; earning specialty certifications; gaining special recognition, like being voted the best massage therapist in your town; or moving to a nicer and more expensive location.
Massage therapist Ellen Mahan Maroun, who has been in practice for 20 years and owns Advanced Massage Therapies Inc., in Carrollton, Georgia, raised her hourly rate from $75 to $95 after mastering massage specialties including lymphatic drainage, neural reset therapy, MediCupping, visceral manipulation and myofascial release; and earning certification in Medical Massage.
She says the key to being a well-paid solo practitioner is to become educated; provide real value and results to clients; and charge what that value is worth.
In addition to the specialties mentioned above, Maroun also adds services into her one-hour session, charging an additional fee for them. These services include Kneipp products and kinesiotaping.
Maroun suggests massage therapists use a formula of 40 weeks per year, which is a full year minus vacations, travel for continuing education, cancelled appointments and sick days. If you charge $40 for a one-hour massage and work 20 hours of session time per week, you will make $32,000 per year.
If you raise that rate up to $75, at 20 hours a week you are now making $60,000 a year. If you raise your hourly rate up to $95, you’re at $76,000 a year. And if you massage 30 hours a week instead of 20 at $95 per hour, you will earn $114,000 a year—meaning once you take out overhead and pay taxes, you will bring in about $60,000 in net income.
Whether or not you offer additional specialties, your rates do need to go up on a regular basis. Many companies and service-people raise rates annually or biannually. The doctor, plumber or hairdresser is not charging the same amount as 10 years ago—and yet, some massage therapists are doing just that.
However, it is better to raise your massage rate a little on an annual basis to keep up with inflation and to honor your experience and additional skills than suddenly implementing a huge increase to make up for years of not doing so.
You may get a few complainers, and while you don’t want to sound like their parent or have a judgmental reaction, you can always politely say, “My regular expenses just keep going up every year, don’t yours?”
Of course they do—and they’ll recognize that. An occasional client might go around looking for a cheaper therapist. Don’t take that personally. Let him go and keep the clients who value your worth.
Give your existing clients notice of the change. Thirty days is good; 60 days is better. Send an email announcement about the increase to your client email list. Put the notice on your website, and announce it via social media. Inform existing clients verbally as they call for appointments and remind them as they come in.
Put a sign in your waiting area, with one caveat: You may want to give your existing clients an adjustment period, while once you’ve made up your mind to implement a rate increase, you can start charging new clients the new amount immediately.
Offer existing clients a package deal; give them a coupon, or simply say, “My rate is going up to $80 effective Jan. 1, but because you are such a long-time client, you will still receive the usual rate of $70 until March 1,” or whatever you feel good about.
When Congress passed the Economic Stimulus Act in 2008, I raised my rates and had $10 coupons printed to look like a check, with “Economic Stimulus,” the name of my business and contact information, and a 60-day expiration date on them.
I sent those to my existing clients with the announcement about the price increase and people got a kick out of it. Putting the humor in it took the sting out of the increase, and they got one more massage at the old rate.
Consider your client base as well. Some therapists have created niche markets, by working with geriatric or disabled clients who tend to be on a fixed income, or pregnant women, who likely take a few months off work near the end of their pregnancy and a month or two when the baby is born, and may not be getting paid for that.
There is also the occasional unavoidable economic downturn, which can have more of an effect on practitioners in small towns. If a factory that employs 5,000 people closes down in a big city, that doesn’t have the same kind of widespread economic impact as a factory that employs 5,000 people closing down in a small town with a population of 25,000. Those people may have a more difficult time adjusting to a rate increase. Again, small, gradual increases are easier for clients to adjust to than one dramatic increase.
Survive or Thrive?
Too many massage therapists work second jobs to make ends meet, or leave the profession because they’re not earning enough money. Value yourself, and make up your mind whether you want to thrive or just survive.
“A lot of therapists struggle with success, and I watch them and see how they have put out a Groupon or drop to rock-bottom rates, and say, ‘I still can’t get the clients I want,’” says Maroun. “Deep discounts don’t attract loyal clients, they only attract bargain shoppers—and if [massage therapists] offer bottom-of-the-barrel pricing, they are devaluing massage as a whole.”
Not only do we all have the everyday expenses of living, we also all want to be able to support our favorite causes, to save money for the eventuality of retirement, put the kids through college, and not go into a state of panic if the house needs a new roof.
Furthermore, you deserve a vacation. Value yourself enough to raise massage rates regularly. Value yourself, and make up your mind whether you want to thrive or just survive.
About the Author
Laura Allen is the massage division director of Soothing Touch, a manufacturer of products for the massage, spa and the natural food industries. A licensed massage therapist, she is the author of five massage therapy books published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, several self-published books, numerous magazine articles, and has been an instructor of continuing education since 2000. Allen resides in Western North Carolina with her husband, Champ, also a licensed massage therapist, and their two rescue dogs.