How to Decide Prices for Your Massage Business

If you want to see massage therapists get assertive passionate, go ahead and throw them a question about pricing. How we arrive at pricing our services is fraught with debate, confusion, and emotion. And maybe it should be.

As small business owners, our businesses are personal. We’ve built them from the ground up. They are extensions of ourselves. I selfishly think massage therapists get even more attached than other types of business owners. After all, we touch people.

We are often present at difficult times, when pain is constant and sleep is hard to find. We meet clients in their most vulnerable place and provide comfort and safety. This is heavy stuff and deserves our hearts as well as our hands. But at the end of the day, we’re running businesses, not a group hug. We’ve got families to feed and bills to pay, just like every other small business owner.

And so, we have the dilemma of pricing. Students and new therapists often ask me how to create a price structure for a new business. Practicing therapists have the same questions when they’re refiguring prices. I’ve come up with lists of factors you should and shouldn’t consider.

Do Consider

Average price in your area
The price of a 60 minute massage in rural Arkansas will be different than the same treatment in Los Angeles. Do some legwork and see what other area providers are charging. Don’t let this factor alone decide your prices, but it’s nice to have an idea of the marketplace as you move forward in your exploration.

What’s included
When you’re making this list of average prices make note of any special add-ons a business may provide. Is there access to a sauna or jacuzzi included, or a lounge with tea and snacks? Will your business provide any little luxury benefits or services?

Keep in mind, sometimes offering less fanciness is a selling point. When a local massage business turned into a luxury spa, I got a handful of new clients who had no interest in the new locker room and robe protocol. My friend Jenn makes a point of offering a 45 minute, non-slimey session just for people who want to zip in and out on their lunch hour. Efficiency is just as valid and useful a selling point as luxury.

Experience and professionalism
If you’re straight out of school, it may not be reasonable to start charging more than the local 20-year massage veteran who also happens to be an athletic trainer and has worked three Olympic games. Then again, if you’re coming out of a renown 1,800 hour massage program and already have 20 CE hours accomplished, you may feel cozy charging more than a therapist who graduated from a much shorter program last year, doesn't have a website, and wears a sloppy tshirt in his headshot.

Will you accept them or discourage them? If you have a clear No Gratuity policy, your prices can be a little higher and still be competitive. Practitioners often raise their eyebrows at the notion of discouraging tips. Why would I suggest you turn away money?! That’s crazy pants! Except it’s not.

I’ve worked with many therapists who adopted a No Gratuity policy, and not one has ever expressed regret. Choosing to not accept gratuities can be a great selling point for a business. It shows you view massage as a health service like Physical Therapy or even Mental Health Counseling. It differentiates massage from luxury services. It also keeps your accounting simple, you always know what you’ll be earning on any particular session.

Do NOT Consider

Techniques applied during the treatment
Aside from treatments that involve extra product (like body scrubs or taping) or those that require more tangible labor (like the maintenance of hot stones) I am a firm opponent of varying prices for different techniques. Firm. I’ve got a few reasons why.

Simplicity for the consumer
I like simplicity. I like policies that make my business easy to run and easy for a consumer to understand. If a third grader can’t understand your price structure and figure out how much their massage will cost, your menu is too complicated.

Massage terminology is a mess
We can’t even decide on a proper definition for ‘massage’. There is just no standard. And it gets even more complex: Ask 5 therapists for their description of Deep Tissue, Swedish, Relaxation, or Medical Massage, and you’ll get 20 radically different answers and probably a headache. (A fun migraine-inducing game is to look at different massage websites and see how many providers list techniques they’ve ‘mastered’ but fail to define them at all. Way to confuse the consumer!)

No technique is intrinsically ’better’ than another
Varied pricing for technique implies that a pricier modality is better than a cheaper one. We see this most often with relaxation or Swedish massage priced lower than deep tissue. Often the argument is that relaxation massage is easier to provide, or that deep tissue is more taxing on the therapist. I would go so far as to say these BS statements are utter lies. (But I’m kind of a drama queen, and I also do a ton of relaxation massage for people with anxiety and depression.)

We’ve already covered the notion that relaxation massage is easy (takeaway: if it’s easy, you’re half-assing it). I’ll also assert that if doing deeper work is hurting your body, your own body mechanics are the problem, not the technique itself.

You can’t slap a price tag on a la carte knowledge
I took a prenatal massage class pretty early on in my career. I learned all the standard pregnancy massage stuff, as well as copious tips for sidelying and semi-recumbent positioning. Let’s say I charge more for prenatal massage, because I paid for that class and the skills from it are more valuable and I’ve got to have some extra pillows for all that positioning, right? Now let’s say I have a male client come in for massage. He needs a bunch of work to the hips, and he’s got wicked acid reflux and can’t lay flat. So I bust out my fancy sidelying and semi-recumbent skills. Technically, I should charge him the prenatal massage rates. After all, I used both the knowledge and the equipment. Yet, I can’t imagine explaining that logic to my male client and ringing him up for a prenatal massage. Yikes.

Very few of us are modality empires. We rarely use one specific, specialized technique for the entirety of any given treatment. For most of us, massage is a melting pot. It’s a tool kit that we stock with the basics in massage school, then added to over years of taking classes and touching bodies. Separating the techniques and pricing them differently is nearly impossible, if not altogether ludicrous.

Varied pricing creates a big ethical gray area
Imagine this: You’ve got a regular ‘relaxation-only’ kind of client who comes in and announces she’s got a low back issue all of a sudden. Your treatment includes some deep tissue work, maybe a little Active Isolated Stretching. Both are techniques that you charge more for. But wait! You know she always pre-writes her check before her visit. So now you’ve got to decide how to explain she’ll need to pay you more, probably inconvenience her by asking her to write another check, or inconvenience yourself by invoicing her for the balance. But it’s all just so awkward. And complex. If you’re like me, you would just not charge her the difference at all. But then it happens at her next visit, too. So that potential conversation is even more awkward, or you begin to feel resentful that you’re not earning what you ‘should’ on this massage.

This situation is even more common: A new client calls and requests DEEP TISSUE. In reality, when you treat them, they really don’t want what you consider to be deep (again, because there is no objective standard for this). But you may have been counting on that deep tissue fee… do you tell them, and charge the lower fee for swedish? Or let it slide? Eeek. And if you charge less than they expected, will that client think they’ve received an inferior service?

Keeping the pricing consistent and based on time instead of technique avoids these land mines. Clearly, I’m a fan of avoiding land mines.

Well, consider your emotions, but don't make decisions based on them. It's normal to be fearful and nervous when you start out. It's common to hear new graduates say, "No one will pay me to massage! I'm not any good yet!" It's normal to be afraid that your clients will stop coming if you raise your prices. But it's not realistic. People will pay you for massage, more and more so as health care changes and people seek less invasive treatments for common issues.

Determining your prices can be scary and complex. I've laid out my ideas for breaking it down, but I want to hear from you. What land mines have you run into? What do you wish you did differently, or what decisions are you really happy with?