An Occasional Sliding Scale

Last month, I did my first Sliding Scale Saturday. It was one of those early fall days where the sun is unbelievably golden and the breezes are just getting crisp, the yoga studio where my practice is located was buzzing with weekend classes, some people got massage who otherwise might not be able to afford it, and everyone involved left feeling stellar. It was an all-around spectacular day, and I’m telling you about it in case you want to do it, too.

This is really a post for Sliding Scale novices. There are many who have done far more than I, and I’d love to hear all about it! I have always wanted to offer affordable massage to people who need it, but, as a relatively new therapist slowly building my practice (i.e., not working a ton), I didn’t feel comfortable making sliding scale the foundation of my practice when I started out. I know some people who have offered sliding scale rates full-time from the start of their careers who are absolutely thriving. That’s totally an option, and I think it’s fantastic, but it wasn’t my choice. This little step-by-step is aimed at people like me who aren’t ready (or just plain don’t want) to commit to having a sliding scale practice all the time, but who are interested in increasing access to massage bit by bit. It took me a long time to realize that there are ways to dip a toe in without drastically changing one’s practice. This is how I did it.

Step 1: Determine What You’re Worth.

This is a lengthy discussion for another time. I’m sticking it in as a starting point because I think it’s important, when reducing rates, that we do so for the right reasons. There are a lot of reasons to do this – business promotion and increasing access to massage come to mind for me – but  please don’t do it because you don’t think you’re worth the full rate other people charge. If you think about massage, if you’re passionate about it, if you work hard, then you’re worth a good rate. Lots of people out there have this down pat, but I did a little waffling in the early days of my career, and I’ve seen some talented, well-trained people establish less-than-living wages because they think it’s the only way they’ll get clients, and it makes me a little squirmy. Shoot for the stars, or at least the standard going rate in your town.

Step 2: How Low Can You Go? Establish Your Scale.

Now that you know that you are awesome and totally deserving of the fairest rates in all the land, think about the lowest amount you can make and not feel put out. If that’s totally free, so be it, but if you’re going to be grumpy if you give an amazing massage and your client slips you a tenner as payment, set your scale higher. My base rate was $35/hour, but this will vary quite a bit both regionally and personally. If you have hourly expenses (e.g., space rental), add them to your lowest rate to set the base for your scale. Base rate + hourly expenses = low end of sliding scale. If you have a good relationship with the owner of the space, it is worth mentioning that you are offering reduced rates and ask if your landlord will, in turn, reduce yours.  I rent space in a yoga and movement studio owned by an amazing lady who was offering pay-what-you-want classes that week. She was enthusiastically on board for Sliding Scale Saturday and did not charge me for the space. You might not have the same luck, but you probably won’t know if you don’t ask.

Step 3: Set Your Limits & Book!

Having a day devoted to sliding scale is not the only way to do this. You may choose to offer a set number of sliding scale sessions a month. Lots of people offer sliding scales or reduced rates to certain populations (like students and seniors) on a regular basis. Again, I’m not saying you need to set limits – plenty of people offer sliding scale all the time, and it works out great – but if you’re afraid of feeling broke, or if you feel put out when you are paid less than what you feel you’re worth, be honest about it. I set four sessions on one day. It didn’t seem like much, especially since they went like hotcakes with a waiting list trailing behind, but it was a little something, and I plan to do it again and again.

Step 4: Reflect and Repeat.

I have heard from people who primarily work with sliding scales that the payments even out over time, that some people pay less and some people pay more than the going rate because they can. There’s trust involved. The framework I set, of limiting the discounted sessions, did not allow for such wide fluctuations. I knew it was unlikely that anyone would pay my regular rate or higher, because I wasn’t asking for that, for the generosity of some to make up for dips in the scale over time. I expected little; I got more than I expected. In a way, Sliding Scale Saturday felt like an exercise in generosity for everyone involved. While clients got a big discount, they all thought about what they could give and, in my tiny sample, they all paid more than the minimum I asked. Generosity. I got to offer a very steep discount as my base and feel like I was giving something. Dara at my studio gave the space. Generosity feels good. As does massage. It was a great day, and I’m excited to make Sliding Scale Saturday a staple of my practice.

If you’ve never tried offering a sliding scale, I heartily encourage you to work it into your practice. It’s entirely possible to try it out without overhauling your rates and your practice as a whole. If you’ve done it for years and are brimming with thoughts on the topic, I would love to hear from you. Comment away!


Megan Spence is a Licensed Massage Therapist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She is continually astonished by just how much she loves her work. You can read more about Megan’s adventures in massage and various other things body-related at Bodywork Brooklyn.