The Price of Massage

By Laura Allen
[Business Side]

It seems that prices are always going up. You might catch that steak on sale at the grocery store or find half-price shoes at your favorite shopping destination, but the cost of most things always seems to be going in an upward direction … except for the price of massage.

Price Wars

By many accounts, there are price wars going on in the massage profession. With the proliferation of massage and day spa franchises offering memberships in metropolitan areas, city dwellers and suburbanites have discovered a way to get regular massage for less than $50 an hour. In the past couple of years, the explosion of Groupon, Living Social, and other such Daily Deal sites has caused prices to drop even lower, routinely by at least half, and sometimes by as much as 75 percent or more of what a business normally charges.

While such steep discounting can be a great way to introduce the public to a new business, or to revitalize an old one, it hasn’t been without repercussions. Recently, a therapist who has never participated in a Groupon deal told me that she had received several calls from people shopping for a deal and asking if she would match the Groupon price advertised by another therapist in town. She declined to do a massage for $20, and instead opted to educate the caller about why she was worth more than $20. It didn’t work—the caller hung up. Some folks are obviously just looking for the cheapest thing.

Groupon and the other big discounters usually don’t have any presence in small towns and rural areas, but even that is not much consolation to the therapist who is being severely undercut by other therapists in the area.

What the Market Will Bear

I live in a small, rural town, about an hour away from several larger cities, and I often read publications from those urban areas. When I saw an ad from one of my former students offering outcalls for $30, I called and asked her what she was thinking by offering massage that cheaply. “I have to do it,” she replied. “There’s so much competition, some people are even doing it for less than I am.”

This particular town has no less than five massage schools, and it’s not a bustling metropolis; it has a population of about 40,000 residents. It’s a tourist destination, so that number swells during the summertime and the holidays. Still, with five schools each graduating two classes a year, it’s easy to see how that market could be saturated.

There’s a theory in marketing that you can and should charge what the market will bear. In other words, if most of the people in your neighborhood are charging $60 an hour for massage, then you wouldn’t want to go much higher or much lower, unless there is a really good reason. For example, if you open a luxurious day spa in a fancy galleria and have bigger overhead than a storefront practitioner, you can certainly command a premium price. On the other hand, the massage therapist who may be practicing from home doesn’t have the same overhead, and may be charging substantially less—even though they’re just as skilled and educated as the therapist at the galleria.

The economics of Massage

Some therapists may not buy the “what the market will bear” theory at all, and charge what they feel their clientele is willing to pay based on their expertise and years of experience, regardless of the surroundings they’re practicing in. Some therapists with a national or international reputation charge as much as $300 a session if you want to see them personally, instead of one of their staff members—assuming you can even get an appointment. Others may be well-known in a niche market and feel perfectly fine about charging big bucks. Rick Merriam of McKinney, Texas, does 90-minute sports massage sessions, and gets $200 per session. Dennis Gibbons, owner of Chagrin Valley Wellness Center near Cleveland, Ohio, offers a membership plan whereby his staff members charge $45 for relaxation massage if the client commits to a one-year contract (a session with him personally is $185), and he has no shortage of clients willing to commit. (Merriam and Gibbons, and the fees they command, are exceptions, and not representative of what most therapists charge.)

When you’re pricing your services, you have to take into consideration the amount of money it takes you to pay the overhead at your business, and how much money you need in order to meet your obligations at home as well.

Many of the massage therapists on my Facebook page responded to my request for their rate for an hour of massage. Among those who are working for someone else, the average price of massage was $60, with the therapist receiving $25 plus gratuity. The going rate for massage among those who are self-employed varies widely across the country. According to my latest informal survey, most therapists in larger cities are charging more than those in small towns and rural areas; on average, from $75 to $135 in private practice. The therapists who have outcall businesses in larger towns tend to charge an average of $100 per visit, with some adding additional fees for mileage or massage after a certain time. Outcall therapists and those who offer chair massage have less overhead than a therapist with a physical location, so that can be a lucrative market in the right place, with more of the money staying in your pocket.

According to a 2011 Income Survey conducted by Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP), the average annual income for a massage therapist who is an independent practitioner is $25,365, while those who are employees make an average of $19,605. Remember that employees don’t have overhead, and in many instances may come out better than a self-employed person by the time that is accounted for. ABMP’s Massage Metrics (available at shows that almost 80 percent of therapists report being self-employed, 6 percent report being exclusively employees, and slightly more than 15 percent report being a combination of the two. 

Added Value

When people enter a massage franchise, they know what they’re going to get—and for some, that may be part of the attraction. Frequent business travelers, for example, can patronize a Massage Envy wherever they go, without having to worry about looking for a reputable therapist or a safe place when they’re in an unfamiliar town.

For the rest of us, there’s stiff competition. If the price wars and the coupon deals have been getting the best of you, think about the added value of your massage; that can mean anything from having advanced training in specialty techniques, to add-on services such as giving a paraffin hand treatment with each massage. Specializing in orthopedic massage, pediatric massage, or hospice massage could help you gain a lot of physician referrals. Training in lomilomi or Ashiatsu Barefoot massage are skills that a relatively small segment of massage therapists have. Capitalize on what it is that makes you stand out from the crowd. It could be something as simple as always having a heated neck warmer or a cool eye pillow for each client. You can always say, “My fee is $100 because I can’t accomplish the work I do in an hour. My sessions are always a minimum of 75 minutes.”

Time is Money

There are massage therapists who don’t charge by the hour, but instead charge by the results. Sometimes therapists who specialize in clinical work may only spend 15 minutes or a half-hour with the client—a common scenario in chiropractic offices.

We all recognize that time is money—and we all need to make money—but time can make so much of a difference in the total client experience. If you are only allowing 10 minutes between appointments (or if that is unfortunately beyond your control because you’re working for someone else), then you’re going to be rushing to finish up with one to get to the next. Even though you give a great massage, it can be construed as poor service to a client if she feels like she has to hustle off the table and out the door. Allow yourself enough time to rebook the client, reset the table, have a drink or snack, and go to the restroom.

Price vs. Value

Frankly, if I didn’t get massage, I’d be on drugs (painkillers and muscle relaxers). I have degenerating discs; I spend hours a day at the computer and regular massage keeps me going without having to run to the medicine cabinet or make too many trips to the doctor. So the value of the service, to me, is high—I figure that the price of massage is well worth the money I am saving by not being on medication.

There are people who view massage as a luxury, instead of the necessity that I personally view it as. Even so, I think the recessionary economy actually may have increased their use of massage. Perhaps people who couldn’t afford to go off on their usual vacation stayed at home and treated themselves to massage during their “staycation.” As luxuries go, it’s still very affordable, compared to many other things. (You could easily spend two or three times the price of massage on a nice dinner and a night on the town.)

People want to know how something will benefit them, and as a massage therapist, part of your business is to educate them. Don’t wait for the coupon-cruisers to define your business for you.


 Laura Allen is the author of A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Business (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011), Plain & Simple Guide to Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork Examinations (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009), and One Year to a Successful Massage Therapy Practice (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008). Allen is the owner of THERA-SSAGE, a continuing education facility and alternative wellness clinic of more than a dozen practitioners.