Where do you work and how much do you work?
There are a number of different places you can end up as a massage therapist. The large spa’s almost always need a fresh batch of massage therapists, and your local chiropractors will often have a shift or more available for a cmt. Healing centers and holistic medical practices may have a spot or two, and there is always the slightly riskier choice of going into business on your own. Something I have less experience with is resort opportunities and cruise ships, but I’ve heard of folks taking that track and running with it.
So, with all those choices, lets talk about some pro’s and con’s. One way of looking at the setup when you work for someone else is that they pay you to do the massage, and they charge the client a good bit more than they pay you. Another way of looking at it is that you are paying the spa owner to take care of several aspects of the business for you: client acquisition, bookkeeping, scheduling, receipt of payment and conflict resolution. Any place you work where they charge the client more than you would in your private practice, and pay you less than you would make in your private practice, you’re trading risk for reduced wages. In my experience, this usually means slightly greater security and significantly less money.
When you work for yourself, you’ll be paying for space to work out of (or at least the costs of working in peoples homes), you’ll be providing linens and linen service and whatever oils and lotions you use. If you end up using a number of tools and accessories in your practice (hot stones, etc) you’ll be supplying those and maintaining them as well. You should probably pay for a website, you may want to pay for some advertising and bookkeeping as well.
There will be opportunities that fall somewhere between the two extremes, for instance, you might rent a room from a chiropractor who gives you a break on the rent in exchange for giving his clients a discount, he or she might supply your linens and linen service as part of the room and gives you free adjustments when your back goes out.
Another type of opportunity that falls between the extremes is the combination approach. Work a few days a week for someone else, and a few days a week for yourself, this was the transition I took, adding a day of private practice, then another, till eventually, I shifted over to solo practice. Many massage therapists also integrate massage into a yoga or physical trainer lifestyle, allowing them to supplement income in ways that don’t damage their bodies.
I’ve not seen a lot of successful massage therapists who started out on their own immediately after school. The time it takes to acquire clients causes the ramp up to full time to be stressful enough and not financially rewarding enough that failure is pretty common in the first 5 years (3 to 5 years out from school is often when massage therapists burn out, injure out or leave the field due to lack of success). My own trajectory was slower than many in that it took me over 10 years to have a full practice on my own.
Which brings us back to the second half of the question: how much do you want to work? One easy way to work backward into this number is to think about how much money you need and or want to be making. Assuming that massage is your only gig, and you want to make 100k in take home a year, how many hours should you be working?
Well, 100k a year means 130k gross most likely, after taxes and all, you may want to assume 140k or 120k depending on how low you are keeping your overhead. Divide the number by how many weeks you want to work a year (a 4 week vacation in Hawaii puts you at 48 weeks).
How much are you charging per hour for massage? In a major metropolitan area, you can get a shaved hour (typical spa massage hour is actually 50 minutes of massage, sometimes 45, sometimes 55) for anywhere from $54 dollars at Massage Envy to $240 at a top end luxurious spa. If you’re working for someone else, you might be making $15-$75 per hour of massage. If you’re running your own business around a major city, you might be able to charge from $60-$140 an hour.
For our practice problem, we’ll assume you’re working for yourself at $80 an hour, you want to work 48 weeks a year and you want to take home around 100k, your overhead and taxes account for 40k a year. In this case, you’d need to be doing 36.5 hours of massage a week. Given that most massage therapists consider 20 to 25 hours a week to be max, you’ll either need to adjust your expectations or build your strength and client base
Massage is an immensely rewarding profession for a myriad of reasons, but the business side of it is often the part that is less fun. Paying attention to the risks, rewards and expectations up front will allow you the room to do the work you love without getting tripped up by the minutia.