Setting rates is so challenging for any solo business owner. I struggled with it myself when I started my consulting practice, and still do today. A few weeks ago, a new client asked for help with something he was working on. Since his is a really small business, I didn’t think he could afford my full rate, so I told him what it was, but also offered to discuss other arrangements if it was too steep for him. Ultimately, he asked for a discount for the first few hours and said he’d pay my full rate for support beyond that, which I was happy to do.
So many therapists also struggle when it comes to setting their fees. Being empathetic is a prerequisite for being a good therapist, so they agonize over making their fee “fair” so nobody would be left suffering because they can’t afford therapy. While such concerns prove your empathy, in the final analysis they serve neither you nor your clients. In the following, I point out three things that can help you win this struggle within yourself.
“The only battle to win is the battle within, that place where we realize that we deserve to have and create all that we want in our lives.” – Ali Vincent, Believe It, Be It: How Being the Biggest Loser Won Me Back My Life, 2009
First Thing to Remember: You Can’t Help Everyone, and You Don’t Have To
Imagine that you just won a $100 million lottery jackpot. Money is of absolutely no concern to you anymore. Imagine further, that you still feel called to serve through your therapy. You lower your fee to $0 making your practice 100% pro bono. Clients figuratively (or even literally) line up around the block. Can you help all of them? Of course not. You still have the same 24 hours in a day, and you still can’t do your best work with more than a handful of clients each day. For the sake of this post, let’s say that number is five clients per day, five days a week.
Now back to the real world, where you don’t have a practically infinite amount of money. If you have to set your rates at a certain level to take care of yourself and your family, there will be many people who will not be able to afford your services. This is completely ok. I guarantee that there will be more than 25 people in your area that will still need your help and be able to afford it, so you’ll continue to make the difference you were meant to make for the same number of people. How about those who need it and can’t afford it? You can refer them out to free or low-cost resources where they can get quality help (e.g., from students in nearby therapy programs that are supervised by their professors, or a pro bono counseling service like the Maryland Pro Bono Counseling Project).
Second Thing to Remember: You Owe Your Clients the Best Therapist You Can Be
Sticking with the 25 weekly sessions we’re assuming to be your maximum, say you need to charge $150 per session to have a viable practice. However, say that the most you feel comfortable charging is $110. To bring in the same weekly revenue at the lower fee, you need to complete 34 sessions per week. That’s an average of seven sessions a day, or two more than you can do and be your best for all your clients! What’s worse, some days you may have only five clients, so you’d need to see eight or more clients on other days to make up for that!
If you do that, can you honestly say that the therapist who sits in the chair for sessions 6, 7, and 8 of the day is the same therapist who sat down for the first few sessions? Didn’t think so. By under-charging, you’re settling for less money per session than you need, and forcing your clients to accept therapy services that won’t make the same difference that you can make for them when you’re at your best. You’re also much more likely to burn out and give up altogether.
Third Thing to Remember: You Can Still Give Discounts to Clients Who Need Them
Using the same assumed numbers here, let’s say you need to charge $150 per session for 25 weekly sessions to have a successful practice, provide excellent therapy services to all your clients, and not burn out. However, you want to do your part in helping those who can’t afford $150 (or even $110). You can absolutely do so by opening a set number of spots for reduced-cost therapy. Then, increase your full fee by just enough to make up the resulting shortfall.
In my next post I’ll offer some more ideas to help you reframe the sliding scale discussion so you don’t feel like it pits the client’s interest against your own.