Insider Tips for a Worthwhile Massage

This post was inspired by DogAteMyFinances

Do you think massage…
    … is a pampering luxury?
    … is recuperative, making it possible to keep as active at 45 as you were at 25?
    … is a euphemism for “lite prostitution”?

I can’t help those of you looking for the third thing on that list, but as a self-employed massage therapist, I can give some pretty solid advice to anyone seeking the first two – both in terms of how to find a deal as well as how to increase the chances that you’ll get the kind you want. My market is Manhattan, but most of the information works anywhere in the country.

The Spa Experience

There are two basic kinds: those that employ fully qualified and legal (as opposed to illegal immigrant) staff, and those that don’t. With both types, the spa makes the same profit – the difference is whether the therapists are paid fairly, poorly, or even at all…I won’t depress you with the gritty details. You are paying a premium for the ambience and the little extras like a fluffy robe, sauna, green tea, etc.  If it’s a popular spa that’s usually fully booked, the therapists are working 4-6 hours without a break, and tend to give the lightest massage they can get away with to preserve their energy and minimize the wear-and-tear on their own bodies. The really expensive places usually schedule 15-minute breaks between sessions to mitigate this.  If you want to guarantee yourself a deep massage at a spa, find one that offers Shiatsu with back-walking – but be warned, it’s painfully deep.

  • Beware of spas that discourage you from requesting a specific therapist. No matter how nice they are about it (“she’s on vacation”, “she hasn’t set her schedule for next week yet”, etc.), it’s an indication of high staff turnover…which is an indication of unhappy staff.
  • It’s usually against all kinds of rules to try to get a spa therapist to see you privately, but if you slip them a note with your email address/phone number folded into their tip, it just might work out. Don’t try to discuss it openly.

The Independent Experience

If all you want is a massage and you don’t care much about the peripheral stuff, find someone who works for themselves – they’ll cost 30-50% less (but closer to a spa price for housecalls), they’ll have more energy to give a deeper massage, and are more likely to be responsive to your needs. If you ask folks for recommendations, find out (a) what kind of massage they like to receive to make sure it’s similar to what you want, and (b) what they like about this particular therapist to see if they value the same aspects of the experience.


Using the services of a self-employed massage therapist is not a great situation to attempt any hard-core haggling techniques. Bear in mind that about half of what they charge goes to their overheads (rent, private health insurance, advertising, etc), and it’s not an 8-hour-a-day job. The rest is their gross income, and we tend to limit ourselves to about 4 hours a day for health reasons. Go ahead, do the math. Do you really want someone whose job it is to make you feel good to feel undervalued?
Acceptable ways to haggle
:  prepaid packages, discounts/bonuses for referrals, different rates for “off-peak” times. You can also do a soft-sell on a bartering option if you have something to offer, e.g. “I own a yoga studio. If you’re into yoga, let me know if you’d be willing to exchange a massage for a 5-class pass”…just don’t press it.

Do you have a massage school nearby? Check out the hours and arrangements for their student clinics. You don’t get any say in who works on you (so it’s not good for those who only want a male or female to work on them) and the quality will be all over the place, but it’s usually ~$25 for 40-60 minutes of massage in a clean, safe environment. If you really mesh with a particular trainee, get his/her number. They might want to stick to the rules about not doing paid work until they’re properly qualified, but you can either respect that and wait until they graduate in a few months, or you can ask “is it ethical for you to work on me outside of the clinic for a donation or tip?” Again, be prepared with a note of your contact info in case the person is willing.
Advice to men: if you’re trying this with a woman, be sure to make it clear that you’re not hitting on her.


2 Responses

  1. I followed your link from another blog. Good tips! I’m addicted to massage and support therapists regularly!

  2. I am starting a business, and would like to pick your brain and such. Do you have an email I can contact you at? Thanks!

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