How to Understand a Massage Therapist’s Salary: The Story Behind the Numbers
So what’s the best way to understand a massage therapist salary? Truth be told, there’s no easy answer to that.
“The variations are huge across the country,” says Joanie Holst, MS, BCTMB, CNMT, CMLDT, CKTP, associate professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University.
More than that, Holst says the numbers themselves don’t really explain how massage therapists typically get paid. Nor do they convey the fundamental importance of contact hours vs. non-contact hours. We’ll get more into those in a bit.
It’s also crucial, says Holst, to weigh the monetary rewards with the many other factors that make being a massage therapist a great career choice.
For example, she points out that helping people relax or manage pain can be incredibly rewarding. On top of that, massage therapists are fast-becoming an integral part of the healthcare world.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at those factors. But first, let’s try to understand the earning potential of a massage therapist by looking at some numbers.
What you should know about the numbers
There’s no shortage of sources regarding a massage therapist’s income. For example, here’s a breakdown of five websites that address the topic. Note the salaries reflect information from the original time of this writing.
|Average Yearly Salary Amount||Source|
|$26,216||American Massage Therapy Association|
|$45,880||U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics|
For help on getting a better understanding of these averages, here are five key considerations.
1. Pay attention to where the sources are getting their information
Websites like those listed above can all help give you an idea of a massage therapist’s earning potential. But where do those numbers come from? Let’s take a closer look.
American Massage Therapist Association
The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) is the largest non-profit association for massage therapists in the country. Note that the number it reports is from 2016 and includes gratuities (i.e., tips). On its industry fact sheet, it cites “internal consumer surveys” from 2003 to 2016 as the source for its average salary number.
Job-seeking sites with employee reviews
According to the AMTA, solo practitioners make up the largest percentage (72%) of practicing therapists. In these cases, massage therapists are not considered employees.
And that’s important to note when you turn to sites such as Glassdoor and ZipRecruiter. Why? Because these are employee-oriented sites that base much of their data on job listings and individual employees reporting their salaries.
This fact doesn’t make the sites less valid. Rather, you should keep in mind that what you earn as a massage therapist employee will typically differ from what you earn as an owner-operator of your own massage therapy practice.
Salary.com is in a class of its own because of how it derives its salary amounts. Rather than using individual site users or job postings, the company states that it uses “100 percent employer-reported information” derived “from hundreds of commercially available, top-tier surveys as well as local, industry, and association surveys.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics
Finally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is by far the most comprehensive in its data collection. Much of its massage therapy data is based on US workers who reported income from providing massage therapy.
Note that the BLS provides both the “mean annual wage” (i.e., the average) and the median income, which marks the middle point of all salaries (i.e., half of the salaries reported were above the number and half were below).
HRZone, a site dedicated to providing HR consulting advice, states, “The median is actually the more accurate estimate of the ‘average’ wage” because it isn’t skewed by income extremes on either end.
When looking at this and other data on massage therapy salaries, you should take into account that salary numbers may also reflect those who work part-time. For example, the BLS reports, “About half of all massage therapists worked part time” for 2016.
2. How much does a massage therapist make in an hour?
To understand the earning potential of a massage therapist, you need to understand the realities behind an hourly wage. Websites like those above often provide information on average hourly wages as well as annual salary.
But, again, there’s more to the story than just a number. Depending on where you practice, typical massage session time frames can range from 45 minutes to 60 minutes.
If you’re thinking about the massage therapy profession in terms of an eight-hour day, you should know that giving eight massages a day is simply not a realistic schedule for massage therapists.
Why not? Because practicing massage therapy is physically taxing. The good news is that massage therapists can counter this by limiting the number of massages they give in a day and by using a combination of massage techniques that help conserve their energy.
Depending on the specific workplace, you could still spend eight hours on the job. However, you won’t be doing eight actual hours of what the massage profession calls contact hours — the amount of time spent specifically doing massage.
Hourly wage scenarios
To understand more on the hourly rate question, imagine you’re an employee at a massage clinic that charges clients $75 per massage.
Your employer may agree to pay you a percentage of each massage session you do. Let’s say it’s about 33% (or one-third). So in that scenario, you earn $25 for a standard session. (That percentage would likely be maintained for massages you do that are longer or shorter as well.)
Employers vary as to how they may pay you for your non-contact time. For example, some will incorporate downtime in the percentage you get paid for each massage you give. Others may pay you a set wage for the time you don’t spend actually giving a massage.
On the other hand, if you own a practice and charge $75 per standard one-hour massage, a good portion of that money will go back into running your business — in other words, keeping the proverbial lights on.
One final note: Like so many other professions, the more experience, training and certifications you have, the more a client can expect to pay.
3. Keep in mind taxable income for owners vs. employees
Many massage therapists have their own solo practice. In these cases, massage therapists double as business owners. That means they have a host of overhead tax-deductible business expenses that can lower their reported taxable income.
To understand what a massage therapist truly earns, this is an important point. The reported income for these massage therapists may appear lower than what some would expect (or hope).
However, that income – thanks to legitimate tax deductions – may not necessarily reflect the true financial rewards they enjoy.
In turn, the income of massage therapists as employees will not reflect the various kinds of deductions that private practice owner-operators have.
4. Remember that geography matters
Not surprisingly, where you practice as a massage therapist will influence how much you make. Keep this in mind as you’re looking at overall “average” salaries. For example, you will likely be able to earn more in affluent areas and in luxury settings like hotels and spas.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics actually provides a variety of geographic-related information with a state-by-state breakdown.
5. Understand that compensation will vary with the work setting
If you’re trying to understand what a massage therapist can make, it’s important to know that your compensation will vary from one work setting to another. And massage therapists today can work in a wide range of places.
Note that in spa-type settings and private massage therapist offices, massage therapists are more likely to receive tips. In hospitals and healthcare clinics, tips are less likely or possibly even prohibited.
Here are some examples of the many places massage therapists work today:
- Integrative care clinics
- Primary care clinics
- Corporate settings
- Private practice
- Wellness centers
- Fitness centers
- Luxury hotels
- Cruise Ships
Beyond the dollars: The many benefits of being a massage therapist
As you get a better sense of the earning potential for massage therapists, you should also consider a number of other important factors – and attractive features – that are part of the profession.
Let’s return to Joanie Holst, MS, BCTMB, CNMT, CMLDT, CKTP, from Northwestern Health Sciences University to better understand some of them.
In addition to being an associate professor in massage therapy, she has been a practicing massage therapist for nearly 30 years.
An exceptionally bright job outlook for the foreseeable future
In recent years especially, Holst says the massage therapy profession has been going through some exciting developments. And there’s plenty of evidence that demonstrates this:
- The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a whopping 26% employment increase for massage therapists. That’s almost four times the average growth rate for all occupations.
- Given the painkiller/opioid crisis, a massage therapist’s non-invasive services are becoming an increasingly popular and effective approach for pain management. In fact, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), 88% of adult Americans believe that massage can help reduce certain forms of pain.
- Research continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of massage therapy for pain. For example, the journal Pain Medicine states there is “clear evidence supporting the efficacy of massage therapy” as a pain management option.
- The benefits of massage therapy extend to mental health as well. The AMTA points to numerous studies showing that massage can help those with anxiety, and The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry has shown evidence that massage can alleviate certain symptoms of depression.
- Surveys conducted by the AMTA indicate that more and more medical doctors, chiropractors, and other healthcare providers are recommending massage to their patients.
A rewarding, low-stress career helping others and being appreciated
Why do people become massage therapists in the first place? Holst says the number one reason is that they want to help people. And for her the massage therapy profession is an exceptional place to do that.
“Every day you get to experience helping people feel better,” says Holst. And what makes the massage therapy profession even more rewarding is that, as Holst puts it, “People love to see us!”
“Clients walk through the door saying things like, ‘I’m so glad I’m here!’ How cool is that? It’s a great feeling to spend your day with people that are really happy to be with you.”
On top of that, Holst says you get to play a role in people’s health and wellness in a low stress environment.
Growing opportunities for massage therapists in healthcare
Have you ever thought about becoming a healthcare professional? If so, Holst says there’s never been a better time to consider massage therapy. As integrative models of healthcare become more and more common, opportunities for massage therapists in the healthcare field will continue to grow.
The American Massage Therapy Association provides a detailed report of massage therapy’s advances in healthcare. Here are just a few examples from the report of how massage therapy has become an integral part of major – and influential – healthcare providers around the country:
- In 2005, Michigan’s largest healthcare system, Beaumont Health, began a massage therapy program by hiring one massage therapist in its oncology department. The program has expanded into departments like cardiology, urology and pediatrics, and today Beaumont Health has dozens of massage therapists on staff.
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City employs massage therapists throughout its facilities for inpatients and outpatients.
In addition, massage therapy training and education can provide an excellent foundation of knowledge in health and the human body. Some massage therapists choose to expand this knowledge to eventually become chiropractors, acupuncturists, nurses, and more.
A profession with lots of opportunity to create your own path
In many ways, massage therapists enjoy a lot more freedom, especially compared to other healthcare professions, says Holst.
For example, self-employment is a viable — and popular — choice for many massage therapists, which makes it easier to shape your own schedule.
But that’s really just the beginning.
If having your own massage practice isn’t for you, that’s not a problem. The opportunities in massage therapy are still vast, says Holst.
“Massage is found in so many environments,” Holst says. “You can work at a spa or resort or health club. You can provide massage onsite to office workers. You can be employed by a hospital.”
Holst explains there are also numerous other options to work at clinics or other types of practices like the following:
- Massage therapy group practices or franchises
- Chiropractic practices that also offer massage therapy
- Integrative clinics that provide massage therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture
- Sports and rehabilitation clinics that include physical therapists, medical doctors, as well as massage therapists
Along with the variety of work environments, massage therapists can also specialize to work with specific kinds of patients or clients. Veterans, children, seniors, athletes, expectant mothers, cancer patients, hospice patients — these are just some of the many possibilities.
Here’s a graphic demonstrating the wide variety of career paths that massage therapists have.
Take the next step toward becoming a massage therapist
Are you interested in a career as a massage therapist? Then take the next step and learn how to become a massage therapist.
Want to talk to someone right away about becoming a massage therapist? Contact Northwestern Health Sciences University today!