What should you charge for counselling? It’s a question every counsellor encounters sooner or later, and it’s a difficult one to answer.
In a previous blog post we discussed the need to have good business skills when starting counselling, particularly if you plan to run your own private practice, and those skills will come into play here. However, there are many things to weigh up in making this decision.
It’ll be different for everyone, but here are a few considerations for when you’re deciding to set your fees.
These are fairly generic business issues. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in counselling, or making balloon animals for kids parties. Any business will need to assess these, and counselling is no exception.
Sorry newbies, but it’s a big issue. The simple rule is that the less formal counselling experience you have had, the less you should charge (okay, we know it’s not THAT simple, but you get the idea). If you’ve been working as a counsellor for 15 years, then yes, you can justifiably charge more based on the wealth of experience you’ve had, and you have a greater understanding of the subjectivities of practice as opposed to theory.
So, if you are fresh out of training and aiming to set up a private practice, what should you do? Don’t go too far the other way, and price yourself well below your desired rate – you will inevitably increase your prices as you gain experience, and a raise of a few pounds per session is a lot easier to swallow than a raise of £20+. Start somewhere reasonable, but don’t go too low, both for your own sake and your clients’. And remember not to set yourself at a rate so low that it will actually make you resent being in the industry – it helps no one and can damage therapy itself.
The economics of your location will play a part. Two key factors come into play: your competition, and your clients.
Carefully analyse what’s already out there – find out the going rates for as many counsellors as you possibly can within your local area. Patterns will start to develop. There’ll be large variation within each area, but there will be a spectrum which, when compared to somewhere else, may have a clear price differentiation. From this you can see what the expectations are for an area.
In addition, clients will likely have more spending power and different backgrounds depending on the area. This is somewhat dependent on who your target client group is, but the average Joe is likely to have a better paying and more secure job in some areas than others. Just remember that sometimes the cost of living can negate that, but in general it’s a safe bet.
The obvious example of an area where standard rates will be higher is London. Competition here is fierce, but the average rate for a session is around £50 per hour. Meanwhile, potential clients are likely to have stable jobs and a fairly high income.
Political and economic issues
It’s also important to bear in mind the wider world, both from your own perspective and your clients. Many counsellors didn’t quite know how to react when the global economic recession hit – people had less money, yet more mental health issues than in any recent era.
It may of course be smaller than this – perhaps new business tax rates could warrant altering your prices, or a new local fund to aid people in getting counselling.
Next, it’s important to consider what you want from a career in counselling. Pricing yourself is part of your overall positioning. This sections asks you to sit back and think where you’d like to be in the future, both in your career and in your life.
Remember what we said about good business sense? Well, don’t forget to balance your incomings and outgoings. Even if you’re new to the counselling world, pricing yourself so low that you can barely afford to scrape by is helping no one. This can damage your personal life, and lead to poor counselling through countertransference feelings of resentment and anger.
Don’t forget that you aren’t just counselling. You have book-keeping to do, CPD to attend, travel expenses, marketing etc. etc.
Set up a budget, and we’d suggest overestimating costs. Work out how many clients you can feasibly obtain, and then how much you’d need to charge them in order for you to make a living and grow your practice in the way you want to.
It’s a scary word but its important to consider.
Some counsellors are interested in making a living, others in making a profit. Is this a lifestyle business (i.e. you wish to simply make enough to live a desired way of life) or a profit-making one (i.e. you actively want to grow your business year-on-year, as well as taking your lifestyle cut)? Decide where you lie and what you want. Counselling is one of those rare professions that’s both a labour of love and a business, but don’t kid yourself about what you want, and price yourself accordingly.
Most counsellors are in this profession for more than just money though. We want to help.
How do you feel about aiding those in financial hardship? Typically this would require cutting your typical rates. Do you offer that support or not? Can you fit it into your schedule, knowing that you perhaps will only break even from the session?
Many counsellors choose to set up their practice as a non-profit, or work for non-profits. Others offer a mix of non-profit and for profit work. Others work purely for profit. Understand how much non-profit work you can fit into your schedule, and work out how to charge appropriately. Do you charge them break even prices? Or do you charge for profit clients a few bucks extra in order to support your non-profit work?
Talk to your supervisor
They’re there to help, and they most likely have more experience than yourself. They can help you understand how much to charge, as they will have likely been through the same battle themselves. They can offer an objective pair of eyes on the topic of how much you should charge for counselling services. They should be one of your first ports of call (besides this blog post!) in making the decision.
What sets you apart?
We’ve already looked at experience, but there may be things that set you apart regardless, and that warrant an increase in your rates.
Experience is one thing, but results speak for themselves. We’ve discussed the importance of tracking your progress with clients before as a useful counselling skill, but you can use this data to help you understand just how effective you are, and to demonstrate your effectiveness to referral sources.
Good results warrants high fees, and to this regard experience and training can be somewhat overstated. If your clients show consistent improvement, and are themselves impressed by your treatment, then you’re granted higher degree of flexibility in setting the price you want.
Are you an expert in a specific area? Is it a real niche, but a valuable one? In these circumstances, your specialist knowledge can warrant a higher fee paid than standard counselling services. The rarer, but more valuable your niche, the more you can charge for services that fall under that area.
Down to the nitty-gritty of it. Some ways to price yourself in a practical way and to ensure you get what you want out of your career, whilst also keeping clients happy.
Concessions and sliding scales
It’s not uncommon to charge separate prices to separate income groups and ages – most people aren’t in counselling purely for the dosh and have a desire to help people.
One interesting way of handling this is to charge a day’s salary to your client. If the client earns £30 per day, post tax, then this would be the fee. If a client earns £400, then so be it. Equally, we’ve seen therapists charge 1/1000th of the client’s annual income per session.
When taking on a counselling student as a ‘client’ they will typically stay with you for at least 2 years. This is common practice for counsellors, and required experience for most future counsellors. This sense of security can warrant a lower hourly rate though – having a secure and reliable client easily makes up for what you cut from the fees.
Be gentle with raises
If you are already established but plan to raise fees, this can be equally difficult for everyone involved (hence the earlier mention of keeping price rises to small increments).
Margaret Landale has previously relayed a story about a difficult experience she had in raising her fees to a client, and how the use of mindfulness enabled her to overcome this difficult dilemma. Negotiate with clients, and remember how important the practice of therapy can be in their lives.
Price and quality
Despite best intentions to price low and help as many people as possible, it may actually backfire. The so-called ‘price-quality’ heuristic that plays out in most people’s minds basically links higher prices to higher quality. As the saying goes, ‘you get what you pay for’ and whether that’s true or not in the case of your practice, presenting yourself with too low of a price can actually make people doubt your ability. Remember to value yourself and your skills correctly – the years of study and hard work that got you to where you are.
Counselling isn’t a typical trade for giving discounts, doing Christmas sales, BOGOF deals etc. But it isn’t a bad idea to offer an initial cheaper session. This will help you both grow your business, and also give clients and yourself a chance to initially meet and test the waters of the relationship without a high degree of risk.
Counselling4Brighton does this by offering the first session for less than half price.
This is often linked to your local area and the degree of competition – for some areas it may not be necessary at all. In addition, you may have a specifically sought after specialism or niche which warrants a high price from the get-go.
Look after yourself and the client
We’ve looked at a wide range of issues that factor into your pricing. These final pointers draw it all back to the two key components of the relationship: yourself, and your client.
Therapists often feel guilty about charging those with high levels of need, but they forget the levels of skill and work that is required to do the job. Ever heard the little fable about the plumber?
A man’s boiler is faulty and leaking incessantly. He calls a plumber, who comes round, and whisks out his wrench. He taps a couple of pipes and tightens a bolt, and the boiler whirrs, stops leaking, and begins working again. The plumber requests £80 for the job. “£80 for a job that took 2 minutes?” replies the man, annoyed at this. “No sir, you’re paying me £80 for the 15 years experience that enables me to know which pipes to tap!”
Counsellors must remember the levels of skill and experience required to do their job, and avoid feelings of guilt in charging clients.
Find comfort with the client
At the core of this issue though is finding comfort – the client’s comfort and the therapist’s comfort. For an effective relationship to ensue, this issue must be ironed out from the start. Start the process of discussing price quickly, and make it open. Settle on a rate that you both feel is fair and ethical, and it shan’t affect your therapy.
Find comfort with yourself
Even more importantly, remember what your limits are. Lay out your expectations, including how much you’re prepared to work for and other details in the style of some terms and conditions. Brief the client on these, and find agreement. Should they disagree, they have the option to go elsewhere. Should they agree, then they know what to expect from the start.