Should You Tip Your Massage Therapist?

March 1, 2021

If you want to start a fight with a group of massage therapists, just ask them how they feel about tipping. It’s a heated ongoing debate, and I have my own controversial opinions.

As a massage therapist, this is one of the most common questions I receive:

Should you tip your massage therapist?

Short answer: No.
Long answer: No, but

Let’s start with why I choose to decline tips…

Massage is healthcare.

Here in Ontario, massage therapists are regulated healthcare providers. With 2200+ hours of formal education, Canadian massage therapists are among the highest-trained in the world.

Despite this, we’re the only healthcare workers (that I know of) who accept tips. You don’t tip your physiotherapist or your dental hygienist, do you? Chiropractors are prohibited from accepting tips. So, why tip your massage therapist?

Massage therapists often lament our position as bottom rung on the healthcare ladder. One of the reasons for this may be tipping, which keeps us relegated to a service or a luxury rather than an integral component of the healthcare system.

I wonder whether tipping holds us back. What do you think?

The last thing I want to inflict upon
someone who has just received a relaxing
massage is undue stress by lurking over them
as they calculate how much, if any, to tip.

Tipping is AWKWARD.

Picture this…

You’re having lunch with a friend and you’re in the middle of telling her a captivating story. Suddenly, you’re cut off by your server who hands you the bill along with a portable point-of-sale terminal. You pause your story, insert your credit card, and quietly begin to panic. Questions race through your mind…

What’s a standard tip these days? Is it 15%? 20%? Was the service good or was it great? What’s 15% of $54.37? Is tip calculated before or after tax? Is the server going to hover over me while I try to figure this out?

Alarmingly, the POS machine starts beeping, prompting you to remove your card and start the transaction over from the beginning, thereby communicating to everyone in the restaurant that you’re bad at math.

AWKWARD.

The last thing I want to inflict upon someone who has just received a relaxing massage is undue stress by lurking over them as they calculate how much, if any, to tip.

He left a $20 bill on the table.
It felt like hush money.

Tipping lowers wages.

In many industries, tipping serves as a justification for employers to underpay their staff. General minimum wage in Ontario is $14.25/h. Minimum wage for liquor servers is $12.45. In several US states, the minimum wage for tipped employees is just $2.13. That’s not a typo.

How can these wages be so low? Tips, of course!

Tipping puts the onus on the consumer to provide the worker with a living wage. It absolves the employer of that responsibility and can potentially create an uncomfortable power dynamic between the customer and the service provider.

My first job out of massage therapy school was at a popular chain spa. These spas attract recent graduates with the promise of a full schedule and a steady flow of tips. How do they do this? By offering a low monthly membership fee to consumers. How do they keep their prices so low? By paying their therapists half the going rate and filling the books with back-to-back appointments.

At this spa, I was giving up to seven massages a day (that’s a lot), hurriedly shuffling between treatment rooms because there wasn’t enough time to turn over the room before my next appointment. One day my forearm turned bruised and swollen. I had sustained a repetitive strain injury.

A client once got inappropriate during his massage. He left a $20 bill on the table at the end. It felt like hush money.

The tips weren’t even that great; $10 per massage was pretty standard, sometimes $20. Tips were distributed bi-weekly in cash by management. I never received a payment transaction record, so I had to trust that the lump of cash was accurate.

Cash tips can sound great – In your face, Canada Revenue Agency! – until you try to get a loan or a mortgage and the bank denies your application. After all, on paper, your income may be punitively low.

At the spa, I was overworked, underpaid, and exhausted. When I left and started working at a clinic, my hourly wage literally doubled. I went from earning $50+ per day in tips to zero. But you know what? It didn’t matter, because I was still working less and earning more. I no longer had to rely on tips to make ends meet. I didn’t have to sing for my supper.

You probably think I’m anti-chain spa. On the contrary! I learned a lot at that spa and I think such chains have done wonders when it comes to introducing massage therapy to the masses and making it more accessible.

But here’s the thing… Without tipping, I predict every chain spa would fold overnight, because I don’t know a single massage therapist who could make a living from their hourly wages alone.

I still value my time at the spa, but I’m grateful that the experience, and the tips, are behind me.

Tips convey meaning.

Tipping is a language and not everyone is fluent.

For many, tips mean something. A big tip means you did a satisfactory job. A small tip, or no tip, means you did an unsatisfactory job. Sounds simple enough, right?

But what if none of this is true? What if the tip was only big because two $20 bills stuck together? What if the consumer comes from a place where tipping isn’t customary? What if they’re in a mood and the tip has nothing to do with your level of service?

It’s when we attach meaning to innocuous events that we complicate things unnecessarily. Removing tipping from my private practice diminishes opportunities for misinterpretation.

Tipping fosters resentment.

Spend five minutes on any massage therapist message board and you’ll see some version of this:

I did some of my best work on him and he didn’t even tip!
She always books 90-minute massages and never tips.


That’s right. Your massage therapist may be silently (or not-so-silently) judging you for your tipping style. This can cause therapists to give preferential treatment to high tippers, and to subconsciously provide lackluster service to others.

Countless therapists have told me that they bend over backwards for high tippers. They purposely give extra time on the table, schedule clients outside of their regular working hours, or neglect to enforce their policies, all out of feelings of guilt and servitude.

Some clients might expect special treatment precisely because they’re generous with tips. It creates a system of imbalance, where clients are ranked based on financial output, and where favoritism can be purchased.

Tipping muddies expectations on both sides. Because massage therapists are notoriously bad at asserting boundaries – that’s a whole other discussion – I’m of the opinion that it’s simpler and clearer to eliminate tipping. There’s no room for misinterpretation on either side, and it keeps my income more predictable and consistent.

Expecting tips is also kind of dishonest. Think about it…

If you charge $80/h but you expect a $20 tip, then I would argue that your actual rate isn’t $80; it’s $100. Just be honest and charge what you really want. This way, any tips you receive are a pleasant bonus, and you’re less likely to experience feelings of resentment when you don’t get tipped.

A lot of heartache can be avoided when we learn to manage expectations, both ours and our clients’.

Tipping is a language and
not everyone is fluent.

You don’t tip the owner.

I can’t remember where I learned this, but somebody planted this seed in my brain as a teenager and it never went away: You don’t tip the business owner.

If anyone knows where this nugget of wisdom came from, please tell me. It’s a mystery!

Still, I firmly believe that, as business owners, it’s up to us to set our rates such that we don’t have to rely on tips to earn a living. Whether you choose to accept tips or not is entirely up to you. If you require tips, I suggest you raise your rates.

Tipping exacerbates wage discrepancies
that already negatively impact
marginalized populations.

Tipping exacerbates discrimination.

Tipping has a controversial history rooted in racism. Today, the sizable tipping gaps between genders and races are well-documented.

The vast majority of massage therapists are women. Many therapists are people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of colour (that’s me). Tipping exacerbates wage discrepancies that already negatively impact marginalized populations. Eliminating tips and raising wages is one small way of balancing the scales.

If you’re a female-identifying massage therapist, I implore you to consider raising your rates. The gender wage gap isn’t going to close itself.



For the reasons above and more, I’ve chosen not to accept tips in my private practice.

Am I against tipping? Perhaps surprisingly, no. It’s a nuanced topic and I think there are sound arguments on both sides. Many massage therapists make good money because of tips, and I’m all in favour of massage therapists earning more. We work hard and deserve to thrive rather than merely survive.

What I do take issue with is therapists, especially self-employed therapists, who expect tips and rely on them in order to make ends meet. That’s a recipe for disaster. “Accept, not expect” is the golden rule.

Some massage therapists claim it’s preposterous to decline money. I would argue that therapists turn down money every day by way of undercharging. We’re leaving money on the table (pun intended).

Clear as mud, right?

By now you’re probably wondering what I meant earlier when I said No, but…

Here in Ontario, you don’t need to tip your massage therapist. However, there are some exceptions:

Spas

Tipping is generally expected in a spa setting. This is because, as I mentioned before, many spas pay their therapists a base rate that is lower than average. Spas also employ estheticians, so it’s customary for the client to tip each of their service providers at their spa visit.

Did you receive a facial, a mani/pedi, or a robe at your visit? Do you hear Enya? Tip your massage therapist.

In contrast, tipping is much less common in a clinical setting. This can include hospitals, multidisciplinary clinics, and gyms. Tips here are typically appreciated, but not expected.

Not sure whether you should tip or how much to offer? Ask reception to outline the tipping etiquette.

Non-RMTs

It’s confusing, but you can receive a massage in Canada from someone who is not a Registered Massage Therapist. This includes estheticians, personal trainers and yoga instructors, Reiki practitioners, Thai massage practitioners, Shiatsu therapists, Fascial Stretch therapists, reflexologists, therapists who are licensed in other countries, and the list goes on…

If your provider does not have the RMT designation, they are not a regulated healthcare professional and your service will not be covered by extended health insurance. In these scenarios, it’s more likely that tipping is expected.

Not sure whether your bodyworker is an RMT? Ask before you book your appointment! You don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised when your insurance provider denies your claim.

Chinatown

Chinatown can be a great place to get a fabulous massage. In Chinatown, you’ll find practitioners with very skilled hands from several countries.

I once read that only 4% of Canadians regularly receive massage. I can’t remember where I got this statistic, but I read it somewhere so it must be true.

Meanwhile, massage has reportedly been practised in China for 5,000 years! Some historians claim that the earliest written records of massage came from Egypt (my people!) and China, dating as far back as 3,000 BCE.

In China, I’m told massage is a family tradition that is passed down between generations. How beautiful is that?

Are you in Chinatown? Tip your bodyworker. Whenever possible, tip them directly with cash.

Low Pricing

If the price of your massage seems too good to be true, it probably is. Management may be cutting corners somewhere. That could be with cheap supplies or subpar cleanliness (ew). Most likely it’s by underpaying their staff.

Is your massage suspiciously cheap? Tip your massage therapist.

Travel

Fun fact: I’ve received massages in 13 countries!

If you receive a massage outside of Canada, it’s likely customary to tip, especially if it’s in a country where your dollar is stronger than the local currency.

When I visited Thailand in 2019, a 60-minute Thai massage cost CAD $8. That’s less than 10% of the going rate here in Toronto. You’d better believe I left hefty tips. Their cost of living may be drastically lower than ours, but I’m willing to bet their earnings are meager, not to mention the salacious requests they undoubtedly receive from assumptive tourists.

Massage therapy is a workout and your provider deserves every penny you can afford to give.

Are you outside of Canada? Tip your massage therapist. Yes, even in the US.



At the end of the day, if you enjoyed your massage, and if you can afford it, you can always offer to tip. Some therapists will decline your offer, and that’s ok! The ones who accept tips will be appreciative.

Personally, I’d rather you save your money and put it towards your next massage. Better yet, send a friend! The best way for me to grow my business is through word-of-mouth referrals, and that’s worth more to me than a $20 bill any day of the week.

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Looking for a massage from a therapist who never accepts tips? Book online here.

Comments

  1. Wonderfully said! I don’t accept tips for the very reasons you’ve listed here. Well done!

    1. Author

      Thank you! Feel free to share this post to let people know you agree.

    2. If you don’t accept tips, cool. I’m accept tips and I am not ashamed of it at all. I charge what I’m worthy and off the client wants to tip me on top of that, I’m sooo ok with it’s.

      1. Author

        Totally fair! I choose not to accept tips, but I won’t judge those who do. I think it’s a nuanced subject and there are sound arguments on both sides.

  2. Tips are not expected in our office, but we do appreciate those who do tip! Our goal is to have many repeat customers and we have achieved that goal with having many repeat clients for the last 5-6 years. They don’t generally tip, but are very generous during Christmas. We have been really blessed!

    1. Author

      This is lovely. I do think “accepted, not expected” is the best attitude. It sounds like you’ve managed to build a solid business with many happy clients!

  3. You’re so eloquent, Nicki! Thank you for educating the masses (whether or not they agree with you), I love how you back your opinion with stone cold facts. I have ALWAYS tipped high when it comes to the service industry as I know I’m one of the more fortunate – especially during this pandemic. I do this with a gut feel that it’s the right thing to do, but now I know it is. I agree with all your points, but especially with respect to massage therapy being part of healthcare, rather than it being lumped within the luxury/pampering side. Hoping this view continues to change. <3

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response and kind words, Bridget! I’ve always been a generous tipper myself, especially because I worked at restaurants and a cafe as a teenager. Tips can really make a big difference to so many people, so I try to give where I can. I also want people to feel comfortable knowing they don’t have to think about tipping when they see me. Save your tipping money and give it to someone who truly needs it. It’s an interesting topic for sure!

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