Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sliding Scale Secrets [Classic Beginning Counselor]

To celebrate the new blog location for Beginning Counselor, I've collected and updated some classic blog posts for you. Enjoy! 

Have you ever been asked by clients if you could offer them a sliding scale counseling fee...and had no idea what to say? 

Yes.

No.

Maybe.

Why?

Um....

There's something about that question that makes us all feel a little wishy-washy. We want to help. But we also know we have to pay our bills, and most of all be fair to all of our clients.

Why is this so hard to do? Well, it's awkward talking to clients about money, especially when you're not used to doing so. And it's rare for other agencies to publish their own formula for creating a sliding scale, so you don't have much to go by. Sometimes your supervisor may have a specific formula for how he/she wants you to do that, but sometimes they won't. And then you're on your own.

So what do you do?  

The only thing TO do - create a system of your own that's fair to the clients but at the same time meets your needs. Sound impossible? Nope, not if you ask yourself these simple questions!
  • What are the minimum and maximum fees you are comfortable charging? You don't want to make the price too low, or risk discouraging the client from taking the session seriously. You also don't want to charge as much as a licensed counselor would if you're not licensed, because you don't have the experience yet to justify it.
  • What fee increments will you be using? One example is starting with a specific fee and taking $10 off per hour for each $10,000/year the client's income drops.
  • What are your special exceptions, if any? Do they get a certain low rate if they are on unemployment, if they are a student, if they are on disability, if they have children they are financially responsible for, etc? 
  • How do you back up their statement of income? One way is to verify self-stated income reports by using the client's check stub or income tax form.

Once you decide your fee structure make sure you steel yourself against being persuaded to reduce it further. When you present any fee with some flexibility to it - like sliding scale - it's a natural human instinct for clients to try to see if they can get an even better deal. (I would be tempted to try to bargain it down in that position, too!) Resist. It does not make you a bad person to stick to the boundaries you've already set, especially if you're going by fair guidelines like the ones above.

To protect yourself against this, I would suggest giving yourself at least 24 hours to think it over before you reduce a fee further than the guidelines you have already established. If you still want to change after 24 hours, than it's probably a situation you should change. I bring this up because new counselors often struggle with guilt over charging a fee for their services. Don't. Can many other people do what you do? No. You deserve to earn a fair wage for your services.

A good sliding scale fee system benefits both the counselor and the client. The client gets the help they need at an affordable rate, and the counselor knows they're helping people but still making a decent living. 

If you use a sliding scale in your counseling practice, what guidelines to you go by? How do you deal with any guilty feelings that come along with it?

Originally Published 7/15/11

Recommended Reading: Building Your Ideal Private Practice: A Guide For Therapists And Other Healing Professionals. I loved it!