Second Thoughts on Sliding Scale Payment

While having coffee last week with my friends Christina and Peter, fellow writers from my Thursday afternoon group, we were discussing how a young philanthropist here in Chapel Hill had helped raise funds to rebuild a beauty salon burned during the riots in Ferguson. The young man’s efforts struck me as very personal: he did not donate or solicit money from others for a general fund or cause; instead, he worked on behalf of one particular individual, the salon owner. This prompted me to wonder whether millenials as a whole feel less comfortable than their parents donating to big faceless organizations like the Red Cross and want instead to feel a more immediate connection to the object of their generosity.

A little research the next day confirmed my suspicion. I found several articles discussing a major shift in the patterns of charitable giving, including this one from NRP where a young philanthropist described a pervasive attitude he had encountered among his peers.”They all said, ‘I don’t trust charities. I don’t give. I believe these charities are just these black holes. I don’t even know how much money would actually go to the people who I’m trying to help.'”

In another of these articles, I also read that millenials “value feeling connected to peer and professional networks and they want to be able to share the causes they care about with friends and colleagues.” It’s not just about narcissism, as I suggested to Tovia Smith in her segment on Boston Strong for NPR earlier this year. It’s about putting a face to the recipient of one’s donations of time or money and forging a personal connection, then sharing that connection with others.

In a roundabout way, this train of thought brought me back to the issue of sliding scale payment in psychotherapy. My post on this topic, written more than three years ago, remains one of the most popular on this site. In that post, I set forth my reasons for establishing one consistent fee that I charge to my clients and which I do not negotiate. I still agree with what I wrote, but the post seems incomplete and misleading. In truth, I reduce my fees all the time, but not for people I don’t know or have only just met. In other words, like millenials, I need a personal connection before I will “donate” part of my fee to help another individual.

Sometimes I feel a bit ashamed of this character trait, as if I’m lacking in compassion or humanity. I find it difficult to care about abstract or faceless groups. Discussions of “poverty in Africa” or “multiple sclerosis” do not touch my heart. On the other hand, I suspect I’m not alone in this respect, which is why print ads that solicit charitable donations for, say, children born with birth defects often depict one specific child with a visible and often pitiable deformity. In my more cynical moments, I also think that for many people who ostentatiously care about their causes, such caring mostly embodies a self-statement: I am such a good person because of my feeling heart.

If a stranger contacts me for psychotherapy sessions and asks me to reduce my fee, I still decline, but if one of my on-going clients suffers a financial setback, I do not hesitate to help. A long-term client who lives very close to the margin was recently forced to take a 10% pay-cut and I offered to reduce my fee or even see her for free if necessary. I have come to care about her as I inevitably do for all my clients; for this reason, I could not abandon her just as she faced hard times. She insisted that she should drop out and make way for someone who could pay my full fee, but I would never choose to take on a stranger in lieu of a person I care about, just for the sake of the money.

There are limits. If a client is struggling financially because he or she has major entitlement issues, I probably wouldn’t reduce my fee because I would be indulging that sense of entitlement. If a client has an unconscious rescue fantasy that involves being an infant whom I will rescue, I’d probably interpret the fantasy and keep my fee the same. Understanding all of the psychological implications is a challenge, but the client I mentioned who had to take a pay-cut is a hard-working single mother who has never asked for a handout. She also went through a truly horrendous childhood and has suffered a number of setbacks in her life that make her, at least for me, particularly sympathetic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I have therapist-clients in major cities charging much more than I do – sometimes twice as much. Should I charge them more because they can afford more? I feel deeply uncomfortable with that idea and have never raised my fee because a prospective client is wealthy (although I know professionals who do just that). On the other hand, it did not sit well with me that younger therapists would seek my expertise and pay me half of what they charge their own clients. After thinking long and hard about it, I finally decided to raise my fee for new clients just beginning treatment.

By and large, I don’t raise my fees for existing clients. One client who stopped treatment for complicated reasons about a year ago recently resumed treatment. When she reached out to me, I didn’t tell her that my fee for new clients had substantially increased since she stopped coming because I knew she wouldn’t have been able to start up again. I’m charging her what she used to pay even though I could have filled the hour with a higher-paying client. I care about her and have enjoyed our work together, and I don’t mind reducing my fee or taking less from someone who over time has come to matter to me.

But I don’t feel compelled to reduce my fee for strangers when I don’t know them and haven’t had time to develop a personal connection. I don’t believe I have a duty to make financial sacrifices in order to help “humanity” or “people in general.” I need a personal connection before I will give, so I guess you could call me a middle-aged millennial.

P.S. — I finally realized that WordPress deletes comments in my queue if I don’t approve them within a certain number of days. I apologize to those of you whose comments to this post were deleted and I promise to approve them in future in a more timely fashion!

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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    You have to be one of the, if not THE MOST balanced and objective person in your profession. One needs to be careful all the time because there are many people with money who misrepresent things just for their love of the damned dollar and for the sake of paying less than a FAIR cost factor for services provided.

    In my profession, I have noted this as a common reality that like it or not, seems to run in specific “cultural” lines and sub races though stinginess and selfishness does not discriminate in who it infects. Having been in business over 20 years above board and years even before that in a charitable capacity spare time activity, I have learned to sort out the sheep from the goats and target such dishonest, stingy people for de-listing.

    I sell a service with a higher injury and fatality rate than either firefighters or enforcement police workers and while it is true there are what I call “hackers’ in the mix who will do the work cheaper, you get what you pay for. With my zero accident WSIB rate, no claims either for injuries or for commercial liability property damage, with two certified people doing the work, with bonded and criminal free RCMP fingerprint checks and OPP name matches, and a long list of clients who I have had for decades, I offer a professional trouble free, operation.

    I am in full agreement with Dr. B and follow a much similar tact, refusing to accept the plea that the customer has little money when I have to wade through beer cases, old pizza boxes, and can see the satellite dish and big screen system in the living room when I enter residences to collect my fees.

    I had one cheap stingy manipulator try to wheedle me down. He claimed he had a set income and needed a reduction since he was retired. Well he was right. He was retired and living in a million dollar house on expensive exclusive waterfront property.

    I bet that set income equated with several grand a month, but I have no tolerance for stingy people and delisted the miscreant.

    Another time, I had a call on a Saturday from a woman who lived a good hour away, who wanted me to go to her estate for a consultation. She whined when I told her there was a fee for that but claimed my ad said I would do it for free. I corrected her and told her that she was trying to evade the message that said estimates for IDENTIFIED work were free, not consultations that in her case, would take me the better half of a day. When she continued her whining I asked her how I was to survive if everyone who called me wanted a free consultation , to drive an hour each way, and spend another two hours minimum on the estate? I asked her if she had ever worked for nothing? I asked her if the tooth fairy would pay for my gas.

    She abruptly said that “This is not going to work” and I quickly told her, “No it is not because I am not a fool who caters to cheap and stingy people who want something for nothing.” I hung up and never heard from her again.

    The world is composed of two types of people, freeloaders or producers. I have picked enough tics out of my miserable carcass to know I want no attachments from the subhuman ones.

    Hang tough Dr, life is exciting.

    I don’t mind if people ask for a fee reduction; it’s only natural to want the best deal you can get. It’s the sense of entitlement (as demonstrated by the woman who wanted your consultation services for free) that bothers me.

    No, you are not alone as I feel the same way and I’m not a millennial either. I need a more personal connection as well regardless if whether someone agrees, disagrees or even understands. It’s been a guiding principle in my life, despite the fact that I’ve endured a lot of criticism by people who want something from me or they want me to align myself with their cause and serve as their echo chamber. It is why I chose the course I did in college (environmental studies) and even joined Greenpeace–I had a specific, concrete purpose which gave my life meaning and that is something few people know about me, but then they are not interested in that about me either as they want to talk about themselves (they only cared about my age, reproductive status and sexual orientation).

    I often feel as cynical as you do and it is a topic of conversation that I limit to one good friend who I feel that I can be honest with–we both tend to feel that peoples motives are not as altruistic as some would like to claim.

    I’ve actually experienced a lot of criticism by some people because my focus was on animal work and not people. I’d often hear the following, “People are more important than animals,” and it struck me as an offensive judgement. I recall meeting a single woman who told me the same and she worked at an animal shelter. It strikes me as odd why someone would feel compelled to volunteer to work at an animal shelter and then make those kinds of comments. Why not just volunteer to work with people and not animals. (Problem solved.)

    I’m not happy blindly giving to others and I seldom do as it doesn’t make me happy in the least. Trying to guilt people into giving is not a prescription for happiness either. It may work when someone is promoting their cause to use that kind of pressure tactic, but I feel that it is manipulative and that eventually backfires. I also feel anger and hostility towards people being intrusive and backing me into a corner about how I give–how much, etc., and especially being judgmental. It also doesn’t heal depression when you’re directed to “give until it hurts” or to “take care of” and “do” for other people to take the focus off of oneself as that is merely keeping busy to distract one. (That is another subject). Likewise, I’ve met far too many people who have a “USE” for me and want me to accommodate them as their own personal Mother Teresa.

    Within the past year I’ve read several articles about the subject of giving which started with stating, “Be happier and spend more money on others” which cited recent research. I disregard such articles as I’ve found that for me that philosophy doesn’t ring true. Then I found another article which also cited research which discussed that giving to others does not automatically increase happiness and it focused on relatedness, competence and autonomy–the relatedness part of what you describe as more personal. BINGO! I’ve always needed a greater, more personal connection, but there is more to it as well. I also need to see how my GENEROUS actions have made a difference. I don’t under-estimate the importance of autonomy either which is satisfied when I feel that my actions are freely chosen.

    I know a woman who runs a program here in Chapel Hill in conjunction with the local social services department. Every year, they ask for all the children in foster homes to provide a wish-list for Christmas, then they ask benefactors within the community to buy the gifts on that list. The gifts are then wrapped and given anonymously. As a donor, you never know the name of the child nor does the child know who actually provided the gifts. I understand that they want to eliminate any sense of indebtedness, but it has always struck me as highly idealistic: you’re supposed to want to give but to get nothing in return, no experience of gratitude and no pleasure of seeing how happy you made that child. Is there something wrong with enjoying those things?

    It’s not just young people who are suspicious of charities – I think people of all ages are now. In this country in the past year or so there have been several scandals relating to charities – directors paying themselves large salaries, running up huge expenses on hotels, trips abroad etc Some of these organisations are paid large sums of tax payers money with little or no accountability. Donations went down hugely – I don’t know if that has changed

    I have mixed feelings about charities. I used to work for homeless/ mental health charities and in a way I wasn’t surprised to hear about the mis-appropriation of funds as all of the charities I worked for were run by people with high levels of narcissism. Some of leaders were incredibly entitled and deep down I don’t think they really cared for their clients. However the ‘ordinary’ staff in those charities were usually badly paid and had to put up with abuse from clients and managers – I guess the payoff was lots of gratitude from clients. Some of the managers were badly paid too. Some staff and managers worked incredibly hard and were utterly dedicated to the clients – overly dedicated in some cases.

    I don’t think I could go back to that sort of work because of the sort of people it attracts – bullying was rampant. I used to move from job to job frequently because it was easy to get work – I kept hoping to find somewhere that was run by a good manager or management committee. I never found one because I don’t think they exist.

    My experience (of one job in the charitable sector – in a London (UK) nursery was very similar to what you describe (Fiona). Bullying managers. Miserable workers.Neglected children. Unfortunately I have found this across the board in education – state, private and charitable. My own view is that where there are vulnerable people there are narcissists and where there are those who care for the vulnerable there are the takers who abuse the caring disposition of their employees (not to mention the clients – the even more vulnerable, such as nursery-aged children or the mentally unwell). All in all these types of workplaces are a parasite’s paradise! But what can be done to change this deeply unsettlling state of affairs?

    After seeing my therapist Dr. Puchbauer for two years, she made a mistake that caused my insurance to be unable to pay her. I asked if going forward I could continue to pay her the same rate she had been getting from my insurance ($87.50) but she refused, saying that I was too much work and her full fee was $120 and I’d have to pay that or find a therapist who could take my insurance. This cut me deeply bc it was a red flag that she cared nothing for me, and it was discussed for months afterwards with her being incredibly defensive, culminating in her telling me that I am not special, I am just another client, one of many, that she only sees me twice a week and that’s it, that she can’t care about me the way I want her to. I still see her bc in out first year together she did some I’ll advised reparenting/holding therapy and I developed an attachment to her that I can’t seem to break. But it’s very difficult having a therapist I know cares so little about me that she would purposefully create a situation where it would be impossible for me to keep seeing her, and then shrug and tell me she can’t lower her fee bc I’m not special I’m just another client. So I see her now every Monday and Wednesday, and we don’t fight about this anymore, but I sit before her knowing that I don’t matter to her; her heart isn’t true, bc she used to tell me she loved me, but when it got rough, she tried to dump me without a backwards glance. How can a person change so much?

    I guess I expected her to WANT to help me stay, but what she wanted was for me to go and I couldn’t reconcile in my mind the fact that she didn’t care about me.