Young Money: Hustle, barter, sacrifice — how this Toronto RMT survives on commissions alone

By: Rebecca Lee on March 16, 2017
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Name: Jon Chow
Age: 24
Where: Toronto
What he does: works as a registered massage therapist (RMT)

Young Money is our ongoing series chronicling young Canadians and the lessons they learned making big financial decisions. Read more stories here.

Every one else gets paid for bathroom breaks.

Not Jon Chow. He’s a registered massage therapist (RMT) and for him, every working minute is a hustle. Employer-paid bathroom breaks are a luxury he doesn’t get to enjoy and neither do most other RMTs; salaried jobs are rare.

You usually just get commissions.

And if Jon wasn’t living in one of the most expensive cities in the entire country, those commissions would probably be enough.

Jon lives in Toronto, however, where detached homes hit $1.5 million and even the renters are getting burnt

So, “you can’t coast,” Jon says. “You can’t go to your 9-5 and just take a shit for 30 minutes and get paid for it. This lifestyle [being an RMT] makes you appreciate your work because you have to do a good job every time — you need everyone to come back.”

Even with positions at three sports medicine clinics, plus his own freelance clients, Jon’s still just scraping by.

Feast or famine

If you have a salary-based job, every month of pay is the same. Steady, reliable.

For Jon and any other commissions-only professional, there are good months and there are bad, and you never know which one’s coming next.

Jon massaging client

“Because there’s no fixed salary, you never know what you’re going to make at the end of the month”, says Jon. “It’s not safe. Like if you get injured or something, you just don’t get paid”.

A good month for Jon may net about $5,000. A bad? Approximately $3,000. But those numbers are always in flux, especially since there’s a high season for RMTs (aka when everyone’s trying to cash in their health insurance!) and a low.

But year-round, the major goal is just to get bookings.

The constant grind

Jon is allotted 40 hours of work between the clinics, but he only gets paid for the hours when he’s actually treating people. And as a young RMT who’s only eight-months into the profession, he’s constantly grinding to fill those hours.

When he is booked, the clinics charge $95 an hour — 60% of that goes in his pocket, and 40% goes into the clinic’s. When he works as a mobile therapist (essentially freelancing), he charges his personal clients $70 an hour — the full amount goes to him.

“I’ve been told so many times that I should be charging a lot more,” Jon admits. I ask if he’s just too nice and he nods, “Yeah. Maybe.”

But I think it’s also that Jon views his rate as fair — he’s relatively new to the industry and he’s still taking home more than he would at the clinic, so it’s already a win.

Before he starts charging a higher rate, he just wants to keep investing in his knowledge and experience. After all, when every client interaction matters, the battle to improve and get better is constant.

Barter and sacrifice

Now for the interesting part. The part where Jon literally barters for benefits.

Jon doesn’t officially have benefits, but he does have a huge network of connections in the health services industry. Physios, chiros, other massage therapists. Plus, his brother’s a dentist. So he leverages his network and works through exchanges — massage therapy for whichever health service you’ve got to offer. No money. Kind of like Bunz for benefits.

He didn't bill her because they had a mutual agreement: massage therapy for a new tattoo. Deal

It’s a big subculture. Right before we had our interview, Jon was actually treating a client who’s also a tattoo artist. He didn’t bill her because they had a mutual agreement: massage therapy for a new tattoo. Deal.

Unfortunately, Jon doesn’t have a good workaround for vacations too.

“You have to save double-time for vacation,” Jon says. “We won’t get paid, so I’d have to save for that vacation and for the days I’m not working. It kind of makes you not want to take days off.”

Luckily, Jon’s a glass-half-full kind of guy — it’s what you’d like about him. From his point of view, sacrificing a couple days of pay just comes with the job. At least he can book off work whenever he wants. Literally.

And he wouldn’t barter that flexibility for anything.

Commissions in the city

Living on commissions would be a challenge for most young, working professionals. Living on commissions in Toronto? Not realistic.

So even though Jon loves having Toronto at his doorstep — trendy bar scenes, food and coffee everywhere — he’s decided to move back in with his parents.

If he can’t afford to go out, pay down his debt, and start saving for tomorrow, the problem’s less about his fluctuating income and more about Toronto’s rising prices.

Besides, Jon loves being an RMT. He meets new people every day and gets to help them live happier, more comfortable lives.

“Even if it is a grind, at least I don’t have to sit in an incubator for eight hours and stare at a screen every day.”