The Why and the How: Sliding Scale pricing 5 ways

The concept of a sliding scale is simple: the cost of an item, service or event is not fixed but instead is contingent on a variable associated with the consumer. Here is everything you need to know to implement it.

Claire Louise Travers
6 min readJan 5, 2021

It’s 2021, and if you aren’t using a sliding scale for your products, you are behind the times! Whether its for events, conferences, maybe the consulting fees you offer, or educational courses you run, or event the item prices on your website, the sliding scale approach in on the rise! Here is everything you need to know to start implementing it now!

Sliding Scale is…

  • Sliding scale is a form of mutual aid that recognizes that money is a barrier to access. This barrier to access may effect women more than men, queer/gender-non-conforming+ folx more straight allies, BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) more than white people, persons with disabilities more than those without. Using a sliding scale can help to ensure your products are inclusive for those that might usually be priced out.
  • Sliding scale is not the same thing as a discount. Offering a sliding scale is not the same thing as giving some people a discount at the expense of others. Rather it is conceptualizing the value of the item, event or service as relative to the consumer as individuals, not as aggregates. In simpler language, 10USD means a completely different thing to a single, mother of three when compared to Jeff Bezos… So you would charge one price for one and another for another, in both estimating the value of the product as relative to the individual.

Rather it is conceptualizing the value of the item, event or service as relative to the consumer as individuals, not as aggregates.

  • A sliding scale is not hard to implement. Many queer, poor, disabled and BIPOC implement a sliding scale and are transparent about it. As Margeaux Feldman puts it “Poor folks have been getting creative on how to redistribute resources FOREVER. Our survival has depended on it. If you are someone who wants to figure out more equitable and radical ways to make your offerings accessible, this is a reminder that you can hire me or another poor person as a consultant!⁠”.⠀
  • Sliding scale is a flexible, dynamic solution for new markets and new ventures. A sliding scale moves away from a mindset that the cost of a goods or service is fixed and immutable. Rather it gives a space for the consumer and the creator to navigate an economic relationship which feels mutually empowering. This is especially helpful when a venture is new or innovative, and so there is no useful market knowledge to estimate ‘value’ of the item, event or service.
  • Sliding scale can be radical, because it tackles can carry within it an understanding that financial wealth is not simply earnt and spent by individuals; but rather invested, divested and hoarded by kinds of people to suit common interests. As such, it can be a valuable tool for politically-minded organizations who want to practically implement a strategy for inclusion.

Lets take an example.

Poly Pages is an online platform and podcast. They recently began running events for their community, and they had to decide how to make those events accessible to everyone.

“Polyamorous spaces — including conferences and meet-ups — are often really white, middle-class, and centered around big cities. And that’s not representative of the community at large; that’s just representative of those who have the income to date and attend events in expensive places. And it makes those spaces feel unwelcome to BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color). We wanted to make sure our events didn’t look like that. We wanted to make them welcome to everyone”

So Poly Pages issued a statement at the beginning of 2021, explaining that for them, sliding scale pricing was a way to implement an anti-racist agenda: “When we offer sliding scale, Poly Pages is acknowledging the various forms of systemic oppression result in economic disparity and seek to mitigate a financial barrier to entry that members of our community may experience.”

Poly Pages instituted their sliding scale for their first live event and feedback was quite positive. Not only do members of their online community feel like the space is accessible to them, they also feel challenged. One customer feedback stated “Having to click ‘I am white’ and getting a higher price was uncomfortable for me, it felt almost aggressive. But the more I sit with that discomfort, the more I realize that’s because I’ve never had to think about that before. And that’s a privilege.”

How to implement it: 5 ways

1. A “pay what you can” approach — this approach is when an individual pays what they feel they can for the service/item/resource on offer. The payment is entirely in the hands of the individual who is purchasing the product.

Pros: this is the most inclusive possible version of sliding scale. Cons: it is incredibly hard to budget when you forgo any price guidance.

2. A multi-tier system — in this system several tiers for goods are offered for people to choose between them. The patron can then custom their ‘basket’ of goods and or services to suit their expenditure. This is the model by which was founded.

Pros: with the widespread use of patreon, this is a very easy one to implement. Cons: there is a burden on the creator to be able to snip-up and change their offering to suit the clients need instead of creating one event/service package/product that all can have access to.

3. A “pay-it forward” scheme — in this system a minimum price for the service/event/resource is established, but the paying customer can choose to pay less, or to pay more. Those that choose to pay less or more are ‘matched’ on the back-end of the scheme to allow those that can to pay for someone who cannot.

Pros: this model creates a sense of community very fast, so is preferred for digital gatherings or events. Cons: This can be a real tough one to organise on the backend, especially if everyone wants to know who they are ‘matched’ with.

4. A multi-price option — in this system a price is decided, allowing for minimum expense and profit by the seller, but alternative prices are offered for specific demographics. This allows those who cannot afford the full price to still access the same service/event/resource at a price that is manageable for them. This is the most common form of sliding scale (just think about your ‘student’ tickets at cinemas or theaters).

Pros: One of the more easy ones to program into any payment software, and still allows for budgeting. Cons: a ‘discount’ can feel like a bargain for some, and may incentivize people using the discount when they would not strictly qualify

5. Targeted free access — this payment system allows for a group to be targeted with free access to an otherwise ‘for-pay’ event. This may be through setting up a code for 100% off the price of admission or cost of the resource.

Pros: This one is the most direct way to ensure a particular group feels they can use the service so is ideal for targeting racial or gender parity. Cons: it is a falsehood that is an event, product or service is free then it is automatically accessible(eg. persons with disabilities getting free access to a conference in an inaccessible campus). Rather if you choose this model you still have to ensure the space is safe, accessible and welcoming for that group.



Claire Louise Travers

Claire Louise Travers is a writer, podcaster, and humanitarian aid worker. She writes on Medium about polyamory, ethical aid, and international development