If you're like most people, you think about joining the gym two times a year—once around swimsuit season and once after the holidays when it's time to make those New Year's resolutions.
The reality is we don't often research buying a gym membership. That means the world of health clubs can be fraught with danger for your wallet. But if you follow this advice, you'll avoid having your money eaten alive by gym salespeople!
Here's a look at how to steal a deal on a gym membership
The health club industry basically has 2 business models. In the good one, you pay month-to-month or quarterly with no contract. That kind of setup creates incentive for the club to help keep you on a healthy regimen so you'll keep coming back.
In the sleazy business model, however, you sign long-term contracts that are designed to give your checking account a workout, not you! The downfall begins when they offer you a free tour of the facilities. In the contract gyms, the tour is done by a commissioned salesperson with the intent of getting you to sign a multi-year agreement.
REALITY CHECK: Signing a contract will not get you to work out. You may have the best of intentions, but most people quit working out within 6 weeks. So don't obligate yourself to a multi-year contract.
If you do sign that contract, the gym does what's called "moving paper." They sell off the contract to a finance company that will take the note on for pennies on the dollar. That creates additional incentive for the club to sign up more members—and hope none of them ever show up and all try to workout at once!
Follow this advice to find the right gym membership...
Consider the alternatives before taking the financial plunge
Instead of getting into another monthly or quarterly obligation, I want you to think outside the box. During the recession, a lot of people cut their gym memberships and turned to jump ropes at home; kickboxing routines on DVD or video; and the Wii Fit. YouTube in particular has a ton of free workout videos and exercise routines. Just search "workout" or "exercise" on YouTube and you'll find them. Another great website for free fitness routines is FitnessBlender.com, which provides free full length workout videos, workout routines, healthy recipes and more.
Of course, working out at home is not for everyone. Some people need the structure and routine of going to a fitness center. Other people cherish their "gym friends" -- those people at the gym who you may never see anywhere else in your life.
You've got to know what works for you.
Pay attention to the calendar
If you do decide you want to join a gym after all, memberships are one of the best deals of the summer, according to Kiplinger Personal Finance magazine. That's because many people prefer to exercise outdoors when the weather is nicer. Gyms will often waive their initiation fees in the summer. So use the calendar to your benefit and negotiate hard.
Look for good customer service
If you are new to working out, you want to go somewhere where they have people walking the floor to help you if you have questions.
Check out hospital-affiliated fitness centers
Hospital gyms are usually rehab-based or geared toward the hospital staff. They're clean, well run, and don't force contracts on you. Best of all, most will sell memberships to the public. Visit the hospital nearest you to see if this kind of gym facility exists in your neighborhood.
Look for cheap 24-hour gyms
Another option I've noticed popping up in vacant storefronts around the country are ultra-low cost no-frills gym that are open 24 hours and tend to price out at around $15 each month with no contract. But beware they may not even have showers for you to use; they simply offer the use of exercise equipment at rock-bottom prices.
Never pay for a gym membership this way...
You never want a health club—or anybody else, for that matter—to automatically deduct money from your checking or savings account each month. Because if they do, they may continue to make monthly debits once your contract with them ends!
Giving authorization to regularly draft an account is an open-ended arrangement, regardless of your contract. And getting that money back can be a grueling process. The problem with ACH payments is that there are no consumer protection statutes governing what happens if you're cheated on purpose or in error.
Use electronic bill pay or pay credit card only
I prefer you use electronic bill pay that you set up so you can shut it down anytime you want. That's the distinction between e-bill pay and traditional ACH payments. The former you control, while the latter is out of your control.
There's a larger problem here, of course: The rules on drafting accounts are set up for the benefit of business with zero consumer protections. If you sign up with a new company and they need an account on file, be sure they only get your credit card number. That way you can dispute any bogus zombie transactions they may try to pull down the road.
Take the necessary steps to protect your wallet
If you do join a contract club, get any promises from the salesperson in writing as part of the contract. Typically, you'll be given about 7 days to get out of the contract. If you decide to quit, put it in writing, and then send it certified mail. Retain copies of all documents for the rest of your life.