Millions of Americans make a New Year’s resolution to get in shape and lose weight each January, making this month the most popular of the year for new gym memberships.
About 18 percent of Americans belong to gyms, but membership is not cheap, and many fitness clubs have developed a reputation for misrepresenting their terms or making it difficult for consumers to get out of a contract. The Better Business Bureau receives thousands of complaints about such practices each year.
Not all gym membership sales associates are scam artists, of course, and it’s certainly possible to get a great deal on a club membership. Here are a few simple rules to help you slim your waist without busting your budget.
1. Shop around. If you live in an area with several different fitness clubs, check out a few before signing up with a particular gym. Most will give you a free trial membership for a few days, so you can get a real sense of what it’s like to work out there. Be sure to visit on the days and times you’d normally exercise. You’ll get a true sense of whether you’ll have to deal with a crowded floor or long waits for popular machines.
Get price quotes from all the gyms you try to see how they compare based on the cost and the services offered. Knowing those prices will also give you an advantage when negotiating with a particular club, since many will price-match other offers to get you to sign.
2. Wait until the end of the month to sign up. If you haven’t gotten around to signing up yet, you may have actually done yourself a favor. Membership sales associates have monthly sales goals, and they’re more likely to give you a deal if the month is coming to close and they haven’t hit their numbers yet. “Wait until the last hour of the last day of the month,” says New York-based personal trainer Jenny Skoog. “Go to the salesperson who’s sitting there until 9 p.m. that night trying to hit his numbers.”
Better yet, wait until the end of February. Since so many people join gyms in January, sales associates may be less willing to put forward their best deals in the first month of the year.
3. Don’t be afraid to haggle. The monthly fees are often set, but everything else is negotiable. Start by asking if you can waive or get a discount on the initiation fee, since there’s often some wiggle room there. If that doesn’t work, ask for other perks such as free personal training sessions; credits you can use in a café or gym shop; or free classes.
Some gyms will also offer discounts to people who can agree to work out during non-peak hours, such as weekday afternoons or late at night. Others provide a price break to those who sign up with a friend or family member. (One bonus: Studies have shown that having a workout buddy makes you more likely to stick to a routine and hit your fitness goals.)
4. Start out month to month. While gyms want you to sign up for the longest-term contract possible – and will often offer a reduced rate if you do – it’s best to start out with a contract that doesn’t require a long-term commitment. More than half of gym memberships end up going unused or underused, which means even with great intentions you may end up shelling out cash each month for a service you’re not getting.
Even if they don’t advertise a month-to-month membership, most clubs do offer such deals to those who specifically ask for them, says Max Hawthorne, author of Memoirs of a Gym Rat: One Man’s 20-Year Journey Through the Bowels of the Health Club Industry. Especially for gym-going novices, it makes sense to go with the month-to-month membership. “After three or six months, once you’ve made visiting the gym a part of your lifestyle, any club is going to let you convert your membership to an annual one,” Hawthorne says.
5. Have an exit strategy. As with anything you sign, be sure to read the fine print on your contract. Pay particular attention to the sections dealing with contract termination. Some states require that clubs let you out of a contract – with 30 days’ notice – if you move or have a medical reason to refrain from working out – but you’ll have to follow the exact steps outlined in your contract. Be sure to ask for a copy of the contract that you can keep at home in case disputes arise down the road.
If possible, pay for your membership each month, rather than paying in advance or setting up auto-payment on your credit card. While the former arrangement may be slightly more inconvenient, it’s much easier to stop paying for a membership than to try to recapture fees you’ve already paid.
6. Use your work benefits. One easy way to offset the cost of a gym membership is to have your company pay for part of it. To help reign in health care costs, more employers are offering such benefits to their workers. More than a third of companies provided gym membership subsidies or reimbursements to employees last year, according to the Society of Human Resource Management. The terms range from deals for discounts at specific gyms to an employee stipend that can be applied anywhere. Check with your human resources department to see if your company provides this kind of benefit.
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