How to Save on a Gym Membership
And How to Avoid Membership Nightmares
In my last article on choosing a gym that’s right for you, I went over a set of pointers on what to look for to ensure that you would be able to find a clean, well-equipped, well-staffed gym that would keep you coming back for the long term.
That, however, is only the first step.
Now you have to become a member, and you have to do it without breaking the bank – and while taking full precautions to ensure that you don’t end up trapped in a contract you no longer want or can afford.
Fortunately, there are plenty of options for a well-informed consumer.
Choosing Your Contract
Or: Picking Your Poison
Once you’ve found a gym in a good location that offers more or less the right set of services, it’s time to choose your contract.
This may not be a very difficult decision in many small, independently-owned gyms, because many of them offer only one type of contract: a standard, yearly contract with the option to cancel at any time. (With caveats. See the "Locate the Escape Hatch" section below for details.) This is because most small gyms don’t have the margins or resources to offer a variety of contracts, and so they streamline their billing and account management by offering a one-size-fits-all.
With yearly contracts you will often be locked in to the first year with no option to cancel until the first year is up. Make sure you know whether this is the case.
Promotional membership rates (such as seasonal discounts, often run during mid-winter and mid-summer when attendance is lowest) will also tend to come with similarly restrictive terms. It’s up to you to decide whether the savings are worth the restrictions. If you don't intend to move in the near future and your income is secure enough that you're sure you will be able to keep paying the same rate for the next year without having to live on beans and bacon drippings (because the bacon itself is too expensive), chances are that it's probably worth it.
Larger gyms (or very customer-oriented small ones) will sometimes offer monthly memberships which can be renewed from month-to-month and cancelled at any time. (Obviously, if you cancel more than halfway through the monthly billing cycle, you will still be expected to pay for that month.) However, these are rare and often limited to larger, more expensive gyms due to the greater amount of work involved in managing this type of contract. That being said, if you travel a great deal for work- or family-related reasons, it may be worth your while to investigate one of these memberships. They tend to be slightly more expensive, but depending on how much you’re away, you may very well end up breaking even or even spending less over the same twelve-month period.
Some gyms will also differentiate between “peak” and “off-peak” memberships. Off-peak memberships are a great way to save a little on your monthly membership fees, as long as you don’t intend to use the gym at peak hours. Generally, these are considered to be 7:00-9:00am (for the pre-work crowd), 11:00am-2:00pm (for the lunch break crowd), and 5:00pm-7:00pm (for the post-work crowd). If your schedule is flexible or non-traditional, these types of memberships are almost always worth it. If, however, you are tied to a more traditional 9 to 5 work schedule, getting an off-peak membership may just amount to shooting yourself in the foot.
Other Types of Membership Contracts
Many gyms will also offer customized discounts. However, they may not always advertise these discounts prominently, so the onus is on you, as the customer, to sniff around.
If you’re a college student, chances are that your student ID has already opened a number of doors for you in regards to deals and discounts. This is another one of them.
Most gyms will offer student discounts if you show them your ID. When you go to discuss potential membership, bring it with you and ask what they can do for you. Plead poverty – you’re a student. You’re living on ramen. You can’t afford eighty bucks a month.
Some colleges have also been known to partner with local gyms in order to give their students discounted or even free access. Talk to your counselor to find out if any such program exists at your school.
Alternatively, most universities have on-campus facilities. These can be underequipped and overcrowded, but they’re generally free for student use and will certainly get the job done.
If you’re over 65, chances are that your local gym will offer you discounted rates. Again, bring a photo ID and ask. I promise you that they won’t tell you that you’re too old to join a gym – and if they do, you can always sue them for age discrimination.
(Just kidding on the lawsuit thing.)
While a family membership will not cost you less in absolute terms than a full-price individual membership, almost all gyms will offer discount rates for family memberships which will bring each individual rate down by up to 25%. If you live in a household of two or more people and both (or all) of you are interested in investing in a gym membership, getting a family rate may be the best bet for all involved.
I will not, however, suggest how y'all work out the payment plan among y'all. That's your little Family Discussion to have. Don't drag me into it.
Like some universities, some work places will take the initiative to partner with a local gym in order to offer their employees discounted rates. It is an alternative to having a gym in the workplace, and may bring your monthly dues down to something much more manageable. Ask your HR director whether there are any such programs available to you. If not, you can always lobby to have a treadmill placed in the break room.
Military or Government Memberships
If you're a member of the military or employed by the state or federal government, chances are that membership discounts are available either through your workplace or as a program offered by the gym.
Ask your employer as well as inquiring at your local health club as to what may be available to you.
Some health insurance policies will also include provisions to pay for (partially or in full) a gym membership, under the umbrella of preventative care. (Since in the end it will probably cost them less to pay for your gym membership so that you’ll lose weight than it will for them to ignore it up until they end up paying for your hospital stay and rehabilitation after your inevitable heart attack.) If this coverage does not exist on your policy as-is, there may be the option to add it on as a rider.
Again, this may be something that is not widely advertised but nevertheless exists. Contact your health insurance provider and ask for details.
The Part-Time Alternative: Working For Your Workouts
If you have a few free hours a week, consider another path to gym membership:
Part-time employment at your local gym.
Health clubs are almost always on the lookout for friendly, personable receptionists to work a few hours here and there. Most of their receptionists are students, some retirees or stay-at-home parents working part-time, and as such most of them work temporarily or only for a handful of hours each week.
More importantly, while it won't pay particularly much, most gyms will offer free membership as a fringe benefit of the job. The only investment you have to make is a few hours a week of your time.
However, there is a catch: Most employee memberships come with the "soft" restriction of being off-peak memberships only. What this means is that, while you're free to use the facilities, your employer is generally going to prefer that you use them when you won't be getting in the way of paying customers. Depending on the particular gym this may be more of a "use your noodle" rule than a hard and fast one. In general, some fudging of the definition of "off-peak" is allowed as long as no customers are complaining that you're being a bother.
While it's a path generally only open to students or retirees and not to people who already have full-time employment or need to earn a living wage, for those two groups it's a great way to earn a little extra money on the side and get a free gym membership to boot.
So, if you can smile, answer phones, answer general questions about your health club, hand out towels, man the cash register to ring up the occasional bottle of water or t-shirt, summon someone in charge when a problem needs solving, and generally be pleasant in the face of the occasional angry sweaty person, you can always just earn your gym membership.
Next Step: Know Whom You're Paying
Many gyms which are a part of a local or national chain will be large enough to have an in-house accounting division which handles membership dues and cancellations.
However, many small, independently-owned gyms use third-party payment processing, because they often don’t have the resources to keep an accountant on staff.
What this means for you, as the member, is that you may have more difficulty resolving any billing disputes if your gym is one of those which outsources its billing to a third party.
This isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid all small neighborhood gyms, but it is a reason to do your due diligence and be aware of who, exactly, is handling your money. The gym is legally obligated to share this information with you if you ask, so ask. Make sure that they provide all relevant contact information, and make sure that you check out their payment processing company with entities such as the Better Business Bureau before signing on to anything.
And, in case you need to, you should always be able to:
Locate the Escape Hatch
Or: Know Your Cancellation Policy
I’m going to tell you a secret about your local gym.
They don’t make money off of the people who dutifully go to the gym and do their thing three times or more times a week, week after week, month after month, year after year.
All gyms make most of their money off of the people who get a membership, go regularly for about a month, and then stop going but nevertheless keep their membership active out of either extreme optimism or extreme laziness.
These people are the greatest cash cow any gym can hope for, since they cause little to no wear-and-tear on the equipment, don’t demand more exercise classes, and don’t take up space at the smoothie bar.
In that vein, most gyms have very little incentive to make it easy for you to cancel your membership. As far as they’re concerned, if they can make it hard enough for you to extricate yourself from your gym membership that it’s less of a headache for you to just promise yourself you’ll come in more often and keep paying, they will.
Many gyms will also make it very difficult to freeze your membership if you’re going away for an extended period, often charging you up to fifty percent of your regular monthly dues for the privilege. Some may even charge an additional one-time fee for the service. Part of the justification for this is that fiddling with your contract in this way is more work for them, but most of the motivation stems from their bottom line: if they make it hard enough for you to freeze your membership and remove most of the savings to boot, you won’t bother doing it, and they’ll be able to keep raking in your full dues every month.
That being said, some gyms display better business ethics than others. It really depends on the individual management – or, in the case of a chain, top-down corporate policy as well as individual management.
Do your homework. Do a quick internet search for online reviews or reports to the Better Business Bureau first, to understand whether the gym you’re considering is guilty of any egregiously bad business practices. Then track down a manager and ask for a clear statement of their cancellation policy.
Oh, and by the way: While I don’t like to encourage mercenary bargain-hunting, it is true that members can often take advantage of their gym’s reluctance to cancel memberships and leverage a reduced rate by threatening to cancel.
It’s adversarial and something I wouldn’t do to a gym with reasonable policies and decent management, but if the management is poor or adversarial, well, it can be difficult to justify taking the high road when you’re the only one on it for miles.
Some “hooks” to look out for:
Most gyms will require anywhere from one to three months’ lead time to process a membership cancellation, during which time you will be required to continue paying dues.
Most gyms will also be willing to waive that waiting period in case of serious illness, accident, or even if you’re simply moving away.
When you join, ask what your gym’s policy is, and what proof they do or do not need in order to issue a waiver. I’ve known gyms where a simple statement of intent to move is enough, and I’ve known others which insisted on seeing a copy of the change of address form or even a bank statement sent to your new address to prove that you had, in fact, moved.
In cases of illness or injury, a doctor’s note is generally enough. No gym wants to get involved in a lawsuit because they forced a triple amputee to keep paying for his personal training subscription.
Remember: before coming on board with anything, be sure to know all about what you’ll need in the event that you need to abandon ship.
Generally, chains are more accomodating than independent gyms. It seems counterintuitive that a corporate entity will be more willing to work with you than a small, local business, but the small business also has smaller margins to worry about, and is more likely to be understaffed. As I mentioned above, large chains will often have in-house account management, which means (at the very least) that you won’t have a third party in the mix, complicating matters. It also means that their policies will tend to be more flexible, since they have more employees available to chase after the paperwork.
And speaking of paperwork, the only thing you should always, always do, with no exceptions, is:
Once in a while, you may find that the management at your gym has tried to pull something funny. They might change some fine point of policy, or raise your rates, or shift you to a different type of membership contract without informing you, or simply change the cancellation policy just in time for you to put a down payment on a new house two hundred miles away and find that you're suddenly locked into your gym membership for another year.
When this happens, you can minimize the aggravation by making sure that you have plenty of documentation on hand.
If you are asked to sign anything, make sure that you do not leave without a copy of the signed document in your possession. Then make another copy. Keep both somewhere safe.
At joining, ask for all documentation pertaining to your gym’s membership policy, billing policy, cancellation policy, freezing policy, and any other policy which comes to mind. Make copies. Keep them handy.
If for whatever reason you and the gym’s manager come to a verbal agreement on some rate change or special exemption, don’t leave it at the verbal – get something in writing and make sure it’s signed and dated.
Oh, and make a copy.
Just in case.
Having just loaded you down with lots of suspicion and a ton of precautions, I feel obliged to say this:
None of this necessarily needs to happen.
Chances are that your membership experience will be painless from beginning to end. Chances are that the powers at be at your gym are perfectly ethical, that they offer reasonable rates on a sliding scale and have thus made fitness affordable for everyone, and that your gym membership won't even be a blip on your stress radar.
However, we’ve all heard the horror stories of dues being billed long after cancellation, agreements violated, rates changed, and other aggravations that nobody has the time or desire to deal with.
But by researching, asking the right questions, examining all of your options, and keeping a copy of all the relevant documentation in your files, you can avoid the worst of it and ensure that your time at the gym will be a cure for stress - not the cause of it.