01.19.13: Joining a Gym, Part Two: On Paper, Including Paper Money and Contracts

Generally in life, you get what you pay for.  That adage is only sometimes true in the health club world.  Many times I’ve gotten more than I was paying for – and just as many times, I’ve gotten less.  It all depends on what the place has and what you’ll use.

Pricing structures can vary and are sometimes confusing.  At most places, you’ll pay an up-front “initiation fee” or “enrollment fee.”  Sometimes it’s a month’s dues, sometimes it’s a seemingly-made-up number.  Sometimes clubs will run specials that reduce or eliminate it; sometimes if you’re joining on the basis of a referral, the club will reduce or eliminate it; sometimes you can negotiate it down.

Some clubs charge extra for extra services, and some include everything in your monthly dues.  Assess what you need and what you’ll use and decide whether you care that the towel service is an extra 5 bucks a month (see previous post re: bring your own, but please don’t keep forgetting as I have for the past 3 visits.  See that lady with a paper towel stuffed in her hatband?  Yeah, that’s me).  Most clubs charge extra for childcare, if they have it.  Other extras are tanning, massage, personal training, group activities like a “Biggest Loser”-esque program, classes, or even access to the club itself.  You could pay a lower rate if you go at off times, for instance.  It just depends on the club.

Some clubs include a fitness assessment when you join.  I think every club should offer these sit-downs with a personal trainer to talk about where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there safely, efficiently, and realistically.  At my previous club, this assessment was a chance for the personal trainers to get clients, yes – but more important to the club’s mission, it was a way to keep new folks from being one of those statistics that joins a gym, shows up for a while, and never darkens the door again.  Everyone doesn’t need that initial, personal contact: the SWAT team, for instance, pretty much had their routine down.  But most people really benefited from the time to talk and fashion a game plan to make the best use of their time.  You can go to the gym for an hour and get a whole lot accomplished, or that time can be wasted on things you don’t need (like that dumb hip adductor/abductor machine.  Honestly, anything that looks like it should be at the OB-GYN’s office has no place in my workout.  I can think of 4 better ways to strengthen your thighs and hips right now, and I’ve only just started my second cup of coffee and I’m still in my pajamas.  But people LOVE that thing because they think it’s going to shrink their thighs.  Anyway.  I digress.).

What can you afford?  Well, how much is too much to pay to save your life?  Uh, since you put it that way … the thing is, anything is too much if you don’t use the membership.  So make sure you’re committed before you commit.  Look honestly at your budget.  If you have 3 lattes a week, that’s 60 dollars a month you could free up pretty easily.  It’s also 1560 calories a month if they’re Grande nonfat lattes, and 5000 calories a month if they’re Grande Vanilla Frappucinos.  But I digress.

Gyms get a sometimes-deserved bad rap for their membership agreement structures.  The beloved consumer adviser Clark Howard has pointed words about the whole situation: http://www.clarkhoward.com/videos/clark-howard/scams-rip-offs/fitness-club-scams-to-watch-out-for/vHSW6/.  And: http://www.clarkhoward.com/news/clark-howard/uncategorized/contract-gyms-more-interested-in-your-wallet-than/nD8M/.  He’s not afraid to name names.  I am, so I’ll let him do the talking.

It’s logical to conclude that a club that has you in a long-term contract isn’t likely to care whether you come in or not since they already have your money.  I snicker a little bit, however, at the facilities that advertise “However-many dollars a month!  No commitment!”  If you’re not going to commit, then why sign up?  I appreciate the need for a financial “out,” and most clubs will let you out of a contract within 7 days of signing it if you get buyer’s remorse (or find a better deal someplace else).  But I don’t like going into a relationship knowing that you can jump ship at any time.  One of the most important components of an exercise program is accountability, and accountability through your wallet is one layer of that.  Plenty of people sign a 12-month contract and evaporate after six weeks, sure.  That money is going down the drain.  But a few more think, man, I’m paying for this, I need to go – and they go.

I’ve also found that the “no-contract” clubs tend to have fewer services, or more paid services.  That’s fine if you’re the person who only needs some machines, a water fountain, and a bathroom – not so great if you want a range of classes or childcare.  It’s up to you.  The no-contract clubs also are less likely to have certified trainers on staff, although there are exceptions, of course.  Many of them have arrangements with independent trainers who work in the facility, which can be fine.  You’ll just need to make sure they’re appropriately screened and certified.

If you’re ready to commit and confident that you’ve chosen the right place, then a long-term contract may be A-OK.  In some cases, you can get a lower monthly rate by signing up for a longer term or by paying in full (if that’s an option for you, moneybags).  You might be able to get the initiation fee waived or reduced, or get some added services.  Some facilities have more flexibility than others in this area.

Make sure you understand the cancellation policy.  You may have to move a certain distance away in order to cancel without penalty before the term is over.  Some places have a clause for sudden financial stress or illness in which your membership can be cancelled or suspended.  No matter what, you’ll probably have to submit notice of cancellation 30 days in advance and via certified letter, even if your contract has gone month-to-month after the initial term.  That requirement may seem onerous, but I think it’s for the best.  The gym can’t pretend they didn’t receive your letter or email, or your verbal tirade ending in “YOU SUCK I QUIT!!”  You can’t pretend that you sent the letter in plenty of time.

No matter what, ask questions so that you fully understand what you’re getting into.  If you’re at all uncomfortable, walk away.  You should never feel pressured.  You should feel supported from the minute you walk in the door.

Today is Square One. Onward!

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