Getting the Best Deal at Your Health Club

Liz joined her local YMCA because monthly charges were low and she could use YMCA facilities nationally at no extra charge. Then it turned out she wouldn’t be able to use the club for three months because of an overseas assignment. But her contract still required her to pay $10 per month, or $30, in order to keep her membership active. She’d be paying for something she couldn’t use.

Wondering how you can avoid getting caught? Want the best deal on your gym? Two things are important here: finding the right gym for you, then paying the right amount for those services.

The Right Gym

Consider what type of atmosphere you are looking for, and how much you are willing to pay for it. Try to match the club to the level of your own needs and habits. For instance:

1. Do you want no-frills, or a chic social atmosphere with celebrity-spotting potential?

2. Do you require special services, such as squash courts, yoga classes or personal trainers? If so, what are the extra charges?

3. Will you be exercising at peak times, and if so are there enough machines available?

4. Can your membership be suspended if you want to jog in the park and not in the gym in July, or if you suddenly need a foot operation that will keep you away from the treadmill?

5. Do you want unlimited usage for a flat fee? Some facilities offer packs of passes that may be a good value if you can only get to the gym occasionally.

The right answer is different for each person, and it will affect how much your membership costs you.

Before You Turn Over Your Cash

Once you decide to join, use these guidelines to get the best deal:

  • Sign up for a trial period of only a few months at first, or consider getting a book of passes if these are offered. That way you can make sure the gym is for you before committing to months or years of payments.
  • Don't fall for ''special deals.'' Salespeople at health clubs sometimes make enthusiastic sales pitches. Get some distance from the hype, and focus on the services you really want. And make sure everything in the contract is in a written contract.
  • Think carefully about automatic billing. If you find it convenient to let the gym withdraw money each month or bill your credit card, that's fine. But automatic billing cannot be required. Massachusetts' Office of Consumer Affairs reports that ''the majority of consumer complaints and inquiries about health clubs concern automatic billing issues that arise when consumers terminate their memberships.''
  • Be wary of ''deals'' on long-range memberships, which clubs use to get more money out of customers up front. This could be a sign of financial stress. The biggest problems arise when clubs close or change ownership. You may be able to recover part of your money if a club goes bankrupt, but you stand to lose more if you have paid far in advance.
  • Join a reputable club that seems well-maintained. If the club is new, sign up for a short-term membership at first. If the club does change ownership, ask the new owners to issue a guarantee in writing that they will honor the provisions of the old contract. If you notice in advance that your club seems to be having financial troubles (the equipment or facilities aren't being maintained, or the number of classes suddenly decreases), at least switch out of automatic billing.

Dealing with Problems

Your club should stop billing you if you've canceled your membership in writing or if it closes. If you continue to receive bills in error, notify the credit card company or bank in writing within 60 days. Your claim will be investigated, and you will not have to pay the bill during the investigation.

If you have a problem receiving fitness club services that you've paid for, contact your state's department of consumer protection. Many states' departments of consumer protection have Website postings on fitness clubs with more details on potential pitfalls and consumers' legal rights. They include Wisconsin's and Massachusetts'.

Fitness Contracts: Getting What You Need

1. If you are not already a regular, start with a short-term trial period.

2. Consider extra charges for services you may use (courts, massages, classes, towels, membership extensions) in tallying your total cost.

3. You have a right to cancel within the first three days if you get cold feet for any reason at all.

4. Don't pay too much money in advance unless you already have a strong relationship with a club and are a regular exerciser.

5. Keep tabs on automatic billing or withdrawals, especially if you cancel a membership or your club closes or changes ownership.

6. Be wary of midyear ''sales.'' They may be signs that a club is in financial trouble, and you don't want to lose advance payments if it closes.

7. Try to match the club to the level of your own needs and habits: For instance, do you want no-frills or a chic atmosphere?

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