Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Getting shape can really make your bank account unhealthy.

If you are among the millions of New Year’s resolute-rs who think January is the time to finally commit to an exercise plan, and you are considering joining a health club, know this: signing up for a gym membership can be just as complicated as buying a car, and it can be just as expensive, too.  Take steps now, before you sign anything, to make sure your exercise routine doesn’t also mean routinely fighting over hidden fees and charges.

1) It’s all about the exit strategy

It seems wrong to think about the breakup before your first date, but that’s exactly what you must do with a gym. While gym membership contracts all full of booby traps, long-term commitments, nonsensical sign-up fees, and so on, the vast majority of gym complaints come down to one thing: Consumers getting charged after they quit.

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First: Before you sign, make sure you have the gym’s cancelation policy in writing, and you understand it well. Often, it goes like this: you must tell the gym 30 days’ notice, which generally gives the facility one extra month of your money.

That’s fine, but often, gyms that are very good at signing you up, but are terrible at processing cancelation paperwork. So send your cancelation in writing, return receipt request. Also take the paperwork into the gym and get someone to sign it in person, if possible.

But let’s take a step backwards: You make life much easier on the future you who wants to cancel if you don’t let the gym automatically deduct payments from your checking account, or through your debit card.  Use a credit card if you must — challenging those unauthorized charges is a bit easier than fighting an account debit. But better still: pay the health club with a check every month.  Some health clubs insist on auto-deduction, but many states now mandate that you are allowed to pay them manually. Keeping the club from directly accessing your money is the best way to avoid future breakup overcharges.

2) Assume they are all lies

As in dating, so many things that sound good at the beginning turn sour at the end. Health club employees are usually paid on commission and often are perfectly happy to lie to you. Nothing they say matters. Only what you see in writing matters. This includes some things that might not seem obvious, such as the financial health of the club itself.  Want a really good reason not to sign a 36-month contract? What if the club goes out of business, or your local club is closed? (Answer below)

Among the most common lies? “Treadmills are always free!”  Visit the gym you are considering on the days and times you plan to be there, and see how busy the equipment is.  Even still, if the club does a serious membership drive, you might end up with long waits anyway.

Finally, it’s not enough to simply get a contract. You must KEEP the contract, and know where to find it when the inevitable dispute occurs.

3) Know your state rights

Health clubs are generally regulated at the state level. If you doubt the mess that is health club memberships, simply search for “health clubs” and “state law.” The sheer volume of regulations gives you a great idea what a hornet’s nest this industry is.  But others’ pain can benefit you. Many state laws now:

*Create a 3-day, no questions asked “regret” policy. If you are bullied into a contract, and you have second thoughts after sleeping on it, you can back out.

*Ban lifetime contracts. Many are limited to 36 months now.

*Create exceptions to place contracts on hold, so consumers do not have to pay temporarily. In many states, being disabled allows consumers not to pay, for example.

*Creates special cancelation rights if the member’s local gym closes, or if the member moves.

(Here’s the Massachusetts law, as an example)

4) Sign up fees?

Gym memberships are a little like cell phone purchases.  They combine an arcane mix of up-front costs and ongoing costs that can really confuse the consumer.  What really matters?  The total amount of money you will give the club. Don’t be seduced by low monthly rates only to find a big sign-up fee slipped in at the last minute.  They can turn a good deal into a bad deal very quickly.

5) Don’t use financial commitment as your workout buddy

Many people sign a long-term health club contract thinking their obligation will help guilt them into going to the gym more often. That kind of negative incentive is usually pretty ineffective. And it puts you at the mercy of the club. Use workout buddies, or your own self-discipline, or FitBit, or Google reminders, or pictures of yourself looking particularly plump, as inspiration. Don’t use an entangling financial contract with a health club as inspiration.

To that end, month-to-month contracts are a great option, even if they cost more.  I know, on Jan. 1 you tell yourself you’ll go to the club three time a week.  But who know what spring will bring?  Keep yourself a club free agent as best you can.  It’s worth it.

6) Money well spent?

Speaking of spring, calculate the annual cost of a health club, and consider a wide range of alternatives.  I once paid $350 to join an adult hardball baseball league, which seemed expensive until the league commissioner smartly compared it to the cost of a gym membership.  Lots of things can make you healthier. Maybe you should spend the money on a dream road bike instead, or a dog (walks are VERY healthy).

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