Health club membership can be a big fat mistake

Come-ons by some lead to unhappiness

On the Money

Your Money

January 18, 2004|By Lorene Yue

If your first resolution of the new year was to take better care of your body, your second resolution ought to be not being suckered into buying the wrong health club membership.

Health clubs put on a big sales push each January, and they sell more memberships this month than in any other.

The reputation of the fitness business has been tarnished by high-pressure sales tactics used by some club operators. If you're not careful, you may end up shackled to contracts that are difficult to cancel, even with legitimate medical reasons.

Some consumers are lured by low monthly fees and overlook the multiyear commitment only to find they are paying for something they do not use.

"I've signed up for megalength terms with hopes of one day paying next to nothing, but then I never ended up going," said Gina Millea of New York.

The contract finally ran out, and last year Millea switched to a month-to-month membership at $150 per, roughly three times the monthly cost of the long-term contract. "I wanted a nice place to go and a place that was expensive enough that I had to go," she explained. "When I see that coming out of my account every month and if I'm not going, I'll have to kick myself."

Here are the three key things to keep in mind as you shop for a health club membership:

Upfront costs

For some consumers, there can be sticker shock once the list of start-up and monthly fees are tallied for the first month's payment.

Enrollment fees, also known as start-up or initiation costs, can be from $100 to $350 based on the membership contract. Sometimes the fee can be waived if there is a special offer or special circumstance.

The fine print

Most consumer complaints in the fitness industry stem from membership contracts. That's why Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, recommends that consumers do a thorough job in reading the fine print and not be afraid to ask specific questions about membership access and payment and cancellation terms.

"Make sure before you sign on the dotted line and you put your credit card number down or you put down your check to pay that they have to show you their cancellation policy," Howland said.

"It has to be in writing. There should be a red flag if you are talking to the club representative and they are hesitant to discuss the details of the contract and the terms of cancellation."

These days, many health clubs offer month-to-month memberships. Those typically cost more than a multiyear contract but may be better for consumers who find their dedication waning as the years progress. And get the details of what your membership terms include. Some lower-priced deals might limit usage to certain times and days.

Right fit

Make sure the fitness center is near your home or place of work.

"If it's not convenient, then you are not going to use it," Howland said.

Look at the locker rooms and the showers. Are they up to your standards? Ask about other amenities, such as steam rooms or child-care facilities that you may want to use. Learn about the different classes and programs that are offered to make sure they are in line with your interests.

Most centers should allow potential members the opportunity to test out the facility. When testing out the place, see if you can get an extended trial period to ensure that you like the place after several visits.

Lorene Yue is a Your Money staff writer.

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