Gym Memberships Thin Your Wallet, Not Your Thighs

You’ve seen the ads. They pop up right after the New Year, then again as we approach summer, with fetching images of fit men and women getting fitter in a gym. It’s inspiring and motivating. It’s also a limited time offer, only $19 a month, so you better hurry.

According to the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association there are nearly 30,000 health clubs in the United States, and nearly 59 million people held gym memberships at the end of 2011 . The healthclub industry is a $20 billion a year business and growing.

Since gym membership laws differ from state to state, and are not governed by any one body, consumers need to be wary and know their rights in their state. Most of the problems with gym memberships occur around billing issues, including cover charges, hidden charges, and billing continuing once the membership has ended.

On market research firm Opinion Corp’s consumer site,, consumers complain frequently about gym memberships that have drained their wallet. One consumer sites a membership to a gym in Missouri where the billing continued for 10 years after her membership was cancelled. The complaint reads “I joined a gym in Miami as a teenager. I canceled my contract by the time I was 18 and leaving for college. That was ten years ago. My parents have been fighting for years to stop [the] billing for a membership that we can’t even use. Thousands of dollars later, I get a call that from my parents saying they are so desperate that they’ve hired an attorney to try to make the rip-off stop.” Additional complaints include a once-in-a-lifetime offer starting at $19, with a total of $120 before the deal is signed, and another in which the gym withdrew monies from the consumer’s bank account without permission.

When thinking about joining a gym, start by reading every word of the contract. Ask questions, including how termination is confirmed and if there is an auto-renewal clause. Understand refund provisions and make sure that every promise made by your sales rep is reflected in the contract.

Many gyms offer a monthly payment plan, while others require the total duration of the contract up front. The limited-time offers usually have a downside, such as offering a few months for free but taking the fees from these “free” months and spreading them out over the remainder of the contract. Since the sales rep is there to get you in the door, everything is negotiable. Don’t settle under the pressure of a fast-talking rep. Some gyms offer a pay-as-you-go with no contract, they just don’t necessarily advertise it.

Most gyms require an automatic debiting from your bank account or credit card, but ask if there are alternatives such as post-dating cheques for the monthly payments. Be mindful that if you use a credit card or bank account, and that card is replaced or cancelled, the gym will send your bill to a collection agency and this will have a negative effect on your credit rating.

Termination can be tricky. In most cases the contract has a set period of time, and if you terminate prior to the contract term the gym has the right to bill you for the balance, a lump sum. Whatever the termination terms, be sure to do so in writing and keep a record of your termination in case the issue is ever in dispute. Your proof may be your only protection.

When deciding on a gym, consider location and personal recommendations. Look for a gym that is close enough to your work or home that you will actually use it to get your money’s worth. Also, talk to friends and coworkers for insight. Many gyms offer a free guest workout, or even a free week to get you to fall in love with the facility. Try the free week or guest pass before you buy.

Beth Fields