For the past few months, a gym to which I used to belong has been sending me “special offers” in an attempt to entice me to return. Because I’ve begun focusing on fitness, these almost work. But so far frugality has prevailed.

It bugs me, though, that the “limited time offer” isn’t so limited. First it expired at the end of November, then the end of December, then the end of January, and now the end of February. I know that this is an attempt to create urgency, but it seems disingenuous if they’re just going to make the same offer next month.

Worse, check out the main body of the mailing:

There’s no enrollment fee. Great! That sounds good. But wait. What’s this? There’s a minimum charge of $39 for a set-up fee? What’s a set-up fee? How does that differ from an enrollment fee? And what’s this “as low as $39″ stuff?

I decided to phone the East Side Athletic Club to find out.

By any other name…
A friendly young woman took my call. “Hi. I’m thinking of joining a gym and was wondering if you could tell me what your rates are,” I said.

“Sure,” said the friendly young woman. “Right now we’re running a special where we’re waiving the $200 enrollment fee and there’s a set-up fee of only $79. An executive membership for a single person is $54 per month. A normal membership is only $47 per month.”

“What’s the difference between an enrollment fee and a set-up fee?” I asked.

“An enrollment fee is like an initiation fee,” said the friendly young woman. “A set-up fee covers the cost of your paperwork.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Basically, instead of $200 to get started, it’s just $79,” said the friendly young woman.

Checking out the competition
Out of curiosity, I phoned three other local health clubs. David at 24 Hour Fitness refused to quote me a price over the phone. “We have like twelve different plans,” he said. “It’s impossible to give you a price unless you’re here and looking at our book. Would you like to make an appointment to come in?”

“I just want a basic membership,” I told him.

“We don’t have a basic membership,” he said. “Everything is tailored to your needs.”

What I needed was somebody to give me a price over the phone. I called Bally Total Fitness. Rick was willing to give me a price, but “they change day-to-day” he confided.

“What?” I said.

“The prices change day-to-day. The basic initiation fee is $150, and a single membership is $48 a month, but right now you could get half off enrollment and a membership for $35-$40 per month,” he said. “Tomorrow it’ll probably be different. It just depends on when you come in. Sometimes there’s no initiation fee and the first month is free.”

Finally, I called Nelson’s Nautilus, a local gym that I belonged to a decade ago. I have fond memories of the place: nice facilities, friendly employees, and members who were serious about fitness, not preening.

“How much is a basic membership for a single person?” I asked Heather.

“You have three options,” she said. “For a month-to-month membership with no contract, the first month is $89 and the cost is $41 month after that. For a 12-month contract, the first month is $69 and then the cost is $33. If you want to sign up for two years, the first month is $59, and then it’s just $29 a month.”

“What about a membership fee or a set-up fee?” I asked.

“Uh, we don’t have any of those,” she said. “The first month costs a little more because we have to do a membership card, but that’s it.”

Conclusion
There’s no chance that I’ll rejoin the Eastside Athletic Club. Aside from some bad experiences during my previous membership, I feel like their advertising borders on shady. Plus they’re the most expensive option. (Though they’re also the closest option.)

The two national chains are also out of the running. For the record, the 24 Hour Fitness web site does quote a price, which makes me wonder why David could not. Right now there’s no initiation fee, no “processing fee”, and a single membership costs $39 per month. (Or $199 per year.)

If I do sign up for a gym — which seems unlikely — I’ll choose Nelson’s Nautilus. They’re local, cheap, friendly, and honest. But the truth is I’ve belonged to fitness clubs many times in the past. Mostly, I pay and never go. This is dumb. For the time being, I’ll focus on free activities I can do at home: walking, biking, and — most of all — lots of Dance Dance Revolution.

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