Ads I hate: Athletic clubs

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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Crossfitter
Crossfitter
12 years ago

You don’t need a globogym! Check out crossfit.com and you’ll see how you can do a great work out in your garage…

Cornelius
Cornelius
12 years ago

It is funny you have posted about gyms as I have been looking at some in the past few weeks. Joining fees etc I won’t voice what I think about them. In Japan there are joining fees for everything which I refuse to pay so go without. But for my health I need to join a gym and, well I have to pay that darn fee. I’ll be scaling back on coffee to help pay for what I won’t be saving so all is not bad I guess.

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

I work at a “Women’s only gym”. You know the one. We are always running some kind of “special” that is never really that great of a deal. It is never a straight-forward deal. They have to make it confusing so the customer thinks it’s a great deal. I always have to refer to the latest paperwork just to figure it out myself. We aren’t actually supposed to give any prices over the phone. We are supposed to get them in for an appointment so we can tell them they are at risk of health problems and pressure them to… Read more »

Uncle Midriff
Uncle Midriff
12 years ago

Ugh. UGH. When my wife and I were shopping for a gym we ran in to the same &#*$ thing. All anyone wanted to do over the phone was tell us how awesome their gym was, so we decided to go check a few of them out in person. They all felt like car dealerships. With each one, we told them at the outset we were just shopping, that we weren’t ready to make a commitment yet. Yet each one tried to pressure us into signing up right then. At one local place, after they explained their extremely complicated (read:… Read more »

Stephen
Stephen
12 years ago

Gyms and gym memberships typically have the most complicated and difficult to understand terms and contracts to sign, which might be the most annoying thing in the world. When I moved in to Chicago, I had about a month between when I moved in to when I started work, so I spent that time working out and looking for a gym. Most of the gyms in the city give you 2 days – 14 days free trial, so I was able to work out for the entire month without signing a contract or putting down any cash. This allowed me… Read more »

LoveandSalt
LoveandSalt
12 years ago

arrgghhh, this makes me want to boil over… it’s not just shady but so disrespectful! These tactics assume the customer (uh, I mean “client”) is stupid. This is the kind of sales approach that gave car dealers a bad name. Im with you–go with the straightforward honest business if you choose to join a gym!

Peachy
Peachy
12 years ago

I joined my gym several years ago because the prices were cheap and there was no enrollment fee because the gym hadn’t been built. I just got a letter (Jan.20) saying my rate was going up on Feb.01, even though the gym is always packed with new members. I don’t understand why they can’t raise the prices for the new members and keep my rate the same. I love my gym, so I’ll pay the extra fee, but it’s irritating. If they increase it again, I may have to stop going.

The Saving Freak
The Saving Freak
12 years ago

Just a quick note to anyone thinking of joining a gym. NEVER NEVER NEVER let them draft your checking account of debit card. The only card you should ever let them draft is a credit card. These gyms are notorious for continuing to draft money after you have canceled your membership. So if you use a credit card you can dispute the charges and there is nothing they can do about it.

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

Yeah, J.D., but what are you going to do about strength training? Walking, biking, and Dance Dance aren’t going to give you upper-body strength. I currently belong to a gym, but I’m looking into getting a “Total Gym,” you know, those machines that Chuck Norris and Christi Brinlkey promote on TV. I’m also in physical therapy right now, and my PT highly recommends them.

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

Uncle Midriff says: “We ended up joining the local YMCA. It’s close, has pretty good facilities, and though the month to month price is a little more expensive than some places we looked at, they didn’t treat us like crap when asked about their rates. When we called to ask about the rates, they just told us what the prices were…imagine that.”

Same here, agree 100%. JD, check your local YMCA.

Finance Monk
Finance Monk
12 years ago

This type of price-distortion is pretty commonplace across industries. Companies make money by obfuscating the true price of something, making it more of an effort to shop around (think mortgages with all of their miscellaneous fees, tax preparation agencies, or even cabinet installations).

I guess I’m kind of lucky with Fitness First… lots of locations and equipment, $35 a month for a 1-year contract, no other charges or gimmicks.

KC
KC
12 years ago

To me a gym is very important. Its the only way I’ll exercise (I’ve proven this to myself many times). But to me the main criteria in selecting one is proximity to home and convienance. If it isn’t close to my home and easy enough to get to, I won’t go. I tried one close to work, problem was I didn’t want to work out after work, I wanted to go home. I tried a less expensive one further from my house – I never went. For me that is the most important factor in choosing a gym.

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

My wife Julie hates gyms. She has her Nordictrack and watches TV. We both enjoy DDR (reminds me to play tonight).

There’s a local gym chain in DC called Fitness First. It’s a no frills gym, and also no gimmicks. 38 bucks a month, and the only catch is that you must sign a 1 year contract. I see the Finance Monk is also a member. Shoutout! I don’t use the gym as much as I should or could, but the price is fair.

Kat
Kat
12 years ago

Oooooh how I HATE gym fees! I joined a Bally’s several years back, and made sure to ask a dozen times whether I could cancel whenever I wanted to. I was assured that yes, I could cancel at any time, and all I’d lose was the initiation fee. Several months later, I decided that it wasn’t worth the money, and tried to cancel. I told them I had asked when I joined, etc etc… They said I’d owe the entire three-year contract that I never signed up for! I spent many, many hours on the phone trying to sort it… Read more »

Josey
Josey
12 years ago

Hello and Greetings, This is my first post here but I have been reading the blog for many and months and I love it! JD you could buy a simple model of a Total Gym or even better a used one. I have one it cost me $200.00 in Sears I have saved hundreds of dollars in Gym memberships and fees and still have it !! This considering that I pay less for gyms because I live near to the local college and I get ex-alumni benefits, I would pay $50.00 a year for the gym + $20.00 parking facilities… Read more »

MS
MS
12 years ago

This is in line with the YMCA advice, If your local park district has gym facilities, they’re usually a good bargain (assuming you’re going to use them). You’re already partially paying them with tax dollars. Ours has a reasonable ($25) monthly fee with maybe $10 to create your card at the beginning.

LM
LM
12 years ago

If you have a local YMCA, join that. There is absolutely no BS with the Y. There’s a joiner fee, but sometimes they waive that during promotions. Otherwise, it’s a flat rate and no contracts. At least for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, anyway. I really like the Y.

Rob
Rob
12 years ago

Make the sale when excitement/interest is at its peak (can’t build excitement over the phone). Get the customer to commitment to as long a period as possible. That is the MO of this industry (in general, there are some exceptions).

Tiffany
Tiffany
12 years ago

I’ve had the same experience with 24 Hour Fitness. Even used a trainer once (under their $99 for 5 half sessions promotion); I was very specific about what I wanted to learn more about, but it was basically a sales pitch and not tailored to my needs. But there’s a local gym in my neighborhood that is like your Nelson’s Nautilus … very up front and open. More focused on catering to its customers than trying to get more money through the door. It’s nice that there ARE gyms like that.

Susana
Susana
12 years ago

Great post!

I too used to join many gyms, and normally did not get my money’s worth. To date I’ve run four marathons, no gym, just invested in great running shoes.

April D
April D
12 years ago

I’ve gotten the hard sell at many gyms I’ve checked out, but what they don’t get is that some people, like me, won’t sign up simply because their sales tactics are so transparent and ridiculous. The last gym I tried, about a year ago, was Gold’s. In their initial evaluation, they said I needed to lose 20 lbs. I was a size 6, and hadn’t weighed 20 lbs less since junior high–you know, before puberty? I laughed at them, and then they said I might not need to lose quite that much. Then this tanned gym rat who basically answers… Read more »

Suz
Suz
12 years ago

I belong to a Health and Raquet Club that is also my child’s before and after school care (and summer camp in the summer). I get a discount of $10.00 per month during the school year and $10.00 per week during the summer for her tuition if I’m a memeber of the Health Club. There was no fee to join and I had to sign a year contract. The monthly fee is $42.00 per month. The beauty of this plan? My company reimburses me in full for my gym membership. So basically, I’m not out the gym fee and I… Read more »

Brigid
Brigid
12 years ago

I was really suprised when I went to a Gold’s Gym and the gal that was behind the desk told me everyone was out and she couldn’t give me a price. WTF?? I went to another place and the lady that gave me a tour wrote down the price and a plain slip of paper. She practically leaned over and cupped her hand around it like she was afraid someone else would see. Give me a break! It’s like thay are making up prices as they go along. Could you imagine McDonalds not having a menu board and the cashiers… Read more »

Kerstin Doe
Kerstin Doe
12 years ago

Hi J.D. It is funny you mention gyms as I have tried a few times to quit Fitness First (UK gym, very popular) whom I took out a 12-month contract with last year. They told me I needed to give them at least one month’s notice, and come in to fill out “formal leaving papers” or write them a letter. I asked if I could email or fax them a letter. They said no, and encouraged me to come in, and even offered a free “personal training session”. Finally, I decided to write the letter, and winced as I placed… Read more »

Bill
Bill
12 years ago

I’ve had good luck with Planet Fitness. Their philosophy fits the frugal mindset–no classes, no trainers, no cafe with expensive energy drinks (just a refrigerator with a few for those that really want them).

They provide plenty of cardio and weight equipment and a shower/locker room. They do have the “limited time offers” but they don’t vary too widely, and they’re all pretty cheap (maxing out at $20/month with unlimted guests).

I use them in the winter when it’s too cold and dark to run (the cheapest form of exercise).

seawallrunner
seawallrunner
12 years ago

first my story, then some advice. when I first moved to Vancouver (1990) I bought an Entertainment / Gold book from someone at the office. My reasoning was that the book would help me navigate this new city, try out new restaurants and attractions with a friend and save 50%. One of the coupons in the back of the Entertainment / Gold book was for 50% off a lifetime membership to Fitness World: $250 instead of $500 with a monthly fee of $9.99 thereafter. This was in the time when these memberships were still legal. A friend and I signed… Read more »

Kerstin Doe
Kerstin Doe
12 years ago

I have read through the other comments and see there are others who are perfectly happy with a Fitness First membership. I just wanted to post my story as a cautionary tale, not just to that particular gym but to all gyms. NOT to sign a contract until you have read and understood all the fine print!! To be honest I’d be happier with one of the other American gyms mentioned with no fees, one fixed payment and the ability to quit at any time.

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

Kerstin

Perhaps the US Fitness First is different than the UK one?

Katrina R.
Katrina R.
12 years ago

If you work a few hours at a gym, the membership will most likely be free. I teach swim lessons at a beautiful community center. The days and amount of hours I want to schedule myself are up to me. I have some co-workers who put in only 2 hours a week. Aside of being paid, my membership and all the amenities are totally free. I even received a coupon for one session with a personal trainer. This situation also sets me up to not make any excuses for why I cannot find the time to work out — I’m… Read more »

Annie
Annie
12 years ago

When we moved to American Fork, UT we looked into Gold’s gym. The process of just finding the price was totally heinous. You have to meet with some musclehead who quotes you what they think is an amazingly good deal and tells you he can only guarantee it until 6 pm (that night!). I don’t do rushed financial decisions, so we just tossed his quote in the trash on the way out. The next day we went to the city fitness center. We signed up there, for less money, nicer staff, and more classes and facilities. We go there 4-5… Read more »

Skinny City Girl
Skinny City Girl
12 years ago

24-hour is a ripoff, not to mention disgusting. They never clean the place.

Join the YMCA like the other suggested. Also, this is specific to Portland, but the Lloyd Athletic Club/10th Avenue Athletic club has the same or less for rates and they are great. They give you towels, they clean the equipment and the showers. etc.

NJR
NJR
12 years ago

I’m lucky and have a totally reputable local Nautilus franchise. I know they guy who owns it and he’s always been totally straight with me even to the point of talking me out of spending money sometimes. I’ve had a membership there two or three times but never made it work. My solution is a bike and a Bowflex in the basement (both bought a long time ago but only truly being used regularly in the last 5 months). No lines, no excuses – I can workout whenever I have the time. My experience has been like April D’s –… Read more »

Pete @ biblemoneymatters.com
Pete @ biblemoneymatters.com
12 years ago

Having a gym membership to me is a huge drain on finances, and I personally decided to workout at home. I actually posted about why I workout at home on my blog today.

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
12 years ago

I second the CrossFit suggestion! I spent the last TEN YEARS doing an hour of cardio a day. I’m still fat. In one month of CrossFit style training, I’ve lost five pounds and an inch off my waist. I’m NOT dieting. If I watch my nutrition, who knows. If you don’t have time to work out a CrossFit style routine for yourself, well welcome to the real world Neo. Check out these two programs (I am currently doing Afterburn): Alwin Cosgrove (Afterburn) http://alwyncosgrove.blogspot.com/ Craig Ballantine (Turbulence Training) http://turbulencetraining.blogspot.com/ These are both very similar to P90X but without the hype and… Read more »

April D
April D
12 years ago

Also, my fiance belongs to a gym, but he enjoys playing basketball and using the cardio theatre. He meets up with one of our friends and they workout in the mornings. He goes 4-5 times a week, so for him, I think it’s worth it. Me? I’d rather just get home early and workout then. It depends on your personality, but if I did join a gym, I’d look at the YMCA, as a few others have mentioned, or start going to the boxing gym again, which is a little out of my way now, but NOT full of a… Read more »

Kerstin Doe
Kerstin Doe
12 years ago

JerichoHill – I don’t think so.
But I do agree the practices may differ in the US.

Char
Char
12 years ago

I joined a gym in December 2006 and have found that I absolutely love it. It’s called Fitness 19 and is a growing chain. It’s a month-to-month membership and a single membership will never go above $19 (hence, the name). I pay $17.11/month since I was one of the first 200 people to sign up. This place has really great equipment and their staff is always cleaning, I’m very impressed. The things that it lacks are shower facilities, pool, and classes of any sort (aerobic, etc.) But, I wouldn’t use those features anyway. I’d rather use my own shower. I… Read more »

echris
echris
12 years ago

Right On! You don’t need a gym. I too have been sucked into the thought of “if I join the gym or buy a piece of exercise equipment, then I’ve started the process of slimming down. Yay!” But the truth is that the “start” is not the “journey”…you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. Besides, philosopically, I hate the thought that I got a college education so that, in part, I could avoid manual labor but then I need to turn around and transport myself and pay good money so that I can *do* manual labor. That… Read more »

Greg C.
Greg C.
12 years ago

The “Limited Time Offer” thing is just pretty standard in marketing. There are websites that update daily and say “this offer expires midnight (today’s date)” I run affiliate offers that are pretty much ongoing ( for example “Use this Code to Save 20% before Valentine’s Day” but then it updates to Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving…) As a consumer you can use this to your advantage. You know the psychology of these offers and that the “limited” part is to make a sale. But you know the same or better offer will be there weeks or months from now. I keep this… Read more »

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
12 years ago

WTF? I hate the idea of membership prices that change day to day.

I think that if I ever had the money to join a gym, I’d buy an elliptical machine instead. That’s the only thing I ever use in gyms (college experience anyway) and I think I’d be much more motivated if I didn’t have to drive somewhere else.

Plus, no crazy membership fees.

Leo
Leo
12 years ago

+1 on crossfit (actually, +10), although it’s for people who want to reach elite fitness rather than trying to be healthy but not much else.

You can also get some home gym equipment instead of paying monthly fees. You can get something like bowflex or weider and a jump rope, and that will cost you a year’s gym membership but last much longer. Plus it’s more convenient and you don’t have to drive to the gym.

Lynn
Lynn
12 years ago

I bought a year pass for our county recreation center. It’s not fancy but it has all the standard fitness machines and weights, and for $185 a year.

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

I wonder how much money a national gym could make if they stopped with the shadiness and simply made clear comprehensible rates available at all times (nothing wrong with a sale, though). It’s obvious they turn off a lot of people with these tactics. Is the problem that then they would have to pay their marketers more, because they wouldn’t be skimming cheesy commissions off the top?

Duff
Duff
12 years ago

Corporate gyms and their shady sales pitches suck. My membership at 24 fitness included a backed-up toilet that was overflowing every time I entered the men’s room. I quit because of it (and because I felt swindled in the sleazy sales pitch) and actually had to change banks to get them to stop billing me, since they wouldn’t refund my money.

I now go to a local place that is honest and clear with it’s policies.

A Rice
A Rice
12 years ago

JD–If you’re in East Portland out by mall 205 there’s this little community center on 105th or 106th I think. I haven’t been there in years (that’s my cover) but the last time i went the machines and free weights were nice and the cost was $5 to get in. And as Katirina R pointed out, you might have some crazy DDR education skills you can pawn off. 🙂

Lise
Lise
12 years ago

I got screwed by Fitness 1 a few years ago… same debit card scam that a few others mentioned above. It took one full year — and a registered letter threatening them with small claims court — before they finally stopped taking money from my account. I think the fact that I registered the letter made them realize I was serious!

I will never, ever, join a club again. Long live the Y!

hkszeto
hkszeto
12 years ago

Just be smart with whatever fitness institution you go to. I totally agree that they prey on the uneducated like a used car salesman. But, just like buying a car, if you are smart about, there’s a deal to be made on many of the national chains. I refused to join 24 hour fitness until I received an offer from a friend that worked there. She gave me a referral card that entitled me to: $24 dollars per month, no long term contract, and absolutely zero initiation/setup/membership card fee. That was a savings of 14 dollars a month over my… Read more »

Steven Fisher
Steven Fisher
12 years ago

Every time I see anything on gym pricing structures, I think of this comic:
http://www.sheldoncomics.com/archive/070315.html

Enjoy. 🙂

Erika
Erika
12 years ago

24 Hour Fitness is so sleazy and I agree with an earlier commenter that the sales process is very much like buying a car. I went in there with a two-week tryout coupon and the sales reps did everything they could to keep me from using it. (Huge red flag.) They kept coming back with new “deals,” none of them any better than the original. If I recall correctly, their deals included no less than three sets of superfluous fees: a membership fee, a “set-up” fee, and a membership card fee. The gym was set up to drain as much… Read more »

icup
icup
12 years ago

wow, i knew gyms were expensive but I didn’t know how much! My gym membership is $16 a month. One of the benefits of working for a university I guess…

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