Are Gym Memberships Worth the Money?

by Kevin on June 11, 2012

Millions of people belong to gyms and since there’s a cost associated with doing so they’re also an expense that we in the personal finance world sometimes take aim at. After all, if you’re looking to cut costs you have to look at all expenses and especially those that aren’t completely, absolutely, positively necessary, right?

Gym memberships can be expensive too so it’s a category that needs to be carefully considered. Adding to the concern is the fact that gym memberships are usually ongoing, stretching over one, two or even three years. So many people sign up for memberships then quit going a few months later. But even if you stop using a gym you still have to pay—gym memberships work on contracts that are based on term not usage.

Gym memberships cost typically between $30 to $60 per month, which on the high end is over $700 per year. That’s a good chunk of money especially when you consider that there are less expensive ways to get fit.

Frugal fitness

The ultimate reality is that there’s just about no form of exercise performed in a gym that can’t be done at home—for free.

Treadmills? You can walk, jog or sprint around your neighborhood, a local park or athletic facility.

Bikes and ellipticals? You can ride your own bike anywhere you like and get pretty much the same workout, especially if you have hills in your area.

Weight machines? You can buy your own starter set of weights for under $100 and work out in your basement or garage—compare that to a gym membership costing up to $700 each year.

Here’s the dirty, little secret of the fitness world: gym equipment is constructed to simulate real world exercise.

So why even bother joining a gym?

It all comes down to your motivation level

The real question about gym memberships may have less to do with cost than it does with your own willingness to commit to an exercise program. If you can work out regularly at home, you don’t need a gym membership. But if you have difficulty motivating yourself to exercise—that’s where the real value of a gym lies.

Here’s what a gym membership can do to help you work out if you aren’t motivated:

  1. It gets you out of the comfort of your own home and in into a place specifically designed for working out
  2. You’re surrounded by people who are working out, all you need to do is follow that flow
  3. Gyms are indoors so you won’t be able to blame rain, snow, wind or even dark of night for not being able to walk, run or ride your bike
  4. Gyms are temperature controlled so you won’t have to worry about it being too hot or too cold outside
  5. The wide assortment of exercise machines gives you a virtual one-stop-shop of exercise options—you can jog in the same place you lift weights
  6. Safety is less of concern than it is if you’re lifting weights at home alone, or walking or jogging outside by yourself

If you know you need to work out, but can’t get yourself motivated to do it, then that’s when it’s time to look into a gym membership.

Frugality and health

Let’s spend a moment or two talking about frugality in the Bigger Picture; what do I mean?

Frugality isn’t all about cutting this or that expense—it’s looking at your whole financial situation and making strategic decisions not only about how much something costs, but also about the benefit it produces.

Where fitness is concerned, whether you work out at home or need the motivation of a gym, the fact is that you almost certainly need some sort of exercise regimen. Fitness is, first and foremost, about improving and maintaining overall health. If your health declines, you’ll face a battery of expenses you don’t have now, including out-of-pocket and uncovered medical expenses and even lost income due to incapacitation.

Taken in that light, we should think of fitness as being more like an insurance policy—we don’t like paying for those either, but we all know that we have to have them. Just like a car, if you don’t take care of your body you’ll have problems sooner or later. So you can pay now by being in a fitness program, or pay a lot more later.

Finding a deal on a gym membership

OK, so we’ve established that you do need a fitness routine—for both health and financial reasons—and that you may also need a gym membership; is there anything you can do to keep a gym on the less expensive side?

Absolutely.

Here are a few things to look for when you’re shopping for a gym:

  • Look for advertised specials—gyms offer them from time to time
  • Avoid the “cool” gyms, the ones that everyone seems to want to go to—you’ll always pay more for those
  • Try gyms that are new in town—they’re on membership drives and will offer the best deals
  • Get the shortest membership possible, just in case you stop going or can no longer afford the monthly payment
  • Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate—gym memberships are established by contracts and you can put in or take out anything you want
  • Make sure that what ever you negotiate is written in the contract—verbal promises will be quickly forgotten, in addition to the fact that gym personnel come and go very quickly

Two years ago my family and I decided to join a gym for motivational purposes. We settled on a gym that had recently taken over the facility of a more popular chain, and was eager for members. We negotiated a two year plan at $40 per month, a $100 annual fee, and no up front charges. That’s $580 per year for the entire family.

There are deals to be had in the gym world, you just have to look for them, then start negotiating an even better deal. The gyms want your business so you can almost always get a better deal somewhere.

The bigger cost by far would be to neglect a fitness regimen and then to pay the price of higher medical expenses later. To avoid that, paying for a gym membership could prove to be some of the best money you’ve ever spent.

What do you think about gym memberships—are they worth the money?

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