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Gym Memberships: Money-Wasters or Worth It?

If you’re ready and waiting for summer weather to get in shape, think twice before investing in a gym membership.

With extra fees and services you don’t need or use, some gym memberships are total money-wasters.

But there are ways you can make a return on your fitness investment - as long as you’re honest with yourself about your workout needs.

To make sure you stay on-budget as the weather gets warmer, here are some tips on what makes gym memberships worth it, how to avoid costly pitfalls, and what you can do to work out on the cheap:

When Gym Memberships Go Bad

We’re not going to insist that gym memberships are a total bust - but they can cost you a lot of money if you’re not careful.

Most would-be gym members sign contracts because of promotional promises. (Does “$10 per month! No fees!” sound familiar?) But make sure you take a look at the fine print, too.

“If you're a long-time member of your gym, you may want to monitor whether the annual fee keeps climbing every year,” suggests health and wellness reporter Geoff Williams at U.S. News & World Report. “Your low monthly membership may be a bit of a mirage.”

Even if you’re on board with paying up-front for membership costs, like annual fees or registration fees, think beyond your month-to-month costs and analyze your whole year.

“On average, boutique studio members pay more than $100 a month, whereas at traditional gyms, less than 10 percent pay more than $75,” reports Courtney Rubin at Self.

That’s somewhere between $900 and $1,200 a year on membership costs alone - small potatoes for some of the fitness enthusiasts Rubin interviewed. One woman even spent $7,000 for her year-long obsession with the Lithe Method!

But for those of us on a budget, thinking about annual fitness costs - rather than month-to-month membership fees - can help us pinpoint how much money we really want to allocate to working out.

If you feel good about paying for your membership each month, just make sure you’re actually using your services.

“Gyms have built their business model around us not showing up,” reports Stacey Vanek Smith at NPR.

That’s why so many gyms try to lock customers into annual contracts, or market extra services - like food or complicated juice bars - to customers who care less about fitness than the scene at the facility.

Want to avoid getting hosed? Then make it a point to visit multiple gyms near your house, sign up for trial periods, and really commit to using the facilities.

“Note how convenient it is to reach the gym at your preferred time of day, how busy the gym is during that time, and how the other gym-goers are,” suggests Stephanie Lee at Lifehacker.

“Essentially, you want the most accurate ‘simulation’ of the gym conditions for when you actually become a member.”

If it doesn’t work for you, don’t sign on the dotted line.

When a Gym Membership Is Worth It

Yes, they’re costly. But for your average gym-goer, a membership can be worth it, says Chloe Della Costa at CheatSheet.com.

“[It’s] not just the under-utilizers that keep health clubs profitable but also the super-utilizers...who pay for a lot of extra services, like personal training sessions, supplements, snacks, and drinks,” writes Della Costa.

“It’s the uncommon regular gym-goers who don’t spend any extra cash who are getting the best deal,” she adds.

Still want to invest? Make sure your gym hits the mark on these four membership must-haves:

  • Convenient location: Consider your routine, including your commute, as you shop around for a new gym. Are you really going to schlep your gym clothes to and from work every day? If the gym is a few miles from your house, are you going to get lazy and not show up? Know yourself. Know what kind of convenience matters to you.
  • Established routine: Does the gym have everything you need for your workout? Are there enough treadmills to use when the after-work crowds hit? Do the weight machines fit your frame? Do you have a solid workout schedule you won’t give up on?
  • Amenities you plan to use: Since workout classes can cost up to $20 per class, a gym membership with “free” access to weekly or monthly classes can be worth it. Take a few trial classes to make sure you enjoy working with the instructors. Remember, even if you wind up only using the treadmill three time per week, you’re still paying for access to classes you’re not attending.
  • Flexibility: Some gyms offer pay-as-you-go memberships, which can be a budgeting life-saver for gym newbies. Find out what kind of flexible contracts your gym offers.

Find a gym that fits? Don’t forget to negotiate, says fitness instructor Lina Zussino.

“Ask them to meet or beat the monthly fees of their competitors,” Zussino told Shape. “If they can't, find out how they're willing to make it worth your while, like guest passes and free classes.”

The thought of losing your business to a competitor is often enough to shake a salesperson into offering a good deal on your first month - or year.

Working Out on a Budget

Like working out but love saving money even more?

With a little planning and know-how, it’s possible to work out on the cheap. Here are five ideas you can use to stay fit without shelling out for a full gym membership:

1. Get outside

Warmer weather means it’s time to hit the trails. Whether you walk, hike, bike, or run, spending time out-of-doors can help you lose weight and build muscle without the burden of a gym membership.

Plus, says health and wellness reporter Gretchen Reynolds, outside workouts are often more challenging on your body, helping you tone up more quickly.

“You stride differently when running outdoors, for one thing,” explains Reynolds at The New York Times.

“Generally, studies find, people flex their ankles more when they run outside. They also, at least occasionally, run downhill, a movement that isn’t easily done on a treadmill and that stresses muscles differently than running on flat or uphill terrain.”

Free and effective? Yes, please.

2. Bodyweight exercises

There’s a reason boot camps make a big impact on your fitness level. Bodyweight exercises - strength conditioning moves without using physical weights - are some of the most effective muscle-builders out there.

Beware: this type of exercise often raises your heart rate, which is what makes it difficult - and good for you.

“High-output, bodyweight-based exercises like plyometrics yield awesome fitness gains in short durations,” explains Dave Smith at Greatist - but it’s because you can hardly catch your breath!

3. Membership trials

If you crave the structure of a gym membership and want some guidance on your workout, then shop around.

“Most gyms offer a trial pass ranging from 3 to 7 consecutive days,” writes Stephanie Lee at Lifehacker.

“This is a good opportunity to test drive the gym, but...you could be automatically enrolled and billed by the end of the trial period.”

Remember: always read the fine print.

4. New student deals

Gyms, yoga studios, and CrossFit boxes may all advertise different kinds of workouts, but they have something in common: new student deals.

The new student pass is a great way to find out if you want to make an investment in that particular facility.

And even if you don’t wind up buying a membership or a 10-class pass, you’ll at least get a few cheap workouts out of the deal.

5. Guest passes

Most gyms or studios have a guest pass policy, so grab a friend with a membership and buddy up!

Just, uh, don’t do what this woman did - and try to hit multiple gyms in the same area to take advantage of their free first day.

Deciding whether or not to pay for a gym membership is a complicated kind of math. You really have to know yourself - and whether or not you plan to stick with your workout - to make a membership worth your while.

Still, even if you’re short on cash, don’t discount all the cheap - and free - ways to get in shape for the summer.

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