It’s easy to check on clubs’ facilities and activities, but figuring out which membership is right for you requires digging. The sales tactics used by most fitness facilities have improved greatly in the last few decades. Many companies now post pricing and membership details online or readily reveal them on the phone or by email. Still, it can be hard to make sense of costs; initiation fees, monthly charges, and many other features vary widely. And a few clubs still expect you to plonk down a high initiation fee or push long-term contracts. Signing up for the wrong offer can cost you a lot—especially if you, like many club members, stop going to the gym after a short time.

When our undercover shoppers called, some salespeople pushed long-term contracts—and mentioned month-to-month or less expensive options only after our shoppers hesitated or asked about them. As we’ve already warned, a common ploy is to present heavily discounted prices off “regular” rates that the company rarely if ever charges. Another trick some salespeople use is to offer a supposedly steep discount only if you sign a membership contract that day.

Careful shopping is your best tactic. When deciding whether to sign up, forget about the discount on the table and focus on how the club’s price compares to those at other gyms.

Review Contracts

Once you identify clubs that have the range and quality of offerings you want, examine the kinds of financial commitments they require. Increasingly, rather than charging big initiation fees and pushing long-term memberships, fitness centers let you pay monthly via automatic checking account debit or credit card, and allow you to quit when you want—although many offer lower monthly fees or waive initiation fees if you agree to pay for a year or more, or prepay for the full year. No matter the arrangement, fitness companies know—and expect—that many new members will lose interest and stop using the club but keep right on paying each month.

Before signing any contract, ask about cancellation and freeze rules, and make sure any promises made are put in writing. If they claim you can cancel your membership at any time, make sure that’s in the contract. If they say the facility is about to break ground on a new lap pool, don’t believe it unless it’s written down. Most will not release you from a term contract or refund payments if you quit. By law, a club must stop requiring monthly payments or refund a prorated share of prepaid fees if you quit because of medical reasons or move out of the area. Some clubs will let you off the hook for monthly fees or refund part of the annual fee in the absence of illness or moving. In many cases, however, you’ll have to repay the club for any discounts received for committing to a term or pay a cancellation fee.

For members who need to take some time off, many clubs defer monthly payments during “freeze” periods. Or they may have you continue making discounted payments on schedule but extend your membership and waive the initiation fee when you become active again. Most clubs that allow freezes restrict them to cases of illness or injury, pregnancy and childbirth, or temporary relocation: You can’t just take time off because of nice weather. But some clubs allow membership freezes regardless of the reason. Many have a minimum length of freeze (for example, at least three months), a maximum, or both.

If You Have Second Thoughts, Cancel

Since the financial commitment of a club membership can be substantial, California law provides for a cooling-off period. You have five days after signing a contract to cancel and get a refund. Cancel in writing by certified or registered mail. If you can persuade the club to give you a longer cooling-off or trial period than the law requires, do so.

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