Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Should You Join a Gym or Health Club?

A health club or gym can be a good place to get exercise and stay in shape.  If you live in an area where there are few exercise alternatives, this could be a good option.  On the other hand, it could be just one more monthly subscription expense that drags down your finances, a little bit at a time.

As I noted in Little Things Mean a Lot, small expenses can add up to big expenses - hundreds if not thousands of dollars a month.  It is tempting to think you can "afford" something because it, by itself, is inexpensive.  But if you run your finances that way, you could easily end up bankrupt.

Consider each expense, no matter how trivial, and before you take it on, offset it with a cut in another expense.  Recurring expenses are particularly tricky, as they seem small on a monthly basis, but over the months and years add up to thousands of dollars.

And a gym membership might be one of these recurring expenses to approach with caution.  A local gym offers memberships for as low as $39 a month ($468 per year!).  Others are higher - in major cities, much higher.  And many charge extra for special classes, personal training, and other items.  Tellingly, many of the local gyms don't list prices on their websites, but ask you to "call for more information."

When someone asks you to "Call for Price" it is not because it is too low.

Also, be sure never to pay large sums in advance for "Lifetime" memberships in health clubs, gyms, or fitness centers.  In many cases, these places go belly-up and leave you with no gym to go to.  If they give you the old high-pressure Timeshare-style sales tactic, walk away.  There is no reason you should not be able to pay a reasonable monthly fee, without some initiation fee, lifetime membership, or whatever.

Exercise is good for you.  But exercise is free, too.  For most people, particularly as we get older, a good walk of a couple miles a day is all you need.  Have no time?  Well, then you aren't likely to find the time to drive to the gym, work out, and drive back.

I just returned from a 17-mile bike ride on the beach.  Sun, salt air, and it costs nothing, except some wear and tear on my 10 year old mountain bike.  Who needs to pay money for a spin class?

A gym membership alone won't bankrupt you, of course.  But taken along with the cell phone bill ($100) the cable bill ($100), the $5-10 you spend on designer coffees every day, etc. etc, etc., and pretty soon you are talking about hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month in regular expenses for things that you really don't "need" and collectively, cannot afford.

My suggestion is this:  Never think of these small expenses as "insignificant".  And if you are thinking of adding an expense like this to your budget, think about where you are going to take money OUT of your budget to compensate.

Because in the real world, you have to do that.  You can't just spend on the premise that something is "cheap" or a "bargain" - you have to have the money to pay for it - even if it is small.

And what ends up happening to many people is that they put it on a credit card.  In fact, most Gyms and Health Clubs require a year membership, charged monthly to your credit card.  And if you spend more than you make, there will come a day when you can't pay the monthly balance on the credit card, and the interest charges start kicking in.

Once that happens, the debt accelerates rapidly.  In addition to all these little charges exceeding your income, the interest payments are on top of that.  And in 5-10 years, you have $5,000 to $20,000 or more of "intractable credit card debt" and one day you wake up and wonder what the heck happened.

And this scenario plays out again and again across American, in little tragedies in households everywhere.  Joe Consumer refinances the debt, taking money out of his home, and then congratulates himself on his financial acumen and starts the process all over again.

So, should you join a gym?  Sure, why not?  But calculate the yearly cost of membership and then budget for this in your personal budget.  This will likely amount to hundreds of dollars a year, and as a result, you should think about cutting some other item in your budget to counter-balance this.  Cable Tee Vee is a good one - it is the antitheses of exercise.  Cut the cable and go to the gym, and you'll be fit in no time.

But just adding another expense to your life willy-nilly, without figuring out how you'll pay for it, other than "it's not a lot of money per month"  is the one sure way to misery.