Several people working out at a gym

Gyms around the country often offer membership discounts in this month. The idea—many people make a renewed commitment to improving their health and fitness as the new year begins, and for fitness clubs, it’s an opportunity to get new members.

But even with the discounts, this may not be the best time to get the lowest rates.

“You can often get the biggest discount on a gym membership later in the month,” says Andrea Metcalf, a certified trainer and health coach in Chicago. That holds true in January or any month of the year, she says.

Metcalf says fitness clubs may need to boost their sales to meet quotas toward the end of a month, so they will offer even lower rates to entice you to join.

Another good time to lock in a good annual membership rate is during the summer. When the weather is good, fewer people sign up for memberships, so gyms often reduce fees to attract new members.

Whether you sign up now or later, there are steps you can take to make sure you spend your money wisely and get the best deal possible.

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Sign up for a trial run. Call fitness clubs that interest you to ask for a no-commitment trial. Most clubs will give you a one-week pass to try out the facility, says Pam Kufahl, director of content at Club Industry, a website for fitness pros. Visit during the hours you’ll be most likely to work out so that you can see how crowded it is. Try classes that you may take, such as yoga, Pilates, and spinning. Be sure to also look closely at the condition of the facilities, including the weight machines, locker room, and swimming pool.

If you can, ask members what they like and don’t like about the club, and get a copy of the fee schedule, so you won’t be surprised by unexpected charges. Some clubs, for instance, charge an initiation fee when you sign up. There can also be processing, enrollment, and annual maintenance fees.

Search for better prices online. While you’re deciding which gym to join, scour the web. You may find membership discounts or deals on classes on a gym’s website or through sites such as Groupon, Kufahl says.

Negotiate a deal. When you decide which club you’d like to join, speak with a manager instead of a salesperson. Managers are more likely to be able to negotiate a better gym membership price for you. Metcalf says you should ask whether you can get a month free or not have to pay the initiation fee—especially if you agree to pay for an annual membership up front. Also find out what the fees would be if you pay monthly instead, so you can compare the total cost.

While you’re negotiating, try to get some bonuses thrown in without charge, such as a personal training session, she says. If the membership includes services you won’t use, such as child care, classes, or the use of a pool, ask for a reduced rate that doesn’t include those perks.

Be flexible. A club may offer you a discount as long as you agree to use the facilities only during off-peak hours or on certain days, Metcalf says. Consider the offer carefully. The restrictions may be worth it, especially if you can easily fit those hours into your schedule. Such special rates, though, aren’t usually advertised, so you’ll have to ask for them.

Join with a group. Many fitness facilities will lower their monthly rates for a large group. One of the easiest ways to take advantage of this benefit is through your employer. Ask your human resources department whether your employer has deals with local clubs.

Many fitness clubs offer family or household discounts to two or more people who live together. You can also gather a group of friends and ask a gym manager if she would be willing to cut a deal for the group. If you can’t wrangle a discount, find out whether your group can get deals on additional services, such as small group personal training sessions, says Kufahl at Club Industry.  

Check your insurance benefits. Health insurance plans may provide discounts on a gym membership. Some plans offered by UnitedHealthcare, for example, have reimbursed members up to $240 per year if they belong to a participating fitness center. Call your insurance plan’s member services number (often listed on the back of your health insurance card) or check with your company’s human resources insurance expert to see whether you’re eligible for a discount. See whether there are any special requirements to get a reimbursement—you may have to visit a facility a certain number of times a month.

Read the contract. One of the most expensive charges you could eventually encounter is a cancellation fee. Although you might not be able to get it removed, you should be aware of the terms in advance so that you don’t get stuck paying a penalty for a membership you no longer use. You might have to let the club know you want to cancel two months in advance, for example, or submit a notarized letter to end the contract.

Keep in mind that this has been an area that fitness customers have complained about. Last year, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose term ended this month, said that there had been a significant rise in consumer complaints in his state about discrepancies between what they were told by sales personnel and what the signed contract guaranteed, especially when it came to cancellation procedures. The attorney general said you should carefully read any contract you sign, keep a copy of that contract, and be wary of unusually low prices.

Ask whether the membership fee has changed. Once you’ve joined a club, you’ll still want to keep tabs on how much the club charges new members. A club may lower prices to attract new customers but not offer the reduced rate to existing members. If you find that to be the case, ask the manager if the club would also give you the lower rate, Metcalf says.