When Geran Smith moved from Tennessee to California, he had to cut some ties, including his gym membership to Planet Fitness. Smith didn’t immediately cancel though, believing he could simply transfer his membership to the location near his new home in California.
Once in California, Smith learned that Planet Fitness gyms are independently owned franchises, and transferring the membership wasn’t possible. When he figured that out, he did what anyone would do — he called the location in Nashville to cancel. According to Smith, an employee acknowledged his cancellation request over the phone, telling him he would no longer be charged.
Of course, had Planet Fitness stopped charging Smith’s bank account, he wouldn’t need the help of a consumer advocate. But his story is a good lesson for anyone thinking about joining a gym, because the details of your contract can be crucial if your circumstances change and you can no longer use the gym. And it shows the importance of monitoring your bank statement for rogue charges once you’ve already stopped receiving a service.
Despite canceling by phone, Smith was charged for months, repeatedly, because like all Planet Fitness members, he was enrolled in auto draft payments. And when he realized he was still being charged months later, the company said it had no record of his cancellation, something he should have done in writing. Smith initially thought the cancellation was accepted, because some monthly fees were charged, and then refunded. Later, though, the company resumed charging its fees.
Planet Fitness advertises a low $10 a month membership fee and a “no commitment” promise, meaning that members can cancel at any time. But looking more closely at the deals offered at the Nashville location where he belonged, the “no commitment” offer is not available for the $10 monthly rate Smith was paying. For $15 a month, the club extends the no strings attached deal, but Smith’s membership required a 12 month commitment and annual fees.
The terms of any fitness or weight loss membership plan must be examined closely. January is the peak season for new memberships, and in a $26 billion health club industry, everyone is looking to get a piece of the action. Many companies promote offers to join “free,” which are beset with all kinds of conditions. For example, Weight Watchers’ current promo features a deal to “Join free and lose 10 lbs. on us.” These offers aren’t free at all — they require purchases, auto-renew subscriptions and perhaps worst of all — a weight loss requirement.
All of these deals can be great, if you are unlike most Americans who give up on their New Year’s Resolutions by Groundhog Day. Without a doubt, the big box gym industry thrives on a business model of annual commitments and auto-draft subscriptions for members who don’t go to the gym.
In fact, in Smith’s case, when Planet Fitness demanded written evidence of his attempt to cancel, Smith suggested management simply look at his attendance record, which showed no visits in the course of the year. The company responded, “The lack of facility use unfortunately does not prove that someone wished to cancel. It just means they didn’t utilize their membership.”
Most gyms also require payment by auto draft. Some customers prefer recurring charges, as they allow the customer to make monthly payments seamlessly, without thought or effort. But the real winners in this arrangement are undoubtedly businesses, especially when consumers are not carefully monitoring their accounts. Credit card issuers encourage merchants to set up recurring charge arrangements because it is proven that they generate more sales and make customers less likely to cancel their accounts.
In an effort to stop Planet Fitness from charging his bank account, Smith closed the account and opened a new one. Before closing his account, Smith also disputed the charges with his bank, SunTrust, which ultimately sided with Planet Fitness. The bank’s reasoning? He didn’t have written evidence of his attempts to cancel.
Planet Fitness offered to refund $110 — just half of what Smith was charged. Smith rejected the offer, saying that he would only accept it if it also gave him 10 months of membership at a California Planet Fitness. The negotiations ended there, with no refund issued, and no offer of membership in the California location. The company ignored our requests to reopen discussions — despite being a company which markets its commitment to championing the underdog.
While you may be eager to jump into a new fitness routine, taking the extra time to read the contract’s fine print for long-term commitments and auto draft requirements should be part of your financial fitness routine. Before you sign on the dotted line, ask what you must do to cancel, in the unlikely event that unforeseen circumstances prevent you from continuing to attend.
Big box gyms are no longer the only option out there for those wanting to try a new workout routine. The fitness industry is more diverse than ever, with many boutique, group fitness studios offering true no commitment, pay-as-you-go class cards. And they may offer more personalized attention, keeping you more engaged over the long-term. Some even allow you to pay with — gasp! — cash.
Finding the option that’s best for your lifestyle and your wallet may be your key to physical and financial fitness in the new year. And to that, we can all raise a glass.