Negotiating When To Negotiate a Purchase

A journalist recently asked me to help her write an article with my money coaching expertise. She wanted her article to take a holistic view on money decisions. Great! I thought. After all, that’s my specialty.

But she also asked for practical tips and strategies specifically for negotiating lower gym membership fees. Even though I’m not an expert in this area, I said yes. I saw it as an opportunity to research and learn.

I have signed up at several gyms over the years. It’s always appeared to be a straightforward process, just like shopping for a computer. Find one that meets your needs, compare prices and then buy the one you want. If you’re lucky (and buying a PC) you might catch a promotion and score a good discount.

But when I began to research gym memberships, it surprised me to learn how often the price is negotiable. Not at every gym. Not for every transaction. But this clearly happens much more often than I ever imagined.

Total BS

Thanks to the abundance of posts, blogs and articles from current or former gym sales reps, anyone can learn the “secret” tactics they use to close sales.

Total BS! is how several different sales reps described their gym’s initiation fee on a Reddit thread. At their gyms, at least, these fees only exist as a haggling tool. Whenever a potential customer hesitates to sign up, they have the freedom to reduce the initiation fee, or waive it completely, in order to make the sale. Every customer who pays it without question simply pads the profits.

After I took my jaw off the floor, I found lots of advice from both sales reps and customers experienced with eliminating sign-up fees and reducing monthly membership fees. Nearly all of them recommended that you play a character.

Tell them you’re interested in personal training down the line, even if you have no interest. That’s a bigger money maker for them so they won’t want to lose the sale.

Take up a lot of the sales person’s time so they’re more willing to make a deal with you instead of feeling like they have wasted their energy.

It’s all about the narrative. Choose a story, stick to it, and be willing to walk away.

As I read, I grew agitated. I bristled under the taunting vibes of some of the commentary. Even if the posters didn’t come out and say it, they shared an undercurrent message: Only suckers pay full price!

Sorting it Out

Suddenly a swirl of emotions made me dizzy.

– Suspicion

My prior ignorance kept me in a protective, happy state. I didn’t know that I had a choice, so I felt good about signing gym contracts at the proposed prices. Now I wonder if I was the last one to know. I wonder where else I’m overpaying. How else am I getting duped?

– Shame

I’ve signed up for at least three different gyms. I feel like a fool for having paid the stated rate and sign-up fees without question. And as a money coach, I should have known this! Or at least, that’s what my shame says, even though my specialty is working with people to create a healthy relationship with money, not simply save every penny possible.

– Revulsion

Reading the posts, gym negotiations felt like a nasty game in which each side tries to outwit the other. Even though the current sales reps were drawing back the curtain to reveal behind-the-scenes secrets, they surely kept that information to themselves when talking to potential clients in real life. I don’t fault them for doing their job, but I do wish their employers would adopt a more transparent pricing system that doesn’t deceive the people who don’t know they can haggle.

– Confusion

Researching gym fees brought up an intense variety of emotions for me. After much thought, I realized why. It’s because the act of negotiating sets up a clash between my self-interest and my values. I want to pay less…but I don’t want to be a jerk. I want what’s fair for me…but I don’t want to be unfair to the other side.

It’s really no wonder why I became disoriented. The thought of negotiating stirs up a complex brew of ingredients, such as money, personal power, self worth and values. It makes us question what we stand for, what we fall for, and how we feel about ourselves in the process. Questions that each of us must must answer for ourselves.

Seeing Straight

As asked, I wrote a few tips for negotiating a gym membership. I stuck to the strategies that I considered ethical, and tried to word them without judgement on either side.

  • The best time to shop for a gym membership is the last few days of the month. Sales reps eager to meet their monthly goals will be more willing to negotiate a deal with you.
  • If you don’t mind haggling, the initiation fee is usually the most negotiable part of the contract.
  • Cash-in-hand is attractive to any business, so if you can afford to pay upfront for the year, then ask for a lower rate in exchange for pre-paying.
  • No company is going to publicly post, “This is how you can pay us less.” So it’s up to you to ask.

But as I reviewed the strategies, I felt that I left something important unsaid. So I added another bullet point:

Keep in mind that there is no shame in not negotiating. Some people enjoy haggling while others do not. Decide for yourself if it’s worth it to you.

The process of deciding is not easy. It requires you to identify and scrutinize your beliefs about money, your definition of fairness, and the degree to which you value how others perceive you. Much like negotiation itself, the process is uncomfortable, but can be well worth it.

Emily Shull is a holistic money coach and founder of Me Myself and Money.
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