Overthinking the Cost of a Gym Membership


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Overthinking the Cost of a Gym Membership

In the personal finance community, you tend to hear overwhelming voices shouting about how the cost of a gym membership makes it such a waste of money.

It’s not hard to see why. Most folks in the community are trying to optimize their spending and cut out the costs they don’t need. Larger expenses like giant houses, fancy cars, and eating out excessively are a few of the big ones that we all know that can make it a lot harder to reach financial independence.

Then there are the recurring expenses that can add up relatively quickly over time. Whether that’s hefty cable bills, overpriced cell phone plans, or subscriptions to streaming video or music services we don’t really need, there are plenty of opportunities to hang onto some of your hard-earned money.

Usually lumped into those recurring expenses is the cost of a gym membership.

I had an interesting dilemma here last week where I had to decide if that cost was worth it for us. I’ll get to that shortly and let you know what we decided to do.

The cost of a gym membership can be a big old waste of money

I get it – a lot of gyms are ridiculously expensive and end up being wasted money. Think about this…

“In 2017, only about half of the existing members (47%) visited the gym 100 times or more during the year.”

Source: CreditDonkey

Or how about this one…

“About 82.1 million adults spend an estimated $28.6 billion on gym memberships each year. And yet 6.3% of these aspirational gymgoers never end up using them.”

“[R]oughly 5.1 million American adults flush a total $1.8 billion down the drain on unused gym memberships each year.”

Source: Finder

Then to top it off…

“Membership fees vary widely based on your location and gym of preference, but the industry-wide average falls in at $58 per month, or $696 per year.”

Source: The Hustle

As someone who’s never dropped money on the cost of a gym membership before, reading info along these lines has always made it pretty easy for me to just say no. Besides, when I was working, there was no way I would have drove to the gym on a regular basis. I know me and I would be one of the statistics that would have wasted my membership.

The gym dilemma

Shortly before I retired from my job at the end of 2018 though, I started making exercise a priority. The excuse of not having enough time just wasn’t valid anymore.

When we sold our house, we moved into an apartment for about 10 months until we headed to Panama. That proved to be helpful because I was able to use the small gym in the apartment complex to work out. Then we moved to Panama and I took advantage of the full gym in our development to exercise regularly.

Things were going well, but then the stupid pandemic hit… I feel like that’s how a lot of these posts have been going this year!

Since then, I’ve been mostly using resistance bands and even bench-pressing my daughter for a few months. And when we went back to the U.S. this past summer, I bought a couple of sets of adjustable 40-pound dumbbells that worked well for the few months while we were there.

Now that we’re back, I’ve been back to the resistance bands because I couldn’t easily bring my dumbbell sets and they’re hard to find here. The bands were great for the time, but there’s only so much I can do with them and they’ve been snapping slowly but surely… I’ve had to do quite the doctoring of them by tying them off and using some duct tape.

Notice the duct tape throughout on the frayed parts just to try to get them to hang in there a little more. And look how the ends have been retied with knots after snapping off before… these bands lived a good life!

But, I’ve been making do because I knew that the gyms would be opening back up soon… and they did, including the one in our development here.

So I went to renew our resort membership here that, last year, we paid a total of $162 … for the year! Hard to beat a total price like that for all three of us to use the facilities for one year. And this year, the fee was only $128.40 for whatever reason… we’re in Panama so no one will ever know why it’s less.

Yeah, well, all just found out that the deal we had before was a little bit of a mix-up between everyone. Apparently, there’s also a fee of $188 per month to have full access to the amenities here. Um, let me say that again – $188 per month for access to the amenities! Ouch!

We learned that our landlord had been paying that every month and not passing the cost onto us. She didn’t realize that either and we’re pretty grateful. But I can tell you that there’s no way that I’m paying $188/month on top of the $164 one-time charge to renew our membership.

After a discussion with our landlord, she said that she has to pay that monthly cost whether or not we take advantage of renewing our annual membership. If she doesn’t pay it, she loses access completely and then can’t offer that perk to future tenants.

In a nutshell, she said she’s going to continue paying and if we wanted to renew our membership, we could come up with a number to tack onto our rent and pay her every month.

Hmm, $1 sounds good! Ok, not so much. She’s been very good to us so I would want to be fair with her if we decided to go ahead with this.

After digging into things, other gyms in the area charge between $50-75 per month to join. So Lisa and I came up with $65 per month as a fair number and she was open to this.

However, now the question became, “is $65/month worth the cost of a gym membership?”

Overthinking the cost of a gym membership

You have to understand that I have this problem where I feel obligated to overthink and over-research almost every spending decision we make. Whether it’s a new cell phone, airline flight, cruise, or whatever, I spend hours (sometimes days or weeks!) digging in, researching, and thinking about the pros and the cons. I compare different brands, high-end, low-end, times of the year, etc.

Yeah, I know, no wonder I always feel like there’s not enough time in the day. Such is life, my friends. I can’t help it – it’s the way my mind works.

So I’m sure you can imagine that I was up all night trying to decide if the cost of a gym membership would be worth $65/month. To me, that’s money I want to make sure we’re spending wisely.

Spending $65/month for your health is obviously a good investment. And I know I wouldn’t be a statistic – the gym is right here, I used it constantly before the pandemic hit, and I’ve been working out 5 days a week regardless of whether I had gym access or not.

But that’s $780 over the course of a year. I could go out and buy dumbbells for a lot less than that! I haven’t seen a ton of places with them and they’ve been overpriced here, but I’m sure I could make it happen.

Decisions, decisions…

An easy decision

But then I realized a couple of points that changed everything…

  1. We have access as a family to more than just the gym.
  2. Horseback riding is no longer on the agenda.

More than just the gym

Yes, paying $65/month for the cost of a gym membership isn’t the end of the world, but it ain’t cheap either (like I am!).

But our membership gives us access to more than the gym. We also gain access to both pools (indoor and outdoor), the hot tub and sauna, the racquetball court, and 10% off food at the restaurant and cantina here (both of which have yet to re-open).

Almost every one of these made up the majority of my list of things I wished we were able to do again here in Panama. Hmm, that’s interesting, right?

If all of these things were that valuable to us with our time in Panama, then that no longer makes the cost seem so crazy. But do we have breathing room for another $65/month?

Horseback riding is bye-bye

Look, we’re pretty frugal here and have some decent breathing room in our budget… I don’t think $65/month would break us. If it did, then I’d have failed miserably as a member of the FIRE community (financial independence / retire early) and should have my card revoked.

What, you didn’t know there were cards when you retire early? Ok, fine, there’s not, but how cool would that be?!

Regardless, a one-time cost usually doesn’t bug me too much but a recurring cost loves to weigh on me a little more.

But here’s the clincher – I forgot that Faith’s sadly no longer doing horseback riding lessons. The trainer closed up shop permanently a little after the pandemic hit. Although extremely cheap ($25/lesson), we were still doing those weekly – and sometimes twice a week – before the pandemic. And that doesn’t even count the cost of the cab to and from we’d take to the lessons.

In other words, we’ve shaved off at least $160/month from our expenses because this activity is gone. That also means that Faith is missing out on doing something active outside of our condo (other than walking and the hiking we’re trying to get back to).

So this solves the problem of getting Faith back to doing some activities (swimming and racquetball) and at a cost less than we were spending last year.


Overall, spending the one-time fee of $128.40 and $65/month was no longer the idea of just the cost of a gym membership. That alone would have still been worth considering, but with all the other amenities we’ll have access to again, this becomes a no-brainer… so we pulled the trigger on it this past weekend.

More importantly, I got to start working out in the gym again instead of using my resistance bands. Between that and the help of the Fitbod app, this should shape up to be one good year! Wait, “shape up”? I fired in a pun without even thinking about it – boy, oh, boy, that’s good stuff!

On a side note, Panama is still being very cautious in regards to the pandemic. Activities such as the gym, pool, and racquetball court need to be scheduled ahead of time in hour increments. Normally, these places are pretty dead here anyway, but having the facilities all to ourselves is even better!

Have you ever had a gym membership? Was it worth it and did you bat an eye at the cost at all?

Plan well, take action, and live your best life!

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

16 thoughts on “Overthinking the Cost of a Gym Membership”

  1. I didn’t think there was a FIRE card – just a tattoo.

    One advantage to bench pressing the daughter is that it offers a consistently increasing weight limit. Getting stronger all the time….

  2. Hi Jim, I have a very strong opinion on this and believe this is money well spent. Eating well, staying strong and fit is not only good for your family’s physical health, but mental health too. And since you like to do the math, staying healthy may save you tens of thousands of dollars over your lifetime in medical costs.
    I’m glad to hear you guys decided to get out there and play (that’s what I call it when I go the gym, run, bike, etc).

    1. I’ve always kind of went back and forth on this because my thoughts were always, “why not just workout at home and save the money?” But I’m realizing that a lot of people don’t like to do that for various reasons. And you’re right, putting money toward your health is one good investment to make!

  3. Hi Jim,
    I just bought a house in Valle Escondido. Could you please answer one question I have about the indoor pool? Approximately how deep is it at each end. I love to swim around on a noodle but I the pool must be at least about 4 feet deep for me. I’d appreciate any information you can give.
    Thanks,
    Karen Kantor

    1. Hi Karen – welcome to Valle Escondido! I don’t know for sure on the exact depth, but the indoor pool is about 4′ throughout. With it being metric here, it’s probably slightly different. No idea on the outdoor pool – that one’s too cold for me! 🙂

  4. Long time member to the y. Mostly driven by free child care for a break and swim team for our children. The gym is just an added benefit that I wouldn’t pay for alone. Sounds like the gym is one benefit of many for you. Cheaper then buying your own pool so if you use it I say it’s fine.

    1. Sounds like we’re in similar positions with regards to the gym providing some additional amenities that make it worthwhile for the family. Haha, and good point about cheaper than buying our own pool – never thought of that one! 🙂

    1. I was waiting to hear what you would have to say, Dave! I know you’re more outdoorsy than most folks. Yeah, we’re still getting our walking and hiking in, but this does give us some additional methods of fitness that would be hard to get otherwise while here. And the price seems right for everything we’re getting in the deal!

  5. The last gym membership I had was to a 24 hour fitness, and I had it exclusively for the racquetball. Cost was around $30, and I had limited days (T, Th, Sat, Sun). This was back in 2003, and I thought it was an OK deal back then.

    Now I just walk, run, and play ultimate frisbee. I initially put on some weight at the beginning of our work from home time back in March but then started walking everyday. I’m now up to 15 miles walking/running during the week and another 10-12 on the weekends playing frisbee. I’m down to my lowest weight in I don’t even know how many years. At 158, I might even be back down to a high school weight, and I’m feeling great. That was a long way to say that I think the $65 is well worth it for everything you get.

  6. If you go at least 3x per week, I think it’s worth it. I had a gym membership and went 4-5 times per week. It was around $25 so I made good use of it. Eventually, things got too complicated and I only went once or twice per week. I canceled it then.
    I think $65/month is a very good price for that level of amenity. I wouldn’t mind paying for it, especially since your whole family uses it.

    1. That makes sense, Joe. A lot of folks start out strong on their visits, but when they start to go less often (if at all), they don’t cancel. They like having the option out there or figure they’ll go eventually. That’s when it becomes a waste of money.

  7. Like any expense, as long as your making good use of it AND it’s important to your lifestyle then it should be perfectly OK.

    It seems like this gym membership is pretty important to how you guys live, and that’s great. If you’re really using it at least 5x per week then you’re probably getting your money’s worth.

    It’s the folks that sign-up and then go once or twice a month that are wasting money. I don’t think you guys will fall into that category anytime soon, but keep an eye out for lifestyle changes!

    1. No doubt we’ll be getting our money’s worth. Between my gym runs, the pool, and the racquetball court, we’ll be there almost every day of the week. Good point about keeping an eye on it though to make sure it doesn’t eventually just become wasted money.

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