Cancelling your gym membership
I confess: I was one of thousands
who joined a gym last year as part of a New Year's resolution, but
my aspirations fizzled about mid-February. However, because I'd
signed a year-long contract, I quietly continued allowing payments
to be deducted from my credit card. I figured $35 a month was a
small price to pay to keep my dignity intact. I had no desire to
beg the people at the gym to let me off the hook simply because
I was a lazy cheapo with little willpower.
But, one year-of-payments later, I felt I'd paid my
dues. The problem was, the gym kept billing my credit card, even
after I sent them a letter -- a full 45 days in advance -- advising
them that my contract would soon be up and I would no longer require
After several irate phone calls, the manager
agreed to stop taking payments but refused to refund the money taken
without my authorization. He insisted he never got my letter and
besides, they required me to appear in person to fill out cancellation
forms. When I pointed out that my contract simply stipulated I was
to provide 30 days' notice and said nothing about appearing in person,
he said they had the authority to amend the contract at any given
I was frustrated and felt like I'd been scammed, but
didn't know what to do about it. After hearing countless such tales,
I realized I'm not alone.
Stopping automatic debits
The wide-spread use of automated payments makes it difficult to
end gym memberships and the like. Once organizations have access
to your financial information, it seems they have the upper hand.
Still, we opt for automatic payments, either by credit card or from
bank accounts, because they're convenient. Last year, for the first
time, automatic payments surpassed cheque writing as the most popular
method for paying recurring bills, according to a MasterCard International
More than 40 million pre-authorized payments are deducted
from Canadian bank accounts every month, says Maura Drew-Lytle,
senior manager of media relations for the Canadian Bankers' Association.
"If you've signed an agreement, that gym has every right to
take out those payments for the agreed duration of time," she
However, if there's a problem with the amount, frequency
or unauthorized deductions, take action. The Canadian Payments Association
governing such agreements.
Drew-Lytle recommends first going to the merchant
to rectify a problem. If that doesn't work, ask your bank -- within
90 days of the money coming out -- to reverse the withdrawal. Arm
yourself with documents showing the deduction was unauthorized and
the bank will pursue the vendor. You can also request a stop payment,
though some banks require at least three days' notice and you have
to fill out some forms.
Credit card companies also have dispute systems that
allow cardholders to query charges that appear on their statement,
however, this involves a lot of perseverance and paperwork.
Fulfilling the contract
Keep in mind you can't arbitrarily cancel a contract or stop making
payments. "A lot of gyms would be out of business if people
changed their minds like that," says Ronni London, a Toronto-based
lawyer. If you've signed a contract, in most cases, you're obligated
to fulfill the terms of that contract unless the gym has in some
way misrepresented itself or there's a fundamental difference between
the services promised and what's been provided.
However, as part of Ontario's legal cooling-off period,
consumers now have 10 days, after signing, to cancel a contract
and get their money back should they change their minds for any
reason. Most provinces have such provisions -- in Manitoba, for
example, it's seven days. "People should closely read the terms
of their contract," stresses London, adding legal action can
If a gym has squeezed an extra payment out of you,
you're looking at $75 to issue a claim in small claims court and
another $100 to set a trial date. As a result, proceed with caution
before signing on the dotted line.
Exploring the options
Ask a friend if you can visit her gym on a guest pass (usually there's
a limit on the number of times you can do this). When you find a
place where you're comfortable, ask for a trial membership or inquire
about day or monthly rates. Paying such fees will cost more in the
long term, but it's a good way to test the water. Also, some gyms
allow you to take over the duration of another person's membership
if, for example, she is moving away or is ill. This usually involves
a transfer fee.
If you stick with it, then think about a year-long
contract. Always look for one that allows for putting the membership
on hold should you go on an extended vacation, become ill, etc.
In Ontario, gyms and services such as karate lessons and the like
are covered under the Consumer Protection Act, whose enforcers receive
more than 1,000 complaints each year about health and fitness clubs.
Under the act, all club memberships are limited to one year. Never
sign up for a lifetime membership -- it's illegal for a club to
Also, a vendor can't simply continue taking money
out of your account, assuming that by saying nothing, you want to
continue the contract, which is essentially what happened to me.
The vendor must provide notice that the contract will be renewed
at least 30 days in advance. The notice must stipulate that the
contract will not be renewed if the consumer tells the vendor not
to renew it. If your membership has been renewed without notice,
send the vendor an illegal collection letter. You can find instructions
on how to do so at the Ontario Ministry of Government Services Web
The bottom line is never assume that just because your contract
is ending that the money will stop coming out of your account. Be
proactive. It's never as simple as making a phone call or sending
an email -- a smarter idea is using registered mail. In many cases,
gyms want you to come in and fill out documents. It's a hassle,
and not a little bit humiliating, but following the rules will save
you headaches and money.
Michelle Warren is a freelance
writer in Toronto.