A good friend in England tells me that he is thinking of joining a gym this year to trim some pounds from his waistline. Based upon first-hand knowledge on this side of he pond, the only thing that may get trimmed will be the money belt around his waist.

The supreme optimists believe that joining a gym, as part of their New Year's resolutions, will enable them to lose weight and get fit. Sure, but unless you have the discipline to stay committed and maximize use of that membership, it will be your pocket rather than your physique that will be shedding the pounds. Research from one London bank reveals that three million people in England took out new gym memberships during the first two weeks of January with a further four million planning to do so.

However, there's a clinker here. Most of us experience a blitz in the first month and by Easter we rarely can find the treadmill. But the costs continue upward.

A gym in London generally costs in the neighborhood of $130 a month; outside London, say Manchester, it's $100. Research suggests that half a million people will waste some $400 million this year because they will not get full use from their membership.
However, health clubs still manage to draw hordes of new members every January. It has become part of our way of life but keep one thing in mind:  If, after a few months, you've lost your enthusiasm, canceling may not be so easy, because you have taken out a contract. As a result, many clubs require you to pay a hefty exit penalty.

Needless to say, by cutting out an unused membership, you could save yourself some big bucks. Obviously, there are even bigger savings from avoiding memberships at expensive gyms.

Some places will allow you to pay per visit, as opposed to paying a monthly membership fee. If there is any risk that your enthusiasm could indeed wane, consider this option. You need to divide an annual membership by the number of visits that you will realistically make per year to see if this is the most financially viable option.

Of course, the cost of the individual fee is important. If a visit is $20 and you attend the gym five times a month, then you would manage to break even on a $100 monthly membership. It's also a good idea to take out a membership for a shorter period to see if you actually will maintain your commitment.

You also might want to think about other, less expensive ways to stay in shape. There are plenty of opportunities to expend energy without the expenditure. Even those who might make good use of their gyms can maintain a high level of fitness and save some money by finding alternatives. How about exercising at home, or jogging outdoors? You can get off the bus a stop before your home or your work and walk the remaining distance. Outdoor activity can even save you money in other areas. If you start jogging or cycling to work or to the shops, you could also save on car expenses and public transport fares.

And, what to do with this financial empire? You could spend the money on a monthly commitment to fulfilling another common New Year resolution, paying off debts. Say, for example, that you divert the $100 a month for a gym membership that you are not using to pre-paying your mortgage. The benefits of that will soon add up. And if you have any other debts such as credit cards where you are paying a high interest rate, directing extra funds toward this area will be even more beneficial.

Even if your debts are under control, saving $100 per month is not to be sneezed at. Most fund management groups will allow you to start a monthly savings plan, putting cash into an IRA, for as little as $100, or you could contribute additional sums to your pension.

I see my colleague, Bill, heading out the door to the gym. But, he's the exception to the rule.

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