Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It's Worth It

You know how to sacrifice. Whether you're a runner, a triathlete, a duathlete, or a weekend warrior at the gym, you know how to sacrifice.

You know about 5:30 wake-up calls to get in a workout before work. You know about 4:30 wake-up calls to get plenty of time in the transition area before your race. You know about forking over thousands for a bike, a new cassette, the deepest dished wheels, the slightest aerodynamic advantage. You know about missing weekend revelries because you want to prepare your body for the next day's long run. Maybe most significantly, you know how to deal with temporary suffering in the moment--the grueling intensities required for threshold workouts and race day performance--in pursuit of a goal that means that much to you.

You--an athlete--know how to sacrifice.

Regular people, not so much.

This article comes from the annals of personal finance (another topic of great interest to me, poor, debt-laden college student that I am). It touches on the idea that people would rather have what they want now (a $4 latte, God forbid) than something immeasurably better later (a $50,000 college fund). I would guess that athletes aren't quite as bad at this, at least in a relative sense; if nothing else, I would bet that you're able to discipline your spending better now than you could before you started making the sacrifices required for training--or would be capable of that discipline if you tried. Of course, we might forgo the $50,000 college fund for a $5,000 bike, but the principle still applies: we're used to sacrificing; we are athletes.

I want to talk briefly about an investment that I believe is worth sacrifice: a gym membership. First I'll cover what I see as the benefits of gym membership, then the
sacrifices necessary for gym membership, then I'll add some caveats. And in the interest of full-disclosure, I'll also note that I am not a member of a gym; I am an employee. In other words, I don't pay for my gym membership. So know that while I try to convince you why you should.

First of all, believe it or not, my gym membership saves me money. My gym provides shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant, hairspray, blow dryers, and towels (I'm sure there are other things, but these are the ones I use). Since I'm at the gym pretty frequently, I mostly shower there; it's a rare day when I shower at home. If I were really serious about my frugality, I could conceivably avoid showering at home altogether. The point is, I don't spend much money on toiletries. I use shampoo maybe once a week; I don't have to own body wash; my deodorant sees half the use it normally would. I actually don't use hairspray or a blow dryer, but if I ever want to, I don't have to buy them first. Are the savings from these toiletries significant? Nah, not really. And I still have to budget for toiletries, because I still have to buy toothpaste, floss, toothbrushes, and face wash. But these are little benefits of gym membership that you could make work for you, if you were so inclined.

But there are many other benefits of gym membership besides the minuscule savings related to toiletries. The biggest one, at least in my mind, is a swimming pool. I live in Kansas. It is currently snowing outside. Now in the summer, I can usually find time to go out to the lake and swim for free (if in dirty, fish-infested, slimy, dark, disgusting, algae-filled water). In the winter, not so much. If I don't have a gym membership, I don't do swim training between October and April. Well, November and March, if it's a warm year. In addition, my gym has a hot tub, a heated therapy pool, a dry sauna, a steam room, and--this is a big one--a SwimEx. That means that my longest swim this season will not be 60 laps in a short-course pool, but rather an hour spent swimming in place, with no need for turns or the consequent disruption of my pace. All of these things are out of reach for me. I have no idea how much an indoor, never-ending pool would cost, but I'm pretty sure that the gym membership is a better deal.

In addition, I have my choice of a variety of cardio and weight machines, lots of free weights, stability balls, wobble boards, foam rollers, yoga mats and tools . . . some of those things I have at home, but there's no way I can get the variety in my workouts that I am able to have at the gym; I simply don't have enough money for all that equipment (not to mention I have no place to store it).

Finally, my gym offers a wide variety of aerobics, pilates, cycling, water aerobics, and yoga classes. All these classes are taught by certified instructors, a.k.a. people who know what they're doing. Which means that if you don't know what you're doing, you can exercise in a safe and supportive environment because you have a fitness professional watching out for you. All of these factors add up, and so I think that a gym membership is going to be beneficial for most people.

As I've pointed out, there's no way you could afford to equip yourself with the kind of resources (equipment and personnel) that are available at a gym. But still, the money for your membership fees has got to come from somewhere. You can total up those little toiletry savings and see exactly what they could do for you. I can't really guess what those savings would be; I don't know how much soap you use. But I know for sure that it's not enough to pay for a gym membership every month. So this is where you get into the real sacrifices. At my gym, you'd have to sacrifice $40-$50 a month for a membership. Where does that money come from?

My best suggestion is to kill two birds with one stone by trimming off habits that are both calorically and financially expensive. For example, my mom eats lunch out every day. Not only does this cost $4-$7 every day, she's probably getting 200-300 more calories per day on average than she needs at lunch. So, conservatively, if she were to make her own lunch--or even bring something like a Healthy Choice microwave thingy (shudder)--she could save a couple bucks every day and cut back on the number of calories she consumes. And there's your gym membership. Another one I've heard at work (I'm not a membership sales person, by the way; I'm a fitness class instructor and trainer) is smokers claiming that they want to join a gym but can't afford it. Well if you have an addictive habit (I'm looking at you guys with an overpriced coffee in your hand), get rid of it, or at least scale back. Like get a cup of coffee once a month, or go out to lunch once a week with friends, or limit yourself to only smoking cigars occasionally. Or--and here's one that hits close to home--only have one drink when you go out to a bar (if there's a two-drink minimum, make the second drink something without alcohol).

I know it's not as easy as I make it out to be; when you don't buy your morning shot of caffeine, it's not like that money goes into a special high-yield fund; it just languishes in your checking account until you do something else with it. Or anyway, that's how mine works. My point is that the money is there if you want it; I'm trying to take away that excuse of "I just don't make enough." No, you make enough; it's a question of priorities.

But money isn't the only thing you have to budget; the other resource you need to make a gym membership work is time. I know several people who have been members at Genesis since last fall, who are just now getting into the gym. The trick, once again, is sacrifice. Are you a mother of two who works full time, makes delicious and nutritious lunches for your husband and kids, knits, is on the PTA, and volunteers at soup kitchen on Saturdays? Yikes, your schedule's full! And you still make delicious and nutritious lunches for your kids and
your husband? I am impressed!

But can you wake up at 5:00, get a 5:30 aerobics class in, and be home in time to wake the kids up for school? Probably, yeah. It might be hard to get used to it; you might be a very cranky aerobics participant for the first week or so; but you can budget your time to get a workout in. Once again, just a question of priorities.

I'm not saying that everyone should belong to a gym. You know, a lot of people would be fine with walking on a bike path three or four times a week, or running on a treadmill while watching a movie with the family. And those are good options. You definitely don't need to be spending $450-$600 a year on a gym membership in order to be healthy and fit. What I'm saying is that membership at a gym, with the availability of showers, saunas, steam rooms, pools, multiple cardio and weight machines, group fitness classes, and fitness professionals, is a worthwhile investment. You might own a treadmill and some dumbbells, but there's no way you could afford to have the variety of equipment available at a gym. And you can always rent a yoga or aerobics video at the library, but that's nothing compared to having a certified instructor come over and physically adjust your position so that you get the safest and most effective stretch.

If you're reading this, you're probably an athlete. You know how to sacrifice. But maybe you're not an athlete; maybe you're not even particularly fit, physically. I can tell you from experience (before I got into triathlon, I was not physically active at all) that it might be a long process to get used to making these kinds of sacrifices, but it's not particularly difficult if you ease into it. Before long, you won't even miss that overpriced coffee.

::Note:: This is the first time I've tried to write anything relating to finance; it's not really my topic, but I felt inspired. Any feedback is totally welcome and appreciated.


  1. Excellent post, Jamie! :clap: (too bad that doesn't work here).

    In addition to the many tri blogs I follow, I follow many finance ones as well.

    And spend most of my days shaking my head at the folks around me.

    Like the guy at work that bought a $30K fishing boat a year ago and hasn't even passed the 20 hour break-in period on the engine. But his wife's working two jobs so they can make ends "meet".

    And when I tell him that I'm retiring for good in nine years, his jaw drops (we're the same age).

    But I still have my guilty pleasures. A Godiva chocolate before bed every night with my love and a good beer or bourbon. Life's too short to completely give up pleasure.

  2. I agree with Bill. Excellent post. I am really lucky in that I have an awesome gym to go to and it is free. My husband is a retired Marine so we get to use the facilities at our local AFB -- pool, huge weight room, all the cardio you could ask for, spinning, pilates, etc. The catch for me is that I live 30 miles from town and the gym, so getting there everyday is tough -- I work at home. I do, however manage to workout 6 days a week, high intensity, doing something: biking, running, etc., things I can do at home if I don't make it to the gym. I have been known to take my kids with me to spinning class at 6am on a regular basis, that means we have to get up at 5 to make it on time.

    Anyway, I totally agree with you that it is all about financial priorities. And for me, an investment in my fitness and health is an investment for my whole family. And I am willing to sacrifice to do that. For them and for me. Working out comes first for my health and my mind. I am just plain cranky if I don't work out. Plus I have the added benefit of modeling these kind of priorities for my kids. That to me is the ultimate goal. To teach them.

    I could go on and on about this.

    Anyway, I did your workout. All I can say is WAY TO GO! It was great. I am totally loading it on my husband's mp3 so he can try it too. Now I just have to figure out how to convert your other ones. You have a great talent for this, and I think you could really take it somewhere if you wanted to market it. I couldn't find anything else that I liked and I was searching for days.

    BTW, if you heard someone yelling it was me yelling at you while you were going sprint, sprint, SPRINT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-)