5 Signs Your Fad Fitness Program Is Really a Money-Waster

Here's how to tell if a fitness fad will have you losing dollars, not pounds.

There’s nothing wrong with paying for a fitness regime. If the program works, isn’t driving you into debt or causing any health problems, its costs could be negligible.

Unfortunately, fitness fads are a dime a dozen and many programs, plans or products don’t work as advertised. In fact, plenty are downright bogus. Do a quick search for “weight loss scams” on the Federal Trade Commission website, and you’ll see what I mean.

To help you avoid falling prey to a useless or predatory pitch, here are five signs a fitness fad will have you losing dollars, not pounds.

1. It Claims You’ll ‘Lose Weight … Effortlessly!’

Exercise, by definition, requires effort. To lose weight, you need to burn calories, which are units of energy, so expect a fitness regime to be accompanied by sweat, deep breaths and discomfort. If a workout involves little time, zero effort and minimal movement, it’s probably not worth the cost. Yes, doing a few minutes of crunches is better than nothing — but it’s still very close to nothing.

2. It Claims You’ll ‘Burn X Number of Calories!’

A popular — and effective — sales tactic in the fitness industry involves advertising the exact number of calories a client can burn over the length of a particular exercise program. But there’s more than one reason to disregard that promise.

For starters, the number of calories you burn during exercise can vary enormously. Second, it’s hard to tell what that number means in relation to actual weight loss. You’d have to be tracking your calorie consumption and keeping a regular log of your weight to have a frame of reference. Plus, even if you lost the exact number of calories promoted by a program, it might not matter. Remember, diet is a critical factor. What happens if you’re consuming twice as many calories as you need to burn to lose weight?

3. It Claims You’re ‘Guaranteed to Lose X Pounds in a Week!’

As in life, there are no guarantees in fitness. No one can know how you will respond to a given exercise. Educated health professionals and medical practitioners can’t make guarantees regarding your health, so be skeptical when some voice on the TV claims it can. Often the burden of success lies exclusively with the customer.

4. It Has an Asterisk Anywhere … or Everywhere

Qualifications abound in the fitness industry and a little star or cross can signify a number of things. “Only $29.99*!” Expect hidden fees. “Free Trial*!” Be prepared to enter credit card information that’ll get auto-charged if you don’t cancel the program before the promotional period ends. See “testimonials*”? Those claims may be unsubstantiated or only accurate under a narrow set of conditions.

Bottom line: If you come across an asterisk, read the fine print and ask plenty of questions before shelling out money. (Keeping track of your finances? You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

5. It Uses a ‘Secret Proprietary Blend’

There are plenty of fitness companies out there, particularly those hawking supplements, that do their best to make you believe they hold some super-secret, space-age, chemical formula developed by a team of sleep-deprived engineers in a lab 5 miles below the earth’s crust that’s totally essential to losing weight. But there are no secrets in fitness, just the truths you may refuse to accept, so there’s reason to be extra discerning when a company drops the “p” word.

Food and Drug Administration regulations don’t require manufacturers to include how much of each ingredient in a “proprietary blend” is actually in their product, just the weight of the mix itself. In other words, the term is often code for caffeine pills, plus some unpronounceable, inert filler chemicals that do nothing to advance your fitness goals.

While getting in shape can take hard work, the formula is basic: diet and exercise. Plus, you can get fit without breaking your budget. Here are a few ways to get started.

Image: BogdanBrasoveanu

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12 Questions to Ask Before You Join a Gym

Get the most out of your gym membership by asking these questions before signing on the dotted line.

Summer bodies are made in winter, as the old industry adage goes, but nothing says “time to get in shape” like swimsuit and tank top season. If the warm weather’s got you considering a new fitness facility, here are 12 questions to ask before signing up for a gym membership.

1. What’s It Cost?

OK, this one is obvious, but, as I’ve written before, gym memberships are cheaper than ever. It’s easy to see a low monthly rate and sign-up without fully understanding the costs. If you end up biting off more than you can chew and don’t make your monthly payments and your account goes into collections, it could end up hurting your credit. (You can check up on your credit with a free credit report snapshot on Credit.com.) Speaking of which …

2. Is There a Maintenance Fee?

Since the average cost of a gym membership has plummeted over the years, the need to supplement that lost revenue has risen. It’s common for gyms to charge an annual “maintenance fee” to members. And since gym memberships are annual contracts — at least through the first year — that initial $30 to $100 fee is unavoidable.

3. Do I Have to Sign a Contract?

Gym membership contracts — like many contractual obligations consumers are subjected to — are non-reciprocal. Only one side benefits, and that side isn’t yours. Some gyms offer a non-contractual, monthly payment option, but the monthly rate is usually comically large to persuade you to choose the contractual option. Be sure to ask what all your options are.

4. What’s the Cancellation Policy?

If you signed an annual contract, you might be locked into a year’s worth of monthly payments or at least face a buyout fee. If your contract is up and you decide to move on, you may have to wait a month or so, as gym contracts generally require notice before cancellation. Also, cancellation processes can be made intentionally cumbersome, with the hope that you’ll decide it’s easier to keep the membership than deal with the process of canceling. Make sure you understand what you’re facing if you decide to tap out.

5. What’s My Motivation?

Have you ever purchased a piece of exercise equipment you now use exclusively as a clothing rack? A gym membership can be just like that, but without the benefit of having a place to stow your skivvies. It’s common for people to believe joining a gym will move them to action, but a membership alone isn’t going to get you off the couch. Motivation first, gym membership second.

6. Am I Healthy Enough for Exercise?

The squat rack is the last place you want to be when you discover you have a heart condition. Unless they have the initials M.D. or D.O. after their name, no one in a gym is qualified to assess your gym-readiness. Consult a physician at regular intervals to avoid the horror of a medical emergency and the related hospital bills.

7. Is the Gym Insured?

At peak hours, a gym can be like a large room of people simultaneously experiencing every life stage of development while surrounded by heavy objects and moving parts. In other words, it can be dangerous. Before joining a gym, make sure the facility is insured.

8. Do I Have Adequate Health Insurance?

These days, most gyms make you sign a liability waiver, meaning, unless the gym’s negligence is indisputable, you’ll likely have to cover your own medical bills. If your insurance is thin (or non-existent), treadmill at your own risk.

9. What’s the Commute Like?

Only you can determine what is or is not a reasonable distance to travel to a gym, but it’s best to avoid any gym that’ll have you stuck in gridlock. Trust me, there is no greater deterrent to fitness than 5 p.m. on the Garden State Parkway.

10. Does This Gym Have a Good or Bad Reputation?

It’s easy to get stuck on the low cost of a gym membership and sign yourself up for a year at the nearest treadmill factory. But one off-putting experience can have you avoiding the club and wasting your hard-earned dollars. It’s best to get a reference from someone who shares your goals or at least look up reviews online.

11. How Experienced Are the Trainers?

Gyms supplement their revenue by offering high-cost personal training sessions, using certified personal trainers to whom they pay a small percentage of the hourly rate. But the barrier to entry for becoming certified is pretty low: You have to take one written test, which can be failed and retaken into perpetuity. (Full Disclosure: I know this, because I am one.)

As such, don’t assume a trainer is the right person for the job, simply because your facility suggests them. As with gym memberships, choose your trainer based on reputation.

12. How Much Does the Gym Charge for Water?

As with supermarkets, gyms have coolers and counters loaded with impulse items. You can fall into the habit of relying on the gym for your fluids when it is more cost efficient to bring your own. Note the price — and prepare to pack a water bottle.

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Got Extra Cash? Here Are 11 Smart Purchases Under $400

Here's a list of smart purchases you should never feel bad about buying.

There’s always a lot of talk about how to be financially responsible and increase wealth with very little money. Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. But put some real numbers behind that generic statement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey of 2015 reports an average household income per consumer unit (think entire household of family members or single, financially independent people living alone or with other people) is $69,629. And the consumer’s unit average yearly expenses is $55,978.

Let’s say you dedicate those yearly expenses to standard things, such as food, housing, transportation and insurance. While the actual percentage breakdown per expense differs from household to household, depending on your family picture, you’ll still be dedicating a good chunk of your income to various necessities each month.

If we continue with this logic, the money you have left over — that unreasonably small portion of your salary that remains after paying bills — is what many would dub “play money.” The average consumer unit will have about $13,000 a year to play. (Speaking of “play money,” here’s how to stop buying stuff you can’t afford.)

With all that extra cash, what can we do? Of course, we could blow it on a steak dinner or splurge for the newest tech gadget. But what are a few smart items we should buy when we have the opportunity? We’ve compiled a list of smart purchases you should never feel bad about buying. And the best part? They’re all less than $400.

1. Student Loans

The average recent graduate has about $37,172 in student loan debt and pays about $351 per month toward the loan, according to Student Loan Hero. For those who are super strapped for cash, they might choose to defer their loans to a later date or skate by paying just the minimum. But the interest will kill you. One of the smartest things you can do with extra cash is to pay more into your loans when you can afford to do so. It’s a solid bet that added expenses will pop up eventually, and staying ahead of the curve means one less financial burden down the road. (Check out some tips for paying off your student loans here.)

2. An Interview Suit

Even if you’re not in the job market, investing in an interview suit is a wise decision. You never know when you’ll need a go-to outfit for networking events, conferences or a random “I’ve got someone I want you to connect with” meeting. Shopping for the perfect outfit is a lot more bearable when you’re not under duress or in a time crunch. Instead, you can browse for sales. You’ll find cheaper options in many locations, but a nice suit should put you right around that $400 mark. (What else can you do to get yourself ready for a job interview? Check your credit — many employers look at a version of your credit as part of the application process, so it’s helpful to know where yours stands. You can see two of your credit scores — absolutely free — on Credit.com.)

3. A Durable Mattress

What does anything matter if you don’t get a good night’s sleep? When you have extra cash at the end of the month, put it toward a high-quality mattress that will ensure you wake up ready to tackle each morning with spunk. High-quality mattresses come at a price. But they also last for years. You could spend thousands on a name-brand mattress, but a foam mattress from IKEA could work just as well.

4. Digital File Protection

External hard drives and online storage are perfect for backing up all those vacation shots, your wedding album and imperative side-business files. Hard drives are easy to find online, and they’ll run you about $82 for one with worthwhile storage capacity. Online storage pricing varies when it comes to options and personal preferences, but you can choose between services, such as Mozy, Dropbox or SugarSync. These cloud-storage providers charge a monthly fee but give discounts for yearly subscriptions. Expect to pay between $28.98 and $99.99 per year.

5. Online Classes

The most successful people will tell you learning never stops. As workforce trends continue to change, the need for specialized expertise grows. Devoting a few extra bucks to improving your knowledge is a practical expense. Maybe you want to become a better public speaker. Or pick up a new hobby to clear your head at night. And maybe you’ve heard tech gurus ramble about an increasing demand for coding professionals. Buy books, go online and enroll in a course. Do whatever you can to set yourself up for future success.

6. A Commuter Bike

Why spend what you could save? One of the smartest purchases you can make with $400 or less is a commuter bike. When considering what you’d also pay for gas, maintenance and car insurance, a commuter bike will pay for itself. There are definitely good, better and best when it comes to bikes, but you could find a quality road bike for around $300.

7. An Emergency Fund

It’s never a bad idea to start establishing an emergency fund. Experts say three months’ worth of expenses is a reasonable amount of cash to stash away just in case. A good trick is to make your savings automatic. Once you’re unable to see your money coming in, it’s easier to get by without it and find ways to work with what you have. Then, when you break your arm doing back flips off a boat or blow a radiator in your car, it’s covered.

8. Retirement Savings

Expanding on the previous point, try to accumulate as much wealth as you can for early retirement. Consider creating a moderately aggressive investment plan by opening IRAs, 401K accounts, brokerage accounts, etc. Take advantage of your employer opportunities and set up automatic contributions to your company’s 401K plan. Start at a respectable 3% contribution, and gradually increase it until you get to at least 10%. When in doubt, seek a fiduciary financial planner.

9. Solid Clothing

Some of us find it absolutely insane to buy a pair of jeans that cost more than $39.99. However, quality clothing items, such as boots and winter coats, hold up over time. And the money you shell out is worth it later. Reddit’s Buy It for Life adheres to this philosophy. This subreddit aims to “emphasize products that are durable, practical, proven and made to last.” It might seem insane to pay $219 for insulated L.L. Bean Duck Boots, but you’ll be grateful when they’re still keeping your toes warm and dry 10 years later.

10. A Coffee Maker

Does life really exist without coffee? Another smart purchase is to invest in a solid coffee maker. If you fancy those specialty drinks, you could buy a combination machine from DeLonghi for $162 on Amazon. Considering the price of specialty drinks from coffee shops — and our dependency on caffeine — this is a purchase that will pay for itself in a matter of weeks.

11. Various Fitness Programs

There’s no safer bet than to invest in your health. Health equals wealth, right? Whether you buy a treadmill for $399.99 or invest in various meal prep services popular for those always on the go, they’re all worthwhile expenses.

Depending on your employer, you might also be eligible to receive reimbursements for health-related expenses, such as gym memberships, fitness classes or playing in sports leagues. While you’re at it, look into other reimbursement programs you might be eligible for, such as cellphone plans, moving costs or professional-development classes.

This article originally appeared on The Cheat Sheet.  

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5 Ways to Break a Sweat Without Breaking the Bank

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Gym memberships are expensive. And with Americans getting in better shape in preparation for the summer, more are joining fitness facilities. But there are plenty of ways to shed pounds and tone your body throughout the course of your everyday life without spending a dime.

1. Stretches to Start

Determining how well your day starts off is entirely up to you. If you ever feel achy or sluggish in the morning, it may have to do with more than just starting off with a healthy breakfast. Stretching your body out when you wake up is known to stimulate, energize and help you avoid injury throughout your daily routine. Setting aside a total of less than a half hour each morning for stretching can make a world of difference in your daily life.

2. Take the Stairs

When you get into your office building lobby in the morning after battling fellow commuters, the last thing you may want is physical activity. But opting for the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator is a great way to burn calories, according to Men’s Fitness. When you take the stairs, you greatly improve your aerobic fitness and running speed thanks to the leg muscle mass you use.

3. Bike When Possible

The average American commutes a half hour to work, sitting in their car, slowly creeping down the highway. But this half hour would be better spent participating in physical activity other than lifting a donut to your mouth and pressing your foot on the gas. Consider that a 185-pound man will burn 335 calories on a half-hour, casual bike ride. Also, if you live in a bigger city like New York or Chicago, you might have better access to bike-sharing programs allowing you to get around with ease.

4. Core Workouts Before Bed

At the end of the day, after you’ve burned all these calories, toning your core will be much easier. So doing a few exercises for your midsection will help you burn through that spare tire in no time.

5. Watch What You Eat

Be careful not to fall into the I-can-eat-anything trap, though. Many people who workout assume they can eat whatever they want and still lose weight. Unfortunately, this is more of a one-step-forward, two-steps-back mentality. So striking a balance between an active lifestyle and a healthy diet are essential to finding happiness with your self image.

Eating well can also help you to save tons of money on food, especially if you’re willing to cook a little. You’ll find that planning ahead is key, as is using some smart shopping techniques.

Following a passive regimen like this one won’t help you gain pounds of muscle mass, but these tips will help you shed pounds, tone your body and flatten your stomach. And most importantly, it will help you pinch pennies while you do it.

Remember, keeping your credit score in top shape is also a huge deal when it comes to saving money over your lifetime. If you’d like to see how you can improve your financial fitness, check out Credit.com’s lifetime cost of debt calculator. You can also check your free credit scores, updated monthly, to see where you can make improvements on your credit report.

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