Cutting your gym membership? Consider your community center instead

It seems like such an obvious suggestion, it's a wonder why more people aren't doing it: Cut your expensive gym membership and use your local community center instead.

A friend of mine became a member of his local, non-profit center for $220 a year for both him and his wife, or about 30¢ day per person. That fee gives him access to an Olympic-size pool (with a twisty water slide for his kid), a fitness center, two gymnasiums and an indoor running track, a sauna, access to a slate of discount tickets to nearby ski slopes and amusement parks, and even a computer center. And if he has to bring his toddler with him, babysitting costs $3 an hour.

By comparison, the nearby Bally Total Fitness, a typical chain, charges about $30 a month for the most stripped-down membership available, with no classes or other treats (that is, if you can corner the cagey staff into giving you a straight answer about rates -- I couldn't). The extra money pays for perks such as TVs and towels that smell like they've been cooked in a toaster oven instead of a tumble dried.

If your only interest is working out and then going home, it's obvious which one offers the best value.

In my neighborhood, it's true that the community center feels starkly institutional. But then again, I don't go to the gym to meet dates or to feel pampered. I go to break a sweat. For that, a basic atmosphere is just the thing. If I have to trim my monthly budget, I shouldn't have to sacrifice my personal health to do it, and thanks to the community center, I won't.

What does your community center offer? If you don't know, then you should at least find out. Unless, of course, you have money to burn along with your calories.

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