Now is the prime time to join a gym—and health clubs know this, so they’re looking to cash in. Before you even think about handing over your credit card, consider these smart strategies from the pros so you drop a lot of pounds but not a lot of money meeting this year’s fitness goals.

Be a Fitness Floozy: Invest in your goals, but not necessarily just one gym. Sign up for a few three-, seven-, or 14-day trials offered at fitness facilities near your home and office. Some clubs may charge a small fee of about $25 to $50 for a trial, but many will credit your account to your first month's dues, says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. Once you have a feel for each, then commit to the best gym (and services) for you. A good fit will help you get fit.

Make a Deal: When you find what you're looking for—it helps to make a checklist, like 1) the latest technology, 2) cool fitness classes, 3) clean locker rooms, 4) savvy staff—sit down face-to-face with the membership director to discuss what they're offering you, and let them know you've been shopping around, recommends Lina Zussino, a part-time fitness instructor at BodyPump in Canada. “Ask them to meet or beat the monthly fees of their competitors,” she says. “If they can't, find out how they're willing to make it worth your while, like guest passes and free classes.”

Time It Perfectly: Avoid jumping on the beginning-of-the-year bandwagon. “If you sign up at the end of the month, when the sales team is trying to close last-minute deals to reach their quota, you might be able to get them to waive the membership initiation fees, credit you with a spa session, or set you up with a personal trainer,” says Andrea Metcalf, a certified personal trainer and the author of Naked Fitness. In the meantime, bide your time with five- and 10-pack class coupons regularly offered on local daily deal websites such as Groupon or LivingSocial.

Ditch the Pool: Sure, swimming laps every now and then sounds lovely, but if you don't plan to go for a dip often (say, more than once a month), then you might want to toss out the bath water altogether. “Maintaining a pool tends to drive up monthly club costs and memberships fees,” Metcalf says. As a rule, if you're not gonna use it, lose it.

Look for a La Carte: If you're a fitness class junkie, consider getting just a class card so that you're only paying for the instructor and space when you need 'em, Metcalf suggests. If you're just there for the equipment, however, find a facility that doesn't offer any group classes. This way you're not ponying up for extras that don't apply to your goals.

Ask About Quirky Campaigns: Whenever the marketing team gets creative, it's win-win for everyone. For example, some YMCA associations across the country, including the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas, are offering new members the option to “Pay the Day” for the month of January. So if you join on, say, January 7, you only have to drop $7 to join, plus first month's dues. Another example is Fitness Together, a national franchise with 240 locations. This March they'll kick off their “Great Jeans Challenge” to help resuscitate dying resolutions. Participating members who follow their specific program and drop two pants sizes can receive $100 toward a new pair of slimmer jeans.

Pay as You Go: It may seem pricier to swipe your credit card with every visit instead of paying a monthly fee, but this strategy could save an average of $600, says Harrine Freeman, author of How to Get Out of Debt. That's not all: Not committing to a year upfront might actually improve your odds of, well, staying committed. People who paid per visit were 17 percent more likely to stay enrolled for more than a year compared to members who signed up for a year upfront, Freeman says.

Barter to Sweat: Some gyms and studios, especially small ones such as Bikram Yoga Park Slope in Brooklyn, NY, let you trade in a few hours of work—maybe greeting people at the front desk or helping wash towels—in exchange for free classes. Or better yet, teach a class and get a free membership, says Alan Cohen, founder and president of FitnessJobs.com.

Take a Break: Don't be afraid to put your membership on hold at any time. Whether you have a long vacation coming up or simply prefer exercising outside during the warmer spring and summer months, give your gym the heads up that you want to freeze your account, says Andrea Woroch, a money-saving expert who has appeared on The Today Show and Dr. Oz. “You'll have to pay a small fee, but the overall savings will be huge!” she adds.

Skip the Gym: Getting a membership is one way to work toward your fitness goals, but it's certainly not the only one. Plenty of people have carved their abs right in their living room (just ask devout P90X and Insanity fans). Building an at-home gym may seem initially expensive, but in the long run, the investment will be far cheaper than a gym membership. For workout plans, check out our latest app-session, Extreme Bootcamp! with Lacey Stone ($2.99, iTunes) featuring celeb trainer Stone, who's worked with Hollywood hotties, including Nicole Kidman and Amanda Seyfried.

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