Every summer, my family faces the same unanswerable dilemma: should we purchase a membership to our local pool?
This may not seem like an especially difficult question to answer, but it has us scratching our heads every year. The problem is that a membership for the summer costs $255, but daily admission is $8 per head, which comes to $32 per outing for the whole family.
Some summers, we knock out almost 10 visits before the 4th of July rolls around. On others, we’re only just getting to the pool for the first or second time as of Labor Day. And it never fails that we pay-per-visit on the years we go all the time, and plunk down the full membership fee on the years we never manage to go.
So how do you decide if a membership will save you money or simply cost you more? Here are some things to consider.
Know your break-even point
The first consideration is one most people recognize as an easy way to compare apples to apples. In the case of our local pool, we know that we would need to visit the pool at least eight times over the summer to break even if we purchase the membership. Families in my neighborhood that spend two days a week at the pool every summer will see that they break even within a month of buying the membership.
When you’re trying to determine if you want to pay the full membership price, doing this quick calculation of the break-even point can potentially help you make a decision. Having a break-even point in mind can also spur you to visit more often if you do purchase a membership. It removes one more barrier to entry for dropping by on a lazy Saturday. (See also: 28 Free Ways to Entertain Your Kids This Summer)
Base your decision on facts, not intentions
If you know for sure that you’ll visit the pool, the science museum, or the zoo often enough that you’ll reach that break-even point quickly, then your decision is easy to make. The problem is when you assume that you’ll go all the time rather than know you will.
Your rosy assumptions about how often you’ll schlep the whole family to the museum to take advantage of your membership is a form of the restraint bias. This cognitive bias is a universal mental quirk that makes us think we’re far more likely to do something beneficial for ourselves in the future, forgetting how impulsive we are in the moment. When you’re considering buying a membership to a pool or museum, you’re not necessarily thinking about how much work it is to get your family out the door and how you may feel more inclined to just hang out in your backyard with the sprinkler on after a long week.
To make sure you’re not basing your membership decision on unrealistic intentions, plan to visit as often as you like, paying per visit each time. If you actually visit the art museum or yoga studio often enough that you believe you’d break even if you bought the membership, then go for it. But if you don’t visit again for six months after giving yourself permission to go as often as you like, then you know that a membership is probably not going to save you money.
Consider the perks
Even with the break-even point in mind, and knowing your actual visiting habits, it can still feel like a toss-up whether it will make more sense to pay-per-visit or invest in a membership. Something that can help you decide is assessing the perks of membership.
For instance, some pools, gyms, and community centers will offer members a discount on food. If your family doesn’t visit the pool every weekend, but always enjoys concessions when you do go, calculating how much the food discount will save you can help you decide if the membership is worth it.
You might also enjoy free parking, a discount in the gift shop, or even access to members-only services or events by purchasing a membership. These perks can help you determine if the cost of membership is really a good deal.
Similarly, many museums, aquariums, and zoos offer reciprocity with other institutions across the country. Even if you don’t expect to visit the local science museum more than once or twice in the next year, your membership can get you into other museums while you’re on vacation or visiting friends or relatives. This can be especially worthwhile if your local institution’s membership is relatively inexpensive, and the cost of the day pass at a reciprocal museum is particularly expensive.
Membership has its privileges
Membership-based businesses benefit when it’s difficult to decide if buying a membership is the best financial choice. They make money whether you pay-per-visit and spend more than you would if you’d joined, or you purchase the membership and don’t use it enough to break even.
That said, taking the time to do a little math, knowing your actual usage rather than your intentions for using your membership, and accounting for the money-saving perks that come with the membership can all help you make the best decision for your wallet.