It was the summer after my senior year of college. I had a two-month layoff between my undergrad and graduate program, so – like 85 percent of new grads do these days – I moved back home with mom and dad.

Life at home wasn’t as cush as life at college, though. Although I was still technically unemployed, my parents expected me to pay for my groceries, my gas, and anything I decided to do with my spare time. Since I was also engaged and planning my wedding, working out was tops on my list, so I spent a lot of time at the gym.

Since I knew I’d only be in town for two months, I wanted to find a health club that wouldn’t force me to sign a long-term contract. Many gym memberships required me to commit to six months, or even a year, something I knew wouldn’t work for me. I was relieved when I found a gym that was offering a 60-day promotion, with the option to cancel after the trial period was over. I signed up on the spot.

Days 1-59

My trial membership was exactly what I was looking for. For $34.99 a month, I had unlimited access to all the gym’s facilities, as well as access to all of its classes, which included favorites like Tae Bo (ahhh, those were the days), Pilates Reformer, and step. On average, I used my membership 5-6 days a week; after all, I was in a wait-and-hold pattern in my educational status, and had basically nothing else to do with my time. (Note: I’d tried to find a job that summer, but since my time at home was so limited, I was turned down for all my summer job applications.)

Day 60

60 days after signing up, I arrived at the front desk to cancel the gym membership. I’d read all the fine print on my initial contract, which stipulated that I could cancel my membership after 60 days for one of the following reasons:

  • Moving at least 25 miles away
  • Inability to pay
  • Physical restrictions placed upon me by a medical professional

Since the graduate school I was about to attend was two states – and more than 300 miles – away from the gym, that was my get-out-of-membership-free card. I showed the membership specialist my new student ID to prove I was moving out of the area for school, signed a cancellation form, and left feeling confident I’d done everything I needed to in order to cancel the gym membership.

Day 86

Fast-forward nearly a month, and I was happily ensconced at grad school. I was three weeks into my summer session classes, and eager to learn all the tricks of the broadcasting trade. As I was reviewing my most recent credit card statement, however, I saw something that looked amiss: a $49.00 charge to my old gym. “But I cancelled my membership,” I thought out loud to myself. I searched my files until I found my previous month’s credit card statement just to double check that I’d already paid the monthly membership dues; when I saw that I had, I immediately called the gym.

The following is a recreation of the conversation I had with the membership specialist; it’s been a few years, so my memory may be off a little.

Her: “Health Club A, can I help you?”

Me: “Yes, my name is Libby Balke. I signed up for your 60-day trial membership about three months ago now and cancelled it on day 60. I just got my credit card statement for this month, though, and you’ve accidentally billed me.”

Her: “Hmmm, let me check that…” (long pause, lots of typing) …”Yes, Libby. I don’t see anything here that says you’ve cancelled your gym membership.”

Me: “But I filed all the paperwork! You were the one who helped me! You even made a copy of my student ID.”

Her: “Well, we have no record of it on file. You’ll have to come back in and fill out the forms again.”

Me: “But I’m in school in New York! I can’t come down in the middle of the session. Can’t I just fax you a copy of everything?”

Turns out, the answer was no. She told me she needed to see an original. And, she informed me, the membership couldn’t be officially terminated – and my credit card deleted from their files – until I did.

Day 89

Even though I was in the midst of my first summer semester of grad school, I made the five-hour drive back to my hometown the very next weekend to cancel my gym membership once and for all. This time, my dad was with me for support.

Once again, I filled out all the paperwork. I handed over my student ID the membership specialist in order for her to make a copy. I even brought a copy of the original cancellation forms I’d filled out 29 days earlier, although she told me that was completely unnecessary. I signed the forms, took the new receipt of cancellation, and left the gym. Once again, I was confident I’d done everything right.

Day 116

Yup, you guessed it – another month, another credit card statement with a $49.00 charge from Health Club A. I once again got on the phone with the membership specialist – the same woman who’d helped me now not once, but twice – to ask why my membership still hadn’t been cancelled.

Her: “We have no record of your cancellation.”

Me: “But I drove down – FROM NEW YORK – three weeks ago to cancel it for the second time. You were there; you made a copy of my student ID as verification that I had moved out of state.”

Her: “Oh,” … I wish I do justice to the nonchalant tone of her voice on a computer screen… “that’s the problem. You can’t use a student ID. I need official paperwork from your university saying you’re a current student, an out-of-state driver’s license, or something like a lease or utility bill to prove you no longer live here.”

I nearly went ballistic.

Me: “Why didn’t you tell me that two months ago when I tried to cancel my gym membership the first time? Or three weeks ago when I tried to cancel it the second time?”

Her: “Oh, I’m sure I did.”

The woman then proceeded to tell me that I’d have to make yet another return trip to my hometown to finalize canceling the gym membership. That’s when my hero – my good old dad – stepped in with a different solution.

Disputing the Charges

My dad suggested we call the credit card company that I’d used to pay for the membership. I had my dad on the line as we both explained to the credit card rep exactly what had happened. I told her that it didn’t say anywhere on the membership contract what methods were and were not ok to cancel a gym membership, and that I’d used the same form of verification twice before I was told it wasn’t acceptable. I also mentioned that I had the original cancellation paperwork, signed by the membership specialist, as well as the second cancellation form.

The representative suggested I open a credit card dispute. She said by officially disputing the charges, I could reclaim the $98.00 in membership fees I’d been erroneously charged. She also suggested that we change my credit card number, so that, if the gym messed up my cancellation a third time, I wouldn’t be charged again. Since I didn’t have any other recurring payments on that credit card, my dad and I agreed that would be a good idea.

The Resolution & Lessons Learned

My credit card company – I was using a Visa sponsored by MBNA at the time – actually did all the leg work for me. That rep forwarded my information to an in-house credit card dispute expert, who contacted Health Club A on my behalf. They forwarded both previous cancellation forms, as well as my original membership contract, with the vague language regarding proof of residence highlighted. It took just two business days for MBNA to refund the $98 I’d been charged; it took four business days to get a new credit card in the mail; it took a full ten business days for Health Club A to finally send me a new receipt of cancellation.

In the years since this episode, I’ve learned a lot about working with customer service representatives, both in brick and mortar locations like Health Club A as well as tele-specialists like the duo that helped me so much at MBNA. Here are some of the key take-home points:

  • Create a paper trail. If I hadn’t kept the copy of my original contract and first two signed cancellation forms, I know I wouldn’t have seen the $98 returned to my account. Additionally, it would have made it much harder for the folks at MBNA to setting the credit card dispute on my behalf.
  • Read the fine print. I was fortunate that I could honestly say I read all the fine print from day one – but I know not everyone is so OCD when it comes to 4-point font. Never sign anything without reading every word on the contract; that goes for everything from a simple gym membership to a mortgage contract.
  • Review your statements. To this day, I have a lot of friends who pay their credit card bill every time it appears in their inbox without a second glance. It’s crucial that you do more than just skim it over; read it line by line to ensure that every charge is correct.
  • Don’t assume anything. Sure, I could have assumed that the charge was accurate and let it go. Then again, I know what happens when you assume: you make an ass out of you and me – ass=U+me.
  • React in a timely fashion. The sooner you file a credit card dispute to let both your provider and the business in question know you’re disputing the charges, the better. It shows the credit card company you’re serious about the errors and want them fixed immediately.

Have you ever had problems canceling any memberships? If so, how did you resolve the dispute?