A lot of the traditional financial advice we’ve been hearing all our lives was thrown into turmoil over the past couple of years. The idea of a “rainy-day fund” that covers two or three months of bills—which is hard enough to achieve—seems a bit quaint now that we’re more than two years into a global pandemic.

Phrases like The Great Resignation and The Big Quit, as well as labor shortages and shipping delays, are now part of our everyday conversations about what’s going on in the world and the impact of the global economy on our day-to-day lives. And not only has our understanding of how the economy functions dramatically shifted, but what it means to be an employer, employee or independent contractor has changed as well.

Of course, no one is suggesting that you need to have a two-year rainy-day fund, but one of the key lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that, as a health and exercise professional, you need to be able to quickly pivot to offer continued support and find new ways of serving your clients or participants so that you can maintain a steady income during even the most trying of times.

“The fitness industry has traditionally been resistant to overall trends in the economy,” says Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, ACE’s President and Chief Science Officer. “However, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the fitness industry has been like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

According to IHRSA, 27% of fitness facilities closed their doors between the end of 2019 and July 2021. During 2020 alone, 1.5 million gym employees lost their jobs, while the fitness industry’s overall revenue declined by $29.2 billion, or 52%.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the way you think about your personal finances and your place in the fitness industry, it’s important to understand that some of those traditional pieces of financial advice still hold up, with a few new wrinkles.

One of the best things about being self-employed is the occasional jump in earnings that accompanies certain events, seasons or special promotions. In the fitness industry, the most profitable time of year is typically right after the New Year, when countless people freshly commit to their resolutions. Depending on where they live and work, others may see a surge in clients at different times of the year when tourism is at its peak. Certain niche markets may also create considerable ups and downs; consider, for example, a personal trainer who works at a country club preparing recreational athletes for golf season.

The flipside of those financial boons is that, as those January fanatics turn into June dropouts, vacationers head back to the office and golfers take the winter off from training, your earnings begin to slide and you suddenly wish you’d done a better job of anticipating the change and had saved some of that extra money.

The issue here—the ability to live with a varying income—is certainly not exclusive to the fitness industry. Everyone from commissioned salespeople to freelance writers will see fairly dramatic swings in income over the course of a year. Sometimes, the difference between financial security and securing loans can be as simple as proper budgeting and forecasting. Live like royalty in January and February and you may find yourself struggling in the leaner months. 

With input from veteran professionals, we developed this step-by-step approach to minimizing and managing fluctuations in income to help you avoid unpleasant surprises and set yourself up for financial success.

Step 1: Understand why you are experiencing fluctuations in income.

According to Chris Gagliardi, MS, Scientific Education Content Manager at ACE and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor and Medical Exercise Specialist, the first step toward stabilizing your income is acknowledging that fluctuations will occur. “Pretending they won’t happen or that ‘this year’s going to be different,’ is setting yourself up for trouble,” he explains. Have an open, honest conversation with yourself about why they occur, and then strategize ways to minimize or even avoid them.

So, what can you do to offset any downswings? Be creative in brainstorming ways to compensate for dips in income, whether it’s by offering online sessions or classes during the winter, family packages for at-home training during the holidays or outdoor workouts at local hotels during the summertime.

It’s also important to explore why there’s downtime from the customer’s point of view. While you’re wondering how to bring in more business, it’s likely they’re a bit frustrated with missing a month of workouts around the holidays, so it’s up to you find a way to meet that need.

Once you recognize the patterns in your income and understand why the ups and downs are occurring, you can begin to strategize ways to overcome the low points and perhaps even make the high points reach even higher.

Step 2: Stabilize your unsteady income.

Rule number one to holding on to your clientele and reducing fluctuations in income is: Focus on your regulars. If you make the mistake of catering to your new or seasonal clients first, at the expense of your reliable, year-round clientele, you could end up losing both groups when the resolutions wear off or tourist season ends. Health coaches and exercise professionals working in areas with seasonal fluctuations in traffic should consider offering incentive programs to get locals in the physical or virtual doors during the slow seasons, because they are more likely to hang around for the long haul. It might even be a good idea to offer lower rates to locals, because they may have less disposable income than the people who stay in upscale ski resorts or beachfront retreats.

Another key to minimizing downward trends in income is proper forecasting. Make sure you’re keeping accurate records throughout the year, not only of your earnings, but also of class attendance and training schedules, and use those records to forecast the same periods the following year. Accurate forecasting allows a deep understanding of your market and how best to serve your clients and participants. In addition, you can use this information to anticipate “slow periods” and make the most of the time.

According to Jonathan Ross, creator of Funtensity, author of the book Abs Revealed and two-time Personal Trainer of the Year award winner (ACE and IDEA), the best tip for keeping income levels consistent is to make yourself indispensable. “Ensure that what you offer is of a high enough value that your clients view it not as a discretionary expense, but rather as an essential part of their health maintenance plan.” Dr. Bryant concurs, and recommends that health and exercise professionals also consider ways to offer more cost-effective services. For example, you may want to consider adding small-group training or boot-camp sessions to your repertoire, as these lower-cost options may help retain existing clients who may be considering pulling back on their training sessions. Depending on the geographic location and season, these types of physical-activity options can be offered outdoors in a very COVID-safe environment. In addition, participants can also experience the mental health benefits of exercising outside in the fresh air with others.

Another option that is gaining traction in the fitness industry is selling your services as a subscription, which can help smooth out those fluctuations in income. For example, you might charge a monthly rate for a package of personal-training services that include one-on-one sessions, small-group training sessions, monitoring of data from wearable devices, monthly goal-setting meetings and weekly motivational texts and check-ins. The key to successful subscription packages, says Gagliardi, is ensuring that your clients are engaged year-round and feel like they’re getting a good value for what they’re paying.

Step 3: Prepare for dips in income.

This part of the equation possibly couldn’t be easier to say—or harder to do: Create a budget and stick to it. No matter how many finance books you read or blogs you follow, it all comes down to learning basic money-management skills and using them in your everyday life. 

The most important thing to do when budgeting, for yourself or for your small business, is to always underestimate income and overestimate expenses. That way, you’ll either be prepared if things don’t go as well as you hoped or pleasantly surprised when you really do have some extra cash at the end of the day.

In addition, try to create a budget based on the leanest of months and see if you can sustain that throughout the year. If that seems realistic, then you’re in great financial shape, which means that the extra money you earn during your best months will be just that—extra. If it’s simply not possible, determine how much money you will need to get through each month and then figure out how much you need to save from your busiest periods to pay your bills and live your life during the slowest.

Ross offers an additional tip: “I recommend lowering the barriers to saving money for leaner times. For example, exercise professionals can make saving easier by setting up automatic monthly investments, even if it is to safer securities [e.g., stocks, bonds, money market funds, mutual funds or U.S. Treasury bills] to keep the cash available when necessary. Having the money go out automatically—similar to what would happen for mortgage or rent payments or utility bills—will teach you to learn to live without that extra amount for everyday expenses. It is surprisingly easy to adapt to the change and this will steadily build up cash reserves for times when income and sessions dip.” Ross also mentions that when COVID-19 first hit, “all of us in the fitness industry simultaneously saw the need for the ‘rainy-day fund,’ making this idea less abstract than it has ever been for many of us.”

Step 4: Make the most of your downtime.

Even once you’ve done everything you can to minimize the ups and downs in your income, it’s likely that there will still be a month or a season when you or your business are simply less busy. If you’ve prepared well, this “downtime” can be used in a number of productive ways.

Use this time to work on your business rather than in your business. In other words, take advantage of the break from the day-to-day hustle of maintaining your business and serving your clients by thinking about how you might do things differently in the coming months or year to grow your business. For example, revisit your marketing or social media strategy. This might be the perfect time to test out new ideas and get creative.

It’s also essential that you plan ahead and work hard during your busy periods to set yourself up for success during the slower periods. As many professionals learned when the pandemic initially shut down gyms across the country, the ability to quickly pivot to virtual services was vital to success. With that lesson in mind, try not to get so caught up in the day-to-day operations of your business when it’s at its busiest that you lose sight of the need to properly prepare for the slower periods.

For example, being able to offer online in-home sessions during the holiday season requires that you have the equipment and expertise to run those sessions, and you don’t want to be scrambling to acquire those things at the moment you need them. Do you have available space, the right lighting, a working microphone, etc.? Do you know how to cue movements if your camera stops working or if the client is not facing their screen during an exercise? If not, invest some time and money so that you are prepared to diversify your offerings when the need arises.

Many gyms and exercise professionals moved their classes outdoors during the pandemic, and countless lessons were learned along the way. As with online sessions, teaching outdoors requires a new skillset in terms of cueing and monitoring participants’ movements. Also, concepts like the legal use of music in a public space and the establishment of shared-use agreements moved to the forefront. Again, spend some time learning about the legal considerations related to offering your services outdoors before you miss an opportunity that might help keep your business thriving.

Do this type of leg work when you’re busy, so when the downtime arrives, you’re positioned to launch new programs or seize new opportunities.

Another great use of your time during slower periods is continuing education, which is not only needed to maintain your ACE certification, but also is an essential aspect of making yourself more valuable to your clients and improving your overall business. Dr. Bryant recommends that health and exercise professionals “choose education that will help them either better serve their current profile of clients or enable them to work with a new population or niche that they want to reach, or make the pivot to offering virtual training sessions or classes.” For example, if you work in a family-oriented suburb and have been successful training healthy adults, continuing education can empower you to start an after-school program working with kids, thereby enabling you to serve the entire family. “Another good option is to use continuing education to specialize,” says Dr. Bryant. For example, a personal trainer who works with older adults may want to attend seminars on training individuals with arthritis or other orthopedic concerns. 

The most ambitious continuing education option entails earning a second certification—for example, a personal trainer can expand their offerings by earning a health coach certification and acquire continuing education credits (CECs) in the process. A less grueling, but also extremely valuable, option involves earning a specialty certification in an area of interest such as youth fitness or fitness nutrition. Finally, health coaches and exercise professionals can earn their CECs by studying any of a broad range of topics, from cardiovascular diseases and disorders to fitness business management. Whether you prefer workshops, webinars or symposiums, the point is that there is no such thing as downtime if you take advantage of all the educational opportunities the fitness industry has to offer. 

Visit ACE’s website to explore your many continuing education options, including earning a second certification or specialty certificate, or completing any of the hundreds of online courses available. 

7 Money Management Tips Everyone Can Use

  1. Always know where you stand. Do a financial check-up often—at least every three months, and once a month if you are in debt.
  2. Know yourself. It’s important to be honest with yourself when creating a budget. Don’t over-restrict your spending or you’ll likely find yourself unhappy with your day-to-day lifestyle, or you’ll be beating yourself up for not sticking to a budget that wasn’t reasonable in the first place.
  3. Know where your money goes. Look for trends and areas where you can save money. And don’t forget about those once-a-year expenditures that seem to surprise you time and time again. Question everything you spend. Is there a way to eliminate an expense? Or is there room to save? Free apps—such as Mint or Expensify—can be both helpful and eye opening!
  4. Create a monthly budget. Estimate your annual income and divide by 12. Use this average as your monthly “salary” and build your budget accordingly. After accounting for basic monthly expenses (e.g., rent, utilities, loan payments and medical expenses) and discretionary spending, you can determine how much you have left over to save each month. As your income fluctuates, suggests Holly Barker, CPA, an Asheville, N.C.–based accountant, be flexible with the amount you save, saving more in high months to make up for saving less in low months. Or, save money from your high months to supplement your income during leaner months.
  5. Understand the difference between good debt and bad debt. Good debt can include investments in your business or in your education and professional development, while revolving credit card balances is generally considered bad debt.
  6. Make estimated tax payments. Barker urges health and exercise professionals who are self-employed to make estimated tax payments on a quarterly basis to avoid a big tax bill and/or interest and penalties on April 15. Use a free online calculator to determine your annual tax liability and divide by four. Remit payments on a quarterly basis with Form 1040-ES payment coupons, which you can download from the IRS website. And, don’t forget to build the tax payments into your monthly budget. 
  7. Be insurance savvy. Know—and get—the types of insurance you need to protect yourself, your business and your family.

One Final Note

Another concept that has pushed its way to the forefront over the past two-plus years is the need for self-care. As we’ve all experienced the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether from losing loved ones, losing jobs, coping with shutdowns or simply dealing with the often-overwhelming stress of trying to hold onto a sense of normalcy, there has been a greater recognition of the need to take care of ourselves and each other.

So, don’t be afraid to use downtime to rest, recharge or reconnect with loved ones. The need to take care of ourselves may be the greatest lesson learned from the pandemic. Downtime should not exclusively be used to focus on your business or your income. Downtime should also be used to do the things that bring you joy, comfort and happiness.