How I was able to get the $2,200 Peloton experience for half the price

The author's setup with a Keiser M3 exercise bike and an iPad for viewing Peloton classes.
Kiersten Schmidt/Grow

The Peloton, the at-home exercise bike that unleashed a million memes, is surging in popularity as people look for ways to exercise at home. Peloton sales increased 66% in the first quarter, and though the overall stock market has struggled, its share price is up almost 70% since the beginning of March.

But the program is not cheap. At $2,200 for just the bike, plus a $39 monthly membership, it's a big investment, especially when the economy is so uncertain. Still, many say the bike is worth it because of the quality of the classes and the ability to take them from the comfort of your home.

If you want to take cycling classes at home but a Peloton is just not in your budget, don't give up. Here's how I got a bike, and the Peloton classes, for less than half the cost.

Using the Peloton app without the Peloton bike

When you buy a Peloton bike, you're automatically locked into the $39 monthly membership, but Peloton's app is available to everyone for only $13 per month. With the app, you get almost all of the features of the bike membership at one-third of the price. This includes not just the cycling classes but all of Peloton's offerings, which include running, yoga, and other fitness classes.

One of the biggest downsides to using the app is that you don't appear on the class leaderboard to compete against other riders. While this feature is motivating for some, I haven't missed it. Your statistics also don't automatically show up on the Peloton app, but there are various options for syncing other devices to the app or tracking your data in other ways.

The app only supports one user profile, while the bike membership allows multiple users. If you have three people using the bike, the monthly cost for the family will be the same with the bike as it is with the app.

Bike alternatives

What I found early in my research is that there are many alternatives to the Peloton bike out there. You can get a brand-new exercise bike for as little as $300 or a high-end one that costs about what the Peloton does.

Lower-end bikes generally don't have on-board computers to monitor your resistance, cadence (RPMs, or revolutions per minute), and other statistics. Many also have chain drives, which are louder and not as smooth as belt drives. These bikes will still work fine for Peloton classes, though.

Just make sure you're buying a bike meant for a cycling class, not an upright or recumbent bike. You can use one of those if your health dictates, or as a last resort, but you won't be able to fully participate in the movements of the class.

Midlevel bikes in the $700-$1,000 range are another option. Some of these, like the Schwinn IC4, show statistics while riding and connect directly to the Peloton app via Bluetooth. Higher-end bikes, like the Keiser M3 or M3i, show statistics throughout the ride and may pair with a phone app to save all your ride data.

Since these bikes are not affiliated with Peloton, you also have the option of using them on their own or with alternative apps like Zwift or the forthcoming SoulCycle app.

You can also explore other options like the NordicTrack, Myx Fitness, Echelon, or Stryde, which all offer apps with their own classes, but might not be compatible with the Peloton app.

Finding and purchasing the bike

I knew I wanted at least a mid-level bike as I was used to riding nicer bikes at the spin studios I used to attend. Many of the new bikes I was considering were sold out or had long wait times, so I started scouring Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for used ones.

Luckily, I found a Keiser M3, which is a bike comparable in quality to the Peloton, from a gym that was using the down time to upgrade its equipment. The bike retails for $1,795 brand new and I bought it in excellent condition for $775. Since it's a commercial bike built to last, I was comfortable buying it used.

The only downside was that the gym was an hour and a half away from my home and I don't have a vehicle big enough to transport it. Since I didn't want to borrow a car during the height of the pandemic in New York, I paid the seller $150 to deliver it, bringing the total cost of the bike to $925.

Tracking ride statistics with a Google spreadsheet and the Polar Beat app, which pulls data from a Polar heart rate monitor.
Kiersten Schmidt

This bike has an on-board computer, so I am able to track my resistance, cadence, and total power output. Since there's no Bluetooth, there's no way to connect the data from my bike to an app, so I track my statistics from ride to ride by manually entering them in a Google spreadsheet. It's not as fancy as the Peloton app, but it does the job.

Adding accessories

If you choose to buy a bike other than the Peloton, you'll likely need to purchase some accessories in order to ride with the app.

The most important thing you'll need is a screen to view the classes. You can use your phone, but something bigger will give you a better experience and one more in line with what you would get on the Peloton. Most users choose an iPad or Amazon Fire TV Stick plugged into a TV. If you use a phone or tablet, you will need a media holder as well.

The on-board computer displays RPMs, power output, calories, heart rate, time elapsed, and distance traveled. The LED fans are functional and fun.
Kiersten Schmidt

If the bike doesn't monitor your RPMs, you'll likely want to purchase a cadence sensor in order to keep pace with the classes. The most popular one, the Wahoo cadence sensor, costs $40.

Other accessories, like special cycling shoes or a mat to protect your floor, are optional. And those would be an additional cost even if you were buying a Peloton.

Comparing the cost

The total cost of my cycling set up came to $1,145. This included the bike with delivery ($925), tablet holder ($33), shoes ($73), floor mat ($25), hand weights ($10), heart-rate monitor ($60) and fan with LED lights ($17). I'm using an old iPad I already had to stream the classes, so I didn't have that added expense.

While this is certainly not spare change, it's a lot less than what the Peloton would have cost me, even before factoring in the higher monthly fee. The Peloton bike bundle that includes shoes, weights, a mat, and a heart-rate monitor would have cost $2,705.72 with tax in my state.

If you factor in the $75 I was paying for a monthly gym membership and one or two cycling classes per month, the bike will pay for itself in about 18 months.

The bike also provided an immediate boost to my mental and physical health. I may not be able to join 30 strangers in an exercise class, or meet my friends for happy hour after work, but at least I can take a break from just sitting at home in my apartment.

While purchasing an exercise bike is a large upfront cost, it's worth the investment if you plan to use it over the long run. And if you decide at-home cycling classes are not for you, the resale market is robust and you'll likely be able to recuperate most of your costs, at least while gyms are still closed.

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Disclosure: CNBC parent Comcast-NBCUniversal is an investor in Peloton.