Why Credit Unions Are a Better Financial Choice For Us Than Big Banks

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Credit Unions Make Philosophical, Financial SenseThose occupying Wall Street and other cities -- and those standing in solidarity with them elsewhere -- are disgusted with the status quo. One tactic they're using to get their point across to big business: closing out their accounts at major banks and moving their money to smaller institutions, including credit unions.

Big banks clearly aren't thrilled with customers' money walking out the front door. When a bunch of people tried to close out their accounts at a Manhattan branch of Citigroup's (C) Citibank, many were apparently arrested.

Fear not, though -- that reaction is an aberration. It's still a free country, and you can move your money if you want to. And credit unions are waiting with open arms -- and incentives.

Wooing Customers From Big Banks

With big banks adding new fees or increasing existing fees, credit unions have been able to capitalize on the growing discontent with the financial services behemoths. Bank of America's (BAC) $5 debit-card-fee fiasco alone is responsible for 20% to 50% of the new accounts at some credit unions -- and new accounts have been growing steadily in recent months.

That's because many credit unions are offering cash back or reward points for debit card usage, not fees. There are other perks, too, to get you to move your business. For example, the Co-op Services Credit Union of Michigan has been successfully offering $105 to those who switch to them from a regular bank. And credit unions are reaching out to business customers, too. FDIC data has shown bank business lending shrinking over the past year or so, while credit union commercial lending is growing.

Other Union Benefits

Dollars and cents aren't the only reason people are moving their money to credit unions. The fundamental setup of the system is vastly different from that at big banks.

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While a bank is a for-profit business, aiming to maximize earnings for its shareholders, credit unions are nonprofits. While you're simply a customer of a bank, you'll be a member of a credit union, owning the whole thing along with your fellow members.

Many credit unions are on the small side, especially compared to entities such as Wells Fargo (WFC) and Bank of America, with roughly $1.3 trillion and $2.2 trillion in assets, respectively. Credit unions can be large, though, with the biggest one, which serves the U.S. military and Defense Department, sporting close to $40 billion in assets, more than 180 locations, and more than 3 million members. Other credit unions in the top 10 include ones serving State Department employees and Boeing (BA) employees. A credit union doesn't have to be huge to serve you well, though, of course.

Credit unions offer most or all of the services you need from your bank, and they generally charge lower fees, offer higher interest rates for your savings, and lower interest rates for loans. Compare these rates for June, 2011, the most recent data available from the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA):


Credit Unions
(national average)
Banks
(national average)
5-year CD
2.09%
1.78%
1-year CD
0.75%
0.59%
$1,000 in a regular savings account
0.25%
0.20%
30-year fixed mortgage
4.78%
4.64%
Classic credit card
11.64%
13.17%
Unsecured fixed 36-month loan
10.37%
11.98%
36-month used-car loan
3.88%
5.61%
60-month new-car loan
3.91%
5.22%

Traditionally, a credit union exists to serve only a specific population of people, such as those who live in a particular defined region, those who work or study at a particular school or company, those who work for the government, etc. But these days, many credit unions serve broader customer bases. Don't assume that the ones near you won't accept you -- ask them. Sometimes you might just need to join an inexpensive nonprofit organization in order to qualify.

When it comes to the downsides of credit unions, there aren't many:

  • They don't typically have a lot of ATMs of their own, but many credit unions are joined into a big network of machines, offering surcharge-free usage.
  • If you're afraid of giving up the FDIC coverage protecting your bank account, know that federal credit unions have their own protection against institutional failure, with the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) insuring accounts up to at least $250,000. (Just be sure that any credit union you consider is among the vast majority covered by the NCUA.)

It's hard to beat the benefits of using a credit union. Consider doing so, whether you want to make a statement and support the Occupy Wall Street movement or you simply want lower fees and better rates. Shop around first, of course, to make sure that switching is a smart move for you.

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Longtime Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of JPMorgan Chase, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America.



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