Moving Your Money: the Lowdown on Credit Unions

With all the actions taken against Bank of America last week to expose their funding of mountaintop removal mining and foreclosures, and Occupy Wall Street and other organizations such as MoveOn.org and the Huffington Post encouraging people to move their money out of big banks and into credit unions, I thought that I would share some information about what credit unions are, what they do, and some of my experiences as a member of one.  I feel that people might feel overwhelmed by all the information out there and just want some help understanding the whole big bank/credit union debate. So here goes.

Let’s start with some basic facts about credit unions:

1. They are non-profit financial institutions owned and democratically controlled by its members.  This means that members vote for the credit union’s board of trustees, and that any money made goes into providing better services and rates for members.

2. It’s not difficult to join a credit union. While some credit unions, such as State Employees Credit Unions, have membership requirements (being a state employee, related to a state employee, or attending a state college or university), many do not.  In fact, you’re probably eligible for membership in a credit union and didn’t even know it.  Find a credit union in your area with the National Credit Union Administration’s Credit Union Locator.

3. Credit unions provide all the same services that banks do.  Checking accounts, saving accounts, money market accounts, mortgages, vehicle loans, credit cards, ATMs, etc.

4. Generally members and employees of credit unions are more satisfied than big bank customers.  This makes sense given that they are given more control over the organization that is handling their money.

5. Because they are non-profit and member-owned, credit unions as a general rule have lower fees and better rates than big banks. This means free checking and savings accounts, low minimum balances (usually 5 dollars) and better rates on car loans, certificates of deposit, etc.

Now that you have the basic facts about credit unions I’m going to share a little bit of my personal experience and why I choose to remain with a local credit union rather than switching to a national bank such as Bank of America or Wells Fargo.

I’ve  been a member of a credit union for over a decade and have always found them extremely easy to work with. I still have the credit union account my mom opened for me on my 10th birthday (Thanks, mom!), and when I was 16 I opened an account with the state employees credit union with 5 dollars that was given to me as an incentive for joining. I’ve never been charged a fee for checking or for not maintaining a minimum balance (in fact there have been times in my life when I had less than 50 dollars to my name).  My check card information has never been stolen and my credit union consistently surprises me with their security measures.  Direct deposit has always been easy to set up and I can even deposit checks online and have immediate access to the funds. I have been able to move around the world (in the past 6 years I have lived and worked in Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Germany, Washington, DC and Washington State) and not had to switch credit unions.

While some of my friends argue that they stay with their mega banks because of ATM access, I rarely have trouble finding an ATM that I can use for free.  Most credit unions are members of the COOP Network, which guarantees you access to over 28,000 surcharge-free ATMs nationwide. In addition to free use of all COOP Network ATMs, my credit union will reimburse me for up to 20 dollars of ATM fees per month worldwide.

Starting to see why I choose to stay with my credit union? While big banks are charging fees for checking accounts and debit cards, foreclosing on homes and financing mountaintop removal, credit unions are providing quality financial services with little hassle and no fees. Seems to me like sticking with a credit union is the best choice all around.