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Credit Unions vs. Banks – Differences, Pros & Cons

By Angela Colley

credit union office blueAt a time when banks are making record profits and customers are paying higher fees, many people are seeking financial institutions that will help them save money. One such institution could be your local credit union.

Credit unions offer numerous financial products that help people maximize their incomes and increase their savings, often with fewer or lower fees than traditional banks. But these institutions also have disadvantages which may make them unappealing to some banking customers.

What Is a Credit Union?

Credit unions are similar to traditional banks in the sense that both institutions offer financial products to customers. Credit union members, like bank customers, have access to checking and savings accounts, CDs, loan products, and credit cards.

However, credit unions differ from larger banking chains in two distinct ways:

  1. One key difference is that a credit union is a not-for-profit institution. Since credit unions operate as nonprofits, they can offer higher interest rates on savings accounts and CDs, and lower interest rates on loan products and credit cards.
  2. Another important distinction is that credit unions are member-focused institutions. A credit union is a cooperative, which means it is owned and operated by its members, as opposed to being owned by its stockholders like a bank. Your initial membership deposit makes you a part owner of the credit union and gives you a say in the credit union’s decisions.

Because of this ownership structure, potential members have to meet membership requirements that vary depending on the credit union’s objective. For example, a corporation’s credit union may only accept employees and their immediate family members. A credit union for teachers, on the other hand, may accept any teacher who works for a certain school district. A few credit unions have more relaxed requirements and may simply request that members live in a certain city or area.

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) manages a database of credit unions. You can search the Find a Credit utility on the NCUA’s website to see if you qualify for a credit union in your area.

Advantages of a Credit Union

If you pass the membership requirements, credit unions have a lot to offer over a regular bank:

1. Higher Interest Rates

Credit unions offer more bang for your buck over traditional banks. They typically pay higher interest rates on all deposit accounts including savings, money market, and checking accounts. These rates range anywhere from 4 to 10 times the amount in interest you would receive from your local commercial bank. Only online banks offer rates that are competitive or, in some cases, better than the rates offered by credit unions.

2. Lower Loan & Credit Card Rates

Credit unions offer the same financial products as banks, but they are much cheaper. Most people use their local credit union for car purchases because the rate is normally lower than dealer financing and because commercial banks are normally a percentage point or two higher than credit unions. Credit unions also offer relatively low APRs on mortgages, personal loans, and credit cards.

3. Lower Fees

Credit unions have few fees compared to national banks. In fact, many offer checks, withdrawals, and electronic transactions free of charge. Many also offer checking accounts with no minimum balance and without a monthly account servicing charge. This could save you hundreds of dollars a year. Credit unions do charge bounced check and overdraft fees like traditional banks, but the amount is typically less. For example, most commercial banks charge $35, but my local credit union only charges $24.

4. Customer Focused Banking

With traditional banks, the management and board of directors want to make as large a profit as possible. Unfortunately, this goal often contradicts the goals of its customers, who want to enjoy low rates, fees, and the best customer service possible. In order to provide this level of service, banks must cut into their profits, which they’re not inclined to do.

However, due to the unique membership structure of a credit union, all members have an equal vote in any decisions made by the credit union, and they all work to serve one another. In other words, member goals aren’t at odds with “management.” Therefore, the credit union has more incentive to provide low rates, fees, and great customer service.

5. Better Service

My first checking account was with a credit union. When I visited, I always got help right away and my teller not only remembered my name, but recognized me on sight. At the traditional bank where I also had an account, there was always a line for the ATM and I was hard-pressed to find a teller who even recognized me, let alone remembered my name.

Because credit unions have small branches, they can offer fast and personal service. Many credit unions even assign one person to work with you. If you visit the branch often, you can develop a working relationship and often receive personalized service from the same person – something large banks have a hard time offering.

6. More Flexibility

If you have a blemished credit history or issues with your employment, or lack a large deposit, most banks will deny you a loan or credit card. Since banks process thousands of applications a month, they streamline the process by setting requirements on income, credit scores, and deposits. If you don’t meet these requirements, you are simply declined without further consideration since one lost customer means little to a large bank in the long run.

On the other hand, because credit unions are smaller and have a member-focused philosophy, they are more willing to work with you even if you have a troubled financial past. A credit union may also make exceptions for existing members in good standing should any unexpected issues arise with your application for a loan or credit.

7. Fewer Complications

Most credit unions offer checking and savings accounts with simple, easy-to-follow terms. For example, my former credit union offered free checking. Every deposit, debit card purchase, and check withdrawal came free as well. They also offered a free savings account, provided I maintained a minimum balance of $5.

Many traditional banks also offer free checking and savings accounts, but they come with loads of rules and provisions. For example, I have a “free” checking account with my bank, but in order to keep it free, I need to make at least 12 signature purchases with my debit card each month, write 10 checks, or set up 2 direct deposits into the account. I also have a “free” savings account, but to keep it, I have to make 2 withdrawals of at least $500 from my checking account into my savings account each month. If I don’t meet that requirement, I earn less interest for the month. It is these kind of restrictions and inconveniences that give a leg up to credit unions.

writing check

Disadvantages of a Credit Union

Despite the easy rules and low rates, credit unions have a few drawbacks as well.

1. Fewer Options

Credit unions offer fewer financial products than larger national banks. For example, Bank of America currently offers 5 different types of checking and savings accounts, 29 different credit cards, and a host of loan and investment products. In comparison, the credit union where I live offers only 2 types of checking and savings accounts, 2 credit cards, one mortgage loan, one personal loan, and one auto loan.

With less to choose from, you don’t have as much freedom. By going with a larger bank, you can select the financial products that suit you best, which could mean lower fees or more rewards.

2. Inconvenience with Less Locations

I left my credit union because they only had three physical branches and a sub-par online banking system. Once I moved away from the primary branch, I had no way to visit the bank. I could still mail in the occasional personal check to be deposited, but it just became too much of a hassle.

Credit unions work on a smaller scale than most banks, and that can mean inconvenience. In addition to having a limited number of branches, most credit unions keep shorter business hours than other banks, and offer fewer ATM machines.

3. Poor Online Services

Credit unions don’t always keep up with the latest in banking technology. In the past few years, banking has gone almost entirely online. With my national bank, I can view my current balance, transfer funds, apply for credit cards and loans, or pay bills – all in an easy-to-use, online interface. I’ve also elected to receive my statements electronically and I linked my Mint.com account to my bank for budgeting purposes.

While my credit union did offer online banking, it was primitive at best. I could log on and see my recent account activity, or transfer funds to another credit union account, but could do little else.

Credit unions often don’t have the necessary funding to build a large online presence, so they typically don’t offer many web-based features. And because they’re smaller than most traditional banks, they don’t always work with budgeting software like Mint.com or You Need a Budget.

Final Word: Who Should Use a Credit Union?

Credit unions offer free or low-fee basic accounts – enough options for basic banking users who simply need to deposit paychecks, pay bills, and make debit card purchases. Many credit union members love the personalized service they get and save hundreds of dollars on fees or from lower interest rates on loans and credit cards.

But credit unions may not work for someone who wants specialized financial products and advanced online services, or who needs their financial institution to have multiple or national locations. If you’re looking for a checking account that offers rewards, for example, you may not be happy with a credit union. Or if you’re constantly on the road and want access to fee-free ATMs and teller interaction, you may be better off with a national bank.

There’s also the corporate structure of a bank to compare against the member-centric structure of a credit union. For some people, this feature alone is enough for them to bank at a credit union in spite of potential inconveniences.

Do you bank with a credit union? Have has your overall experience been like compared to a commercial bank?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Angela Colley
Angela Colley is a freelance writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana with a background in mortgage and real estate. Her interests include animal rights advocacy, green living, mob movies and finding the best deal on everything. She blames her extreme passion for never paying full price on two parents that taught her that a penny saved is two pennies if invested wisely.

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Comments

  • Mami2jcn

    Speaking as a former Credit Union marketing manager, yes, credit unions are a better deal. The one complaint I used to hear from people who were hesitant to join a credit union was that they wanted more branches, that banks are usually right down the block and their credit union is further away. But in this day and age of electronic transactions, it doesn’t matter where your credit union is (ours is in another state). If you use a debit or atm card, that’s all you’ll need to access your money. Most credit unions are part of a shared branching network, so you can go to a local credit union (even if it’s not your own, as long as its a member of the same network) to make in-person deposits.

    I haven’t had a bank account in 13 years. Once I discovered credit unions, I could no longer tolerate bank fees.

    • http://cjbowker.com CJ Bowker

      I’ve been a with the same credit union for the past 8 years or so. They reimburse me for ATM fees because of their limited number of ATMs. They also belong to the shared branching network you mention. This allows me to go to a bank down the street for deposits and free transactions.
      I’m a huge fan of credit unions.

      • Mark Riddix

        Reimbursement of ATM fees is another advantage that credit unions have over banks. Good point. I have switched more of my business to credit unions as well.

    • Babsmas

      Am seriously considering membership in a local CU. Trying to convince my husband, however, is another matter. He seems dubious as to why we should — well, for starters, we have accounts with a convenient, but fee-happy, national banking conglomerate, who has no qualms about monthly fees just to keep a checking account if you’re not one of their high rollers ($50K+ balance…really?) While I like having easy access to ATMs, one can readily get cash while making a debit card purchase at a local store (and no surcharge). Before I make the plunge, I’d also like to see if the CU I’m considering has adequate online banking service (another plus that the big banks do offer).

    • Joseph ragusa

      hi i am interested in joining a credit union.I would like to know what is the criteria for joining a credit union? do you have to be a member of a certain group? Can you please help me with these questions. thank you joseph ragusa

  • http://debtbeat.com Big Spender

    Another reason is that the big bailout banks have taken the country for a ride and need to pay in their pocketbook so the learn to take treat their customers better.

    Arianna Huffington is backing a new site to help people move to community banks and credit unions. – http://bit.ly/4s1dK9

    • Mark Riddix

      I will have to check that out. Thanks!

    • Valdev

      looks like spam to me – click on either the link or the person’s “name” (big spender) and it takes you to some debt site. doesn’t have a thing to do with credit unions or arianna huffington! what a con!

  • http://consciouslyfrugal.blogspot.com ConsciouslyFrugal

    Thank you for this article! I’m a big believer in putting your money into institutions that support communities and use their funds in a socially responsible manner. Haven’t really seen the big boys do that so much. Or rather, at all (and I work in the non-profit industry!).

    I have my savings in a quasi-traditional bank, although it is a community-reinvestment bank. They specialize in helping folks in poor communities and give loans to folks who don’t qualify for traditional bank loans, without the wretched, exploitative fees of predatory lenders.

    My goal this year is to move my checking account out of a traditional, “too-big-to-fail” bank and into a local credit union. I know that things will not move as quickly (they don’t with my savings account, either), but I’m willing to learn a little patience to make sure my money is put to good use.

    • Mark Riddix

      You’re welcome! All great points. The major credit unions have gotten up to speed with the big banks.

  • http://www.yourfinances101.com/blog David/Yourfinances101

    I had never really knew what credit unions were all about till this post.

    I’ll defintiely check one out.

    I am about over my big corporate bank anyways.

    I’m nothing but an account number to them

  • http://madsaver.com Mac

    All this positive talk on credit unions is wearing me down! All excellent points and I’m wondering why I’m staying with my big bank…actually why is anyone in this day and age?

  • http://zeropassiveincome.com Zero Passive Income

    I was part of a credit union and I found them to be more personable. I could walk in and the reps knew me by name. Customer service – I think that’s the best advantage

  • http://www.facebook.com/peacemamam Peacemama Ma

    Nov 5th Sat is National take your money out of Banks day

  • Anonymous

    Close your big bank accounts, go to credit unions instead!

  • Cliff

    We gradually moved everything… business accounts, personal accounts, Health Savings Account, all over to our local Credit Union. Far better service, lower fees, better return rates. Very good online service (very critical for us), debit/credtit cards, no cost ATM thru the Shazam system. Best of all, when you walk in, you are greeted with a smile and a hello before you are 4 steps in the door.

    Granted, some Credit Unions may not quite offer what the big banks do, but there are some real good CU’s out there that put the big banks to shame across the board. It’s a no brainer.

  • Cliff

    We gradually moved everything… business accounts, personal accounts, Health Savings Account, all over to our local Credit Union. Far better service, lower fees, better return rates. Very good online service (very critical for us), debit/credtit cards, no cost ATM thru the Shazam system. Best of all, when you walk in, you are greeted with a smile and a hello before you are 4 steps in the door.

    Granted, some Credit Unions may not quite offer what the big banks do, but there are some real good CU’s out there that put the big banks to shame across the board. It’s a no brainer.

    • Angela Colley

      I agree. Now that the credit unions are starting to offer more free ATMs and online banking, there really isn’t a good reason not to go with a CU.

  • Timothy Rosier

    from the sounds banks are terrible but credit unions are great. i find the opposite in my experience. i am only 20 and have had a dollar bank account for 4 years now. my gf has had a taleris credit union account for a year. the credit union offer .025% interest while my bank is giving me 1.5% on our savings. i also have no fees acrued to my account and the only thing i need to do is 6 purchases with my debit card per month to maintain it(any purchase over 10 dollars as credit on my debit card give me $0.10 which is given to me jun 31 and december 30th) so it looks like it depends on where you live or you need to look for a better bank(unfortunately dollar bank only covers ohio and pa. which is still better than credit unions)

    • Fitchick911

      Timothy, sounds like you know how to manage an account. Yea!
      I hear about lots of fees mostly with people that don’t understand what they’ve done or need to do to avoid fees. Most banks have a no cost option now. My bank offers a whole suite of free goodies and benefits along with no cost checking because of my employer direct deposit. Any bank client – business or personal – needs to ask and learn. It isn’t the bank (large or small), its the user that manages the account.

  • Alnyfl1

    I agree with most of this article except for the poor online services. I have both business and personal with Grow Financial and previously GTE Federal both Credit Unions and their online banking is exceptional as was with GTE for 13 years and currently with Grow almost 2 years. I could transfer funds, apply for loans real simply and the best part is it is live versus commercial banks you typically don’t see the details on transactions until the next day. I know I switched to Suntrust since they had many many branches but their float time on checks is longer than credit unions. Thankfully, I maintained my credit union account open and now have closed the SunTrust accounts. If I deposit 300.00 to my credit union ATM machine it is available to me immediately and i could view online on their website instantly it didn’t with Suntrust and there was a 2 day wait time. With today’s economy having flexibility and availability to cash is paramount. Al Iglesias President API Financial Group, LLC, Tampa, FL

    • Snicker Doodle

      I switched from a traditional bank to Robins Fed. CU a couple of months ago. COULDN’T BE HAPPIER! My bank had reduced the interest rate on my Money Market account from .50 to .20. Now my interest rate is back up to .50 with the CU. The CU service has been stellar. The online functions with the credit union are better than I had with the bank. Robins FCU is also part of a CU cooperative which means that I have access to free ATM’s no matter where I go. Also There are plenty of other credit unions which will allow me to make a deposit into my Robins account at their branches at no charge. I will never do business with a traditional bank again.

  • student

    Thanks you rock used a lot of your points for my persuasive speech in class. kudos mutha trucka good article.

    • Angela Colley

      Thanks!

  • Demetrio70

    Hi,please check out Patelco Credit Union,you can deposit in any ATM of Bank of the West,other Co-Op Credit Unions for FREE and use all ATMs in 7 Eleven,Costco,and Walgreens.There is no competition,that is why i dumped my bank and switched to Patelco Credit Union.Free Checking,Free debit Visa Card,No monthly Fees,everything is FREE! D.Ramirez

  • Gregorm78

    Angela Colley is gorgeous

    • Jomomma

      Mindless reply.. but I am so happy you recognized beauty & brains relate. Where do you bank, Gregnorm78?

      And Angela, I’m curious as to your prediction as where our monies will better fare after January 1?

  • Gregorm78

    wtf bro

  • Clrtadmud

    How much did Angela Colley pay for her two parents?

  • http://www.facebook.com/finley.eversole Finley Eversole

    Like 10s of thousands of others, I transferred my monies from a commercial bank to a credit union in the fall of 2011. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way that CREDIT UNIONS ARE AN EVEN LESS SAFE PLACE FOR ONE’S MONEY as the Sr. VP of my credit union — Legacy Credit Union, Birmingham, AL — conspired with an unidentified hacker to steal about 1/4 of all the monies in my account. The VP’s name is Paul H. Miller. I will be publishing an account of my bad credit union experience an a forthcoming book titled: CREATING A REAL WEALTH ECONOMY.

    • DEFAMATION47

      Because we live in America we have freedom of speech, but there are laws for defamation. I think Legacy should sue you for defamation. Just google search Finley Eversole and you will find out what a misguided person he really is.

      • http://www.facebook.com/finley.eversole Finley Eversole

        So you think Legacy should sue me when I have account representative Shane Bower and Legacy’s Sr. Vice President Paul H. Miller actively assisting an unidentified thief in sealing 1/4 of all assets in my account, Paul Miller ORDERING the fraud department to ALLOW THE THEFTS TO PROCEED, to refuse to allow me to file any formal complaint, to block any attempts by me, local police, the FBI or Visa to get access to the electronic trail showing who got into my account and where my money went and to whom (since the name, address and phone number attached to the theft were 100% bogus), and to make sure I “never” recovered my stolen money. Why would a Sr. VP have so much vested interest in AIDING THEFT? Moreover, according to Shane Bower, Legacy had had prior contacts with the same thief at lest 2 months before I was ever targeted, so was there a connection between them and was my being targeted no accident? I don’t know the answer to many questions because Legacy is burying the evidence.
        Visa has a zero liability policy to protect from loses thru theft of fraud using a Visa card, and Legacy Federal Credit Union does NOT honor Visa’s policy and will NOT conduct or cooperate with any investigations of fraud. Not only have I carefully documented all of the above, I’ve filed reports with the Birmingham police, the FBI, the FTC, the American Credit Union Association — the federal agent which grated Legacy its standing as a “federal credit union” and told me in a length phone exchange that Legacy and Paul Miller had violated Federal banking laws. They were accomplices during the 21 hours in which I did everything in my power to protect my assets, including trying to close my Legacy account and NOT BEING ALLOWED TO DO SO.
        If you are on the side of the thieves and their accomplices at Legacy Credit Union, then your own preference for dishonesty in banking discredits your right to comment on my efforts to save my assets and the 5 years of work that this theft ended up destroying.

        • Anonymous..

          Finley, you should go to Jefferson County Credit Union. They’re much more honest and better than Legacy. I never liked Legacy to begin with.

    • Alex Morris

      that could happen at any bank. only difference is big banks make it legal.

  • Abby Watson

    I”m glad I prefer a credit union myself. After all, to me, a credit union is non-profitable, and very awesome, too. :)

  • Mike Millan

    One of your criticisms is now obsolete. My credit union offers all those online features, bill pay, apply for credit cards, check balances, transfers….etc. And it is easy to use. Any time you don’t have corporate CEOs and shareholders involved, you are only in for a better experience all around.

  • Jake

    IQ credit union has “Shared Branching” which means you can go to any credit union and withdraw or deposit into your account. Its their way to compete with banks

  • Credit Unions are AWESOME!!!

    Credit Unions are wonderful, and many are now more up to speed with their products just as traditional banks..but MUCH cheaper…and alot of their services are free. A money order at wells fargo was about $8 at one time. At my credit union they are FREE! Banks cant come close to competing with a credit unions home and auto loan rates. Transations over the phone with CU reps are FREE. Some offer 24/7 customer service..call in the middle of the night, an agent is always available to assist you. Banks rob you blind every chance they get..CU help their members save money on all if their products. My CU even post my direct deposit into my acct the day before I get paid. I have no membership fees what so ever. Check it out, you wont regret it.

  • Craig Savage

    In my experience, big banks aren’t too bad. I usually bank well enough to avoid all fees. Not only that, I’ve gotten some pretty good service, and the local branch manager was willing to help me out on the honor system, and I’m usually pretty good at that so big financial problems have eventually worked themselves out. :)

    However, one thing I’ve learned the hard way, is that if unknown charges weren’t the banks’ fault, THEY WILL NOT HELP YOU AT ALL! You’re on the hook for any charges, even if they weren’t your fault. That led me to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket after months of being run around, which is not fun. Not only that, all banks charge ridiculous fees for overdrafts! I was charged $35 for a $0.50 overdraft from Chase when I banked with them. Not banking with THOSE fools again!

    The only benefit to my current bank(Citizens) now, is that all the tellers are hot brunettes! You’d have to be here guys, it’s like the branch manager only hires raven-haired supermodels for HIS bank branch! Great eye-candy. But for obvious reasons I’m still gonna check into a credit union. :D

  • F Barton

    When a company doesn’t pay taxes, it’s much easier to offer hire rates on deposits and lower rates on loans. Maybe I should open a coop for an automotive shop and share my dividends through price reductions…or maybe a restaurant, gas station, law firm. Credit unions cheat the American Tax Payers every day.

    • GrayceJ

      No one can steal what was never there. The members of credit unions must be tax-payers themselves or they would not have bits of money to save or manage by checks. It is more accurate to say they are not available for investors-only profits. They do not throw off surpluses that belong to anyone but members. There is no cheating. There is only a choice of where to spend their hard earned money. Unless you mean to say that any institution must allow speculators as well as members. We have a precedent: Health insurance was once managed well by not-for-profit mutuals. Then “demutualization” was invented, and health insurance clients from then on had to support services, administration, general expenses and profit.

  • Kujo

    My husband and I switched to a credit union when we moved from Chicago to a rural town in Michigan. The service is much better and friendlier, when there is a problem with our account (we had a fraudulent/unauthorized charge on our debit card), they helped to resolve the issue within two days. We used to bank in Chicago with one of the big corporate banks. No matter what may have come up, it could take up to two weeks to get a problem resolved since there was no customer service unless you were a business customer. The average Joe was a number, and if your number didn’t have a lot of dollar signs, you meant nothing as a customer. I am very happy to have switched to a credit union, as it makes it much more pleasant to bank. Our credit union participates nationwide with other credit unions as well, so even when we travel, we can always find a “free” ATM. If you’re a business or corporation, stick to the big corporate banks, but as an individual who has always had a horrible experience with national banks, I am very happy with our credit union.

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