Big banks are just that: big. They have branches across the country and corporate headquarters sometimes continents away from where you live. While big banks can offer conveniences and high-tech tools, credit unions offer a personal, community oriented, and often less expensive alternative.
Plus, credit unions are catching up with technology and are now offering similar conveniences to the big banks.
A credit union might be the right choice for you. Here are few reasons to consider one:
Reason 1: Credit unions aren’t trying to turn a profit
Unlike banks, credit unions are nonprofits.
This means they can offer better interest rates on savings accounts and loans because they benefit from federal tax advantages. They’re also less likely to charge exorbitant and unexpected fees because they aren’t under pressure to turn a profit in a low-interest-rate environment.
Reason 2: Technology
The big banks have maintained an edge by offering conveniences like the option to bank right from your phone. Being able to deposit a check from your smartphone means more to most people than higher rates of return or lower fees.
All that’s changing, though. The Service Credit Union has released an iPhone app that allows for photo-based check deposits. The SAFE Credit Union app does the same, along with a feature for finding fee-free ATMs near you.
Reason 3: A personal connection
It’s tough getting personal service at a big bank. And banks are where you cross some of the most important thresholds of adult life. When you open a joint account with your partner, take out a mortgage, or even start a business, the person you bank with will be there at every step. Having a strong personal relationship with a bank employee can help enormously as you navigate these rights of passage.
Because credit unions are smaller and aren’t spread across the globe, they can be more tailored to your area’s needs and more focused on the community. Plus, the employees are more likely to be thinking about your priorities and not those of the corporation.
Reason 3: Less risk
“The recession was hard on all financial institutions, including credit unions,” says Bill Hampel, President and CEO of the Credit Union National Association. “But because credit unions are cooperative, and not rewarded for maximizing profits, they have less incentive for taking risk. Credit unions were hurt by the recession, but they were hurt less.”
While there’s some concern that higher interest rates could apply pressure on some financially stretched credit union branches, it hasn’t happened so far. Experts say it would take a pretty large rate spike of several percentage points to put the squeeze on some branches, but there’s virtually no risk of your credit union failing, says John Worth, the National Credit Union Administration’s chief economist.
Reason 4: Everyone’s doing it
Credit unions have more than 100 million memberships and set records in 2014 for new members added over a one-year period. “Consumers are discovering credit unions, and they are discovering that in all cases, credit unions can do what their banks could do,” Hampel says.
And yes, Hampel considers the rapid growth of credit union membership as a reaction to how banks have jacked up fees in low-interest-rate environments.
What to do next
So what steps can you take to explore whether credit unions are right for you?
Stop by a credit union and get a feel for staff experience.
You’ll want to ask how long the key staff members (i.e. those in charge of loans) have been there and how they try to help customers. Experience is a key gauge of whether you can expect to develop a strong relationship.
Research their reach and technology.
How many ATMs, for example, can you use through your credit union — and where are they nationwide? Also: Does your local credit union have a smartphone app that allows for remote check deposits?
Does my work offer a credit union connection?
Employers might have a credit union they work closely with, which makes signing on even easier.
How much will you save in fees?
It’s no fun to pay monthly fees to your for-profit bank. Just the fee savings alone can make credit unions a smart bet.
Does the community commitment make a difference?
Credit unions pride themselves on being integral members of the communities they serve. Don’t just eat local — bank local too.
Credit unions are growing in popularity because they offer a personal, local, and less profit-driven alternative to larger banks. You’ll save on fees, gain more in interest, and have the chance to build longterm connections with credit union employees.
The best thing is that credit unions are now catching up with larger banks by offering apps and other online tools to make banking more convenient. With all of these plusses, you can’t afford not to visit your local credit union and see what they have to offer.