What Is a Credit Union—and How Is it Different From a Bank?
By Kristin Wong
Between the 2008 financial crisis and the recent Wells Fargo fiasco, consumers have grown distrustful of banks and are considering credit unions as an alternative place to park their cash. Just like banks, credit unions accept deposits and make loans—so how, exactly, are they different?
For one, they have a democratic history. The first credit unions were established as cooperatives, meaning the people who kept their cash in the credit union also helped manage it—and they still operate this way today. As such, you are treated as a member, not a customer, and have the right to vote on a board of directors. Typically, personal finance expert Tal Frank tells mental_floss, membership often means you can expect better service at a credit union than at a big bank.
“However, if comparing a credit union to a community bank or a small local bank, you will probably find that you get a high level of service at both," Frank says. "The smaller guys try harder. They also have more of a personal connection with clients or members.”
Credit unions are also non-profit organizations. "So, unlike banks, they don't have stockholders who expect to receive a quarterly dividend payment," Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University, tells mental_floss. "And without the need to pay stockholders, federally insured credit unions can benefit their members by keeping fees low.”
As Weidman says, because they’re non-profit, credit unions can use any excess earnings to offer customers lower rates and better financial products. “Most banks pay lousy rates of interest, have too many fees, charge too much for those fees, and charge too much interest when loaning money,” says Wiedman. “Virtually all federally insured credit unions beat most banks in nearly every one of those categories.”
But the fact that they're community-focused cooperatives doesn't mean credit unions are a free-for-all: They operate under certain rules set by an organization called the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). In addition to setting guidelines, the NCUA also insures your funds (just as the FDIC—Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—does your deposits at a bank).
Interested an opening an account? Credit unions are a bit more exclusive than banks. “In the olden days, one had to be an employee of a particular company or member of a certain group to join a credit union,” Frank says. “Over the years that distinction has eroded for many credit unions. Guidelines changed to include allowing membership for family, a specific occupation, or all those who live in a geographic area (even as large as an entire state). As an example, Delta Community Credit Union is the largest in Georgia. Although there are ‘membership eligibility’ guidelines, the guidelines are so broad that it is pretty much open to anyone.”
Many credit unions will expand their membership to people outside of an industry or area if you make a small charitable donation, too. The Pentagon Financial Credit Union, for example, is typically only open to military employees, but just about anyone can get a membership with a one-time $15 donation to Voices for America's Troops or the National Military Family Association.
If you’re looking for a credit union, ASmarterChoice.org is a good place to start your search. You'll need to vet the credit union carefully, as you would any other financial institution: Make sure they are indeed insured by the NCUA, and read member reviews on comparison sites like NerdWallet and Bankrate. If convenience is important to you, you’ll also want to check out their mobile and online banking options to make sure they fit your needs.