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Credit unions are known to be more stable than banks, and more generous when it comes to supplying customers with favorable interest rates on their deposits. They’re able to do this because, unlike traditional banks, they don’t rely on a fractional reserve system (meaning the bank reserves just a fraction of cash and other liquid deposits) when it comes to the possession of available funds. Instead, credit unions act as non-profit cooperatives, and all of the money deposited in a credit union stays within the institution for the sole use of its customers. In addition, credit union members gain partial ownership of the organization upon joining.

While credit unions are more financially sound than many other lending entities, some credit unions are better than others for different reasons. What should you look for when choosing a great credit union? The experts weigh in.

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1) Choose a convenient institution. Dan Egan, president of the Massachusetts Credit Union League, stresses that this is the first thing that one should look for when vetting a potential institution. Most traditional banks have readily accessible ATMs and satellite branches covering metropolitan areas. Credit unions do not have this luxury. For this reason, you should look for a credit union that provides ATM services, or a branch network that is local to your area. Also make sure that the institution you choose has reliable online banking — and even mobile banking — services.

2) Look for great programs. According to Egan, you want to make sure that your credit union offers home lending services, issues credit and debit cards, provides auto loans, features a good savings program, and offers financial counseling. “You want to be able to [access] all your financial services in one-stop shopping,” says Egan.

3) Find a credit union that fits your needs. Credit unions are most often established by members of proprietary groups. That is, there are credit unions in which only members of the military, employees of a specific company, or residents of a certain community can join. Ben Rogers, Research Director of the Filene Research Group, says that credit union members have more success at institutions that cater specifically to their lifestyle needs. “Military members are likely to get better service from a military credit union, because the credit union understands that lifestyle and caters to those members’ financial needs. The same holds true for some profession-focused credit unions like municipal employees, realtors, or large company retirees,” he says.

4) Shop around for the best fees. Although credit unions generally provide better rates than banks, don’t assume that the credit union you have your heart set on joining has outperformed your bank in this area year over year. “It always pays to shop around, especially if you have more than one credit union you might join,” says Egan.

If you want to find a great credit union in your area, visit FindACreditUnion.com or ASmarterChoice.org for more information. When choosing a credit union over a bank, you may be doing your part to help the local economy. “Credit unions have really become the organic financial institutions in our financial service marketplace right now. They’re locally grown, locally owned, and are the best options for people on a local basis,” says Egan.

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