Why Is a Credit Union Better Than a Bank?

When it comes to borrowing money, building up your emergency fund, and performing financial transactions, you have more options than ever before. You can open an account with a traditional bank, set up an online bank account, or choose a neighborhood credit union. Best of all, you can have accounts with multiple institutions, maximizing convenience.

As you’re reviewing your options, you may see some claims that credit unions are better than banks. There’s no one-size-fits-all financial institution that works for every consumer on the planet, but there are some reasons you might want to choose a credit union over a brick-and-mortar or online bank.

Why is a credit union better than a bank for some people? Get the answer to this question, plus an overview of how credit unions work.

What Is a Credit Union?

A credit union is a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of financial services. Like banks, credit unions are heavily regulated financial institutions. They typically offer the following products and services:

  • Checking accounts. A checking account is a type of deposit account. Once you deposit money, you can spend it by writing checks, using your debit card, or making online transfers.
  • Savings accounts. Savings accounts make it easier to put away money for a rainy day. If you have an active account, you can deposit money and earn interest on it.
  • Certificates of deposit. A certificate of deposit, commonly known as a CD, is a special type of savings account. When you open a CD, you agree to keep your money in it for a certain period of time. In exchange, the bank pays a higher interest rate than you can get with a standard savings account.
  • Retirement accounts. Many credit unions offer IRAs and other retirement accounts, making it easier to save for the future.
  • Auto loans. If you don’t have enough cash on hand to buy a car, you can take out an auto loan from your credit union. An auto loan is a type of installment loan, which means you borrow the money and pay it back in equal monthly installments. The lender earns money by charging interest on the loan.
  • Mortgages. Most people don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to buy a home. If you belong to a credit union, you may be able to take out a home loan. Some loans have fixed interest rates, while others have adjustable rates, giving you more flexibility.
  • Personal loans. If you need a loan to consolidate your debts, do expensive home repairs, pay for a wedding, or cover other major expenses, you may be able to take out a personal loan from a credit union. With a personal loan, you borrow a certain amount of money and pay it back in monthly installments.
  • Credit cards. Many credit unions also offer credit cards, which give you access to revolving credit. You use each card to make purchases and then pay back what you borrowed over time. If you don’t pay your full balance each month, you must make a minimum payment to keep your account in good standing.

Banks vs. Credit Unions: Major Differences

One of the biggest differences between banks and credit unions is that credit unions are nonprofit organizations owned by their members. In contrast, a bank is a for-profit institution owned by a group of shareholders.

Nonprofit and for-profit organizations have different purposes. Due to their nonprofit status, credit unions have cooperative structures. Board members and employees are concerned with the financial well-being of all members. Credit unions also have strong community roots.

The main purpose of a for-profit bank is to make money for shareholders. When there’s a profit motive in place, employees and board members tend to make decisions based on what’s best for shareholders instead of what’s best for customers or communities. For example, employees at Wells Fargo opened thousands of fraudulent accounts to boost the bank’s bottom line, hurting customers in the process.

Membership Requirements

Another major difference between banks and credit unions is that credit unions have strict membership requirements. Banks want to make as much money as possible, so they tend to offer accounts to anyone who meets some basic criteria. For example, a bank may open a checking account for any adult who doesn’t have a history of writing bad checks.

Credit unions are member-owned, so they have additional requirements. For example, some credit unions require their members to work for the federal government. Others are designed for members of the military or people who live in a specific geographic area. If you don’t meet the membership requirements, you won’t be able to open an account.

Banks and credit unions are both subject to federal regulation, but they’re not regulated by the same agencies. In the United States, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency charters all banks and monitors their activities. The National Credit Union Administration oversees credit unions.

Both agencies work to ensure consumers receive fair treatment. Federal regulations also protect bank and credit union customers against deceptive business practices, giving you extra peace of mind.

Why Is a Credit Union Better Than a Bank for Some Consumers?

So, why is a credit union better than a bank in some cases? One of the main benefits is that credit unions operate for the good of their members. If you’re invested in the success of your community, joining a credit union can help you contribute to local development.

Credit unions also tend to offer slightly higher interest rates on certain savings and investment products. As of December 2023, credit unions were paying 2.93% on a five-year CD with a $10,000 deposit. In contrast, traditional banks were only paying 2.02%.

In some cases, a credit union also charges lower interest rates on credit cards and loans. The lower your rate, the less you pay in interest over time. At the end of 2023, credit unions charged an average of 12.72% on credit cards, while banks averaged 15%.

If you join a credit union, you may even save money on fees. Traditional banks need to maximize their profits, so they often charge monthly maintenance fees and fees for accessing certain services. You may also have to meet minimum daily balance requirements to avoid additional service charges.

Many credit unions charge no monthly service fees and have no minimum balance requirements. If you have to make a deposit to open your account, the minimum deposit may be just a few dollars. Credit unions may also offer free checks, free mobile banking, and other free services to their members.

Credit Unions vs. Banks: The Bottom Line

Banks and credit unions both have their place in the financial world. If you’re looking for personalized service, lower fees, and better interest rates, consider joining a credit union. You can always set up a traditional bank account if you want to access additional services.

To learn more about financial matters, check out Credit.com’s ultimate guide to personal finance.

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