How to find and choose a credit union

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If you’re like many of us, you may have grown accustomed to the long lines, impersonal customer service and ubiquitous fees that come with banking at a large financial institution — but it doesn’t have to be that way. Finding a credit union in your area could be one of the best money moves you can make.

A June 2018 survey shows that bank reputations fell for the first time five years, an ominous sign that people are paying close attention to the data breaches and other scandals that have grown more prevalent in recent years.

Of course, unlike banks, credit unions are nonprofits, so they traditionally offer better rates that are not beholden to Wall Street. Still, like the JP Morgan Chases of the world, credit unions do offer home and auto loans, credit and debit cards and various other accounts you would find at your typical mega-bank.

How to find & choose a credit union that works for you

A small building akin to something you’d see in Mayberry may come to mind when you think of credit unions, but they’re every bit business-minded as the big banks — only without most of the fees. If you’re looking for a kinder, gentler alternative to the Citigroups, Bank of Americas and Wells Fargos of the world, here’s how to find and choose a credit union that works for you.

Are you eligible to join?

Many credit unions are associated with organizations and companies. In banking parlance, this is called a “defined field of membership.” That means you either have to have a membership in the relevant organization, be an employee of a certain company or be related to someone who is, but there may be exceptions. These are some typical things that credit unions use to determine eligibility:

  • Place of employment
  • School
  • Geographical location
  • Place of worship
  • Membership in an organization

If you know of a specific credit union you’re interested in joining, it may be worth your while to call them and ask what their charter allows.

How much does it cost to join?

You can join most credit unions by paying an initial fee of $5 to $25 to open an account. “That’s generally the cost of purchasing one par value share at a credit union in order to establish a membership account,” it says on MyCreditUnion.gov. “Some credit unions may also charge a nominal fee to process the account opening.”

Look for free checking

Tired of paying a monthly fee for your checking account? Many credit unions and smaller banks offer far better deals when it comes to checking. It shouldn’t be a problem finding one: As many as 82% of credit unions offer free checking.

RELATED: 5 online banks with lower fees

Where are the ATMs?

You’ll want to choose a credit union that makes your money accessible. That means, ideally, multiple locations in your area. Now, you likely won’t find anywhere near the number of branches that you would for a major bank, but maybe there will be a few. If not, you’ll want to make sure that they have ATMs around town (or at least ATMs that are in a network they are a part of) so that you can withdraw and deposit at your convenience.

Low fees or no fees?

Each credit union is different, so you’ll want to do your due diligence and shop around for the best one for you. While one may offer low fees, it may be possible to find another in your area that has no fees. Others may have savings programs that make it worth your while.

Where to find a credit union: Online resources

If you need help finding a credit union, here are a number of online resources to begin your search:

All that said, credit unions aren’t the only alternatives to big banks. Here are some online banks to consider.

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Craig Johnson is a conscious money-saver who still reads paperback books and listens to vinyl. He likes to write about how technology is making things easier and more affordable — but also sometimes more dangerous — for the modern consumer.  You can reach Craig at craig@clark.com
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