Credit unions have become a popular alternative to traditional banks, offering a unique approach to financial services. But they work a bit differently. Before you decide whether to join a credit union, you’ll want to understand the advantages and considerations around them.

Member-owned structure

One of the distinguishing features of credit unions is that they’re structured as a cooperative. Unlike traditional banks, they’re owned and operated by their members. That means that if you join a credit union, you also become a part-owner, with the ability to vote on key decisions, elect board members, and have a say in the institution’s policies. This member-centric model fosters a sense of community and shared responsibility.

Lower fees and better interest rates

Credit unions are known for lower fees and more favorable interest rates compared to most traditional banks. As not-for-profit entities, credit unions prioritize serving their members over profits. This often translates into reduced fees for services like checking accounts, ATM withdrawals, and overdrafts. Additionally, they typically offer competitive interest rates on loans, credit cards, and savings accounts, benefiting their members in the long run.

Personalized service

Credit unions are known for providing personalized and attentive customer service. Because they are often smaller and community-oriented, credit union staff can take the time to understand individual financial needs and offer tailored solutions.

Community focus

Credit unions are deeply rooted in the communities they serve. This local focus allows them to understand the unique needs of their members and tailor their services accordingly. Many credit unions actively participate in community initiatives, supporting local charities, schools, and events. Joining a credit union can provide a sense of connection to your community and contribute to the well-being of the neighborhoods they serve.

Membership requirements and inclusivity

While credit unions used to have strict membership criteria, many have expanded their eligibility requirements in recent years. While some are still associated with specific employers, organizations, or geographic locations, others have opened their doors to a more diverse membership. It’s worth exploring the eligibility criteria of options in your area to see if you meet the requirements.

Access to surcharge-free ATMs

Credit unions often participate in nationwide networks that allow their members to use ATMs without incurring surcharge fees. This means added convenience for members who may be traveling or living outside their credit union’s immediate service area. The ability to withdraw cash without facing additional fees is a notable benefit for those seeking cost-effective banking solutions.

Technological limitations

While credit unions have made strides in adopting modern technology, some may still lack the advanced digital capabilities offered by larger banks. If online banking features, mobile apps, and cutting-edge technology are important to you, you’ll want to look closely at the offerings of the credit union you’re considering. Many credit unions are actively investing in digital infrastructure to enhance their members’ online experience, so there’s hope!

Limited ATM network

While credit unions often provide access to surcharge-free ATMs through shared networks, they don’t have as many branches and ATMs as larger banks. Before joining, consider whether the availability of ATMs aligns with your lifestyle and whether you are comfortable with potentially fewer physical branch locations.

The bottom line: Credit unions

Deciding whether to join a credit union ultimately depends on your individual preferences, financial needs, and priorities. If you value a member-owned structure, personalized service, lower fees, and community focus, it may align with your values. On the other hand, if advanced technology, extensive ATM networks, and a broader range of financial products are your primary concerns, a traditional bank might be a better fit for you.