The 5 Most Important Questions to Ask When Choosing a Credit Union
Credit unions are growing fast. During the past 10 years, they’ve gained roughly 28 million members. In 2018 alone, according to an article on credit union resource CUInsight.com, membership grew 4.5%.
So what's all the hype about? Should you believe it? And if you decide to sign up, how do you choose the right one for you?
When shopping for a credit union, there are a few things you will want to consider. Here are five questions that will help you find one that meets your needs.
Question No. 1: Credit union or bank?
Before you choose a credit union, decide whether you actually want to use one. The other option, of course, would be a bank—but banks and credit unions are different in a number of ways.
According to Adam Marlowe, the principal market development officer of Georgia’s Own Credit Union, credit unions are typically less motivated by bottom-line decision-making than banks. They are not-for-profit organizations governed by an elected board, and the decisions they make prioritize the needs of their members over profit.
“Decisions are made by real members, for real members, and each has a voice with their credit union board,” Marlowe said.
Question No. 2: Am I eligible?
Credit unions usually have eligibility requirements that members must satisfy in order to join.
Marlowe notes originally, credit unions were created to meet the needs of particular industries or neighborhoods that traditional banks were not able to serve. Since then, many have extended eligibility to larger communities—this means more opportunities to join.
Students, in particular, have many options, and Andrew Helling, finance expert and editor of REthority.com, encourages in-state college students to take advantage of college-sponsored credit unions. Many workplaces also have partnerships with credit unions. If neither is available to you, see what’s available in your area or consider online options.
Question No. 3: What are the interest rates?
Lending guidelines and interest rates are some of the biggest draws to credit unions. According to Helling, credit unions offer more flexibility when considering credit applications.
“Their goal is to serve the community, not turn a profit,” he said. “This usually results in looser credit standards, meaning you may qualify for a loan when you otherwise wouldn't at a bank.”
He notes that mortgage-shoppers, in particular, may want to consider credit unions—as a lower interest rate on a big-ticket loan could pay off big over time. And credit unions also may have good deals on car loans and credit cards.
But Helling also urges prospective members to always do their homework and check the rates that a particular credit union is offering. Low-interest rates and flexible lending are a huge advantage for consumers who are looking to finance a home, car, or education. So before you commit, compare interest rates and lending guidelines and join one that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
Question No. 4: Are there locations near me?
Location is everything, and with credit unions, it can even determine your eligibility. Helling’s advice is to go local and choose a credit union that with an easy-to-access location.. But keep in mind that credit unions are not like banks with hundreds of branches.
“The downside to credit unions is that many are small. Make sure they have multiple branches to make office visits easy,” Helling said. “If not, make sure they have a solid online platform.”
Question No 5: Are there any additional fees?
Just like banks, credit unions may charge their members fees, but membership should be free, according to Helling. So keep an eye out and avoid them if possible.
One common fee is a membership fee. It will vary, but might range from a one-time fee paid when the account is opened to a monthly charge. Since there’s no standard, shop around and find the best value.
Additionally, watch out for service fees. They may be charged on a variety of services, so be sure to review application materials carefully to avoid any surprises.
Credit unions offer many benefits. To find the best one for you, shop around, ask the right questions, and carefully read the fine print.
Adam Marlowe is the Principal Market Development Officer for Georgia’s Own Credit Union. With nearly 20 years of experience in the financial services industry, Adam has elevated the member experience at credit unions of all sizes throughout his career. He is charged with ensuring all Georgia’s Own teams stay aligned with the credit union’s brand and culture and recently received his second master’s degree in business administration from Georgia Southern University.