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Don't Be Fooled: Credit Union Customers Pay Fees, Too

Weighing the cost of credit union fees

Pentagon Federal Credit Union, more commonly known as PenFed, is an example of a national credit union with a reputation for having some of the steepest fees among financial nonprofits. They also offer just about the most competitive loan rates in the country, though. Depending on members' needs and goals, maintaining a $500 minimum deposit in a checking account to avoid a $10 monthly maintenance fee may be well worth it if banking with the credit union also provides the opportunity to finance a new car at just 1.49% APR.

In fact, credit unions consistently offer the best interest rates on deposit accounts and loans as compared with banks -- eight of the top 10 highest savings rates in the Go Banking Rates national database of interest rates today, for example, are offered by credit unions.

Further, credit unions also appear to be more financially stable than banks; CBS News reports that banks were five times more likely to have failed during the 2008 financial crisis than credit unions.

Even so, depositors whose top priority is avoiding fees should not write off banks as an option, nor should they blindly assume banking with a credit union will provide them a fee-free experience.

Banks no longer the bad guys?

Many big banks that have been given a bad rap for charging excessive fees, such as for checking accounts, will gladly waive these fees for customers who can offer loyalty and increased business. Most checking account fees are avoided by holding an additional account with a bank, such as a savings account, or by maintaining a minimum balance. Banks also generally waive fees for account holders who are financing a home or vehicle through the institution.

Though they offer a variety of benefits, Frank Sorrentino III, CEO of North Jersey Community Bank, told ABC news that credit unions "aren't necessarily the best place for people to keep their money," explaining that individual credit unions differ from each other, and some even charge fees "despite their claims otherwise."

Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance, believes the reason some credit unions charge fees is "because they can." He explains, "Many Americans still do not check their monthly bank statements, and many unknowingly pay these fees. The credit unions that remain fee-free are the ones that are truly committed to their customers."

Making the sweeping generalization that credit unions don't charge excessive fees is the same as saying all banks do. There is such diversity within the banking industry that it's important to investigate the individual characteristics of local financial institutions, rather than making assumptions based on the type of the institutions they are.

So what is a credit union member to do when fees become a problem? "There are still plenty of fee-free credit unions out there, and if you start getting charged at your current credit union, simply look elsewhere," Schrage says. "No matter where you go, however, make sure you check your bank statement each and every month for hidden fees or any errors."

Go Banking Rates connects readers with the best interest rates on financial services nationwide and posts informative personal finance content, news and tools.

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