Credit unions charge substantially lower and many fewer fees than banks - that is fact proven in survey after survey. Which raises the question: Why don’t you belong?

There are two reasons, said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. The first: “Many people mistakenly believe they are not eligible for membership. Often they are.”

Reason two, said McBride, is that many of us have fled to what we perceive to be the most financially secure and safe options - that’s big banks, in most minds, said McBride. And yet federal credit union deposits are insured by the U.S. government through an agency called the National Credit Union Administration.

Which means the big reason we don’t join is that we - mistakenly - think we can’t. Don’t you have to work at a particular company or belong to a particular labor union to join a credit union? Used to be so. No more.

Fact: there are many hundreds of credit unions with wide open membership and included are some of the nation’s biggest, with a range of services that rivals big banks.

Is it worth switching to a credit union? “It’s important for the consumer to shop around and get the best deal," McBride said. "That includes checking accounts.” When Bankrate looked at fees and credit unions, not only did it find that most offer free checking with no minimum balance - 72% of credit unions in a recent Bankrate survey - it also found that they generally charge lower fees for the same services than do banks. For instance, the average credit union overdraft fee is $26.78. The average bank overdraft fee, per Bankrate, is $32.74.

“Credit unions are not for profit cooperatives that are owned by their members,” said McBride. Rather than passing profits to shareholders - the norm at banks - credit unions pass the savings to members-owners.


PR consultant Bill Corbett added that another credit union advantage is “they have staff members who are typically focused on the members’ best interest and goals. Members are neighbors and friends. They seek to provide them options that allow them to achieve goals and reduce costs.”

Cases in point of credit unions with open membership include:

* BECU. Said Tim Lucas, editor of MyMortgageInsider.com, “There is a credit union here in Washington State called BECU. The acronym stands for Boeing Employees Credit Union. It used to be available to Boeing workers. However, now it is open to all Washington residents.” Lucas is right. BECU membership is available if “I live, work, worship, or attend school in Washington state,” according to the website. Past and present employees of Boeing can join. Ditto their relatives. That’s why BECU now has about 940,000 members.

* NASA Federal Credit Union. How cool is this: you can join the credit union created to serve employees of the federal agency. How? NASA FCU explains on its website: “A complimentary membership to the National Space Society (NSS) entitles you to join NASA FCU.” That organization, incidentally, was founded by Werner von Braun, one of the pioneers of America's rocket programs.

* Fort Knox Federal Credit Union. This screams safe. Originally founded to serve employees of Fort Knox, membership was extended to anybody in Kentucky and nowadays, wherever you are you can join. Here’s what the website says: “If you can't find an eligibility requirement to match your situation, you can still join the credit union. Just select the ‘I'm eligible for membership through’ drop down to the left and choose the ‘other’ option. “

* PenFed aka Pentagon Federal Credit Union. The nation’s third largest credit union, with 1.3 million members, primarily serves current and former members of the military. But it does not want to turn you away. Says PenFed on its website, “Members of the National Military Family Association and Voices for America's Troops are among those eligible for PenFed membership. We've made it easy for you to join one of these associations, which makes you eligible to join PenFed.” A donation of $14 or $15 gets you in.

* Self-Help Federal Credit Union. The name makes it hard to resist and a $5 membership fee paid to the Center for Community Self-Help gets you in.

* State Department Federal Credit Union. Once a limited membership pool, SDFCU now is open to employees at literally hundreds of companies, mainly in metropolitan Washington, D.C. But you also can join the American Consumer Council - $5 - and that qualifies you for SDFCU membership.

You’re thinking about yet another credit union? Ask them bluntly if you can join. Most are happy to embrace new members, and they may find a way.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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