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How To Join A Credit Union

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There are over 6,000 credit unions in the United States serving more than 118 million members. Credit unions are like banks in that they offer many of the same services – checking and savings accounts, credit cards, loans, mortgages, and more.

However, there is one key difference that sets credit unions apart – they are not-for-profit cooperatives owned by their members, not investors seeking to make a big profit. This fundamental difference allows credit unions to usually offer more favorable interest rates, lower fees, and better levels of service.

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Credit unions also tend to reinvest their earnings back into their local communities and members. So by banking with a credit union, you’re helping support initiatives and programs right in your community.

That’s why joining a credit union can be one of the smartest financial moves you can make. This comprehensive guide covers why you should join a credit union, how to find and pick the best one for your needs, eligibility requirements, and step-by-step instructions for becoming a member.

Key Takeaways

• Credit unions are member-owned, not-for-profit cooperatives that typically offer better interest rates on savings and loans compared to banks. They also have fewer and lower fees.

• Most credit unions now have open eligibility requirements beyond just employer groups or associations. You can qualify based on criteria like geography, family membership, or a small charity donation.

• Pick a credit union by evaluating convenience through branch and ATM locations, product offerings, rates, fees, and member satisfaction. Compare a few options first before deciding.

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• Becoming a member starts with applying online, making a small one-time charity donation, and then opening your primary regular share savings account with as little as $5.

• Shift your financial transactions from banks to your new credit union accounts to maximize benefits like earning higher interest rates and paying lower fees.

• Credit union members own the cooperative, have a voice in governance, support local community investment, and can take advantage of non-profit status through better rates and service.

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Why Join a Credit Union

Here are some of the biggest reasons why joining a credit union may be beneficial for your financial health:

Lower Fees

The average checking account at a big bank costs around $150 per year in various account fees like monthly maintenance, overdrafts, and ATM charges according to a Forbes Advisor study. Many credit unions offer free checking with no monthly fees or balance minimums. Even premium checking accounts at credit unions average under $5 per month.

That means you could potentially save hundreds per year just on the cost of maintaining an account. Credit unions can eliminate nuisance fees that squeeze bank customers because they are focused on serving members, not driving profits.

Higher Interest Rates

While interest rates remain near historic lows across all financial institutions, credit unions consistently pay higher yields on savings accounts and certificates than big national banks.

For example, high-yield savings rates currently average around 0.13% APY at big banks versus 0.61% at credit unions according to the National Credit Union Association (NCUA). Over time, that difference adds up.

Lower Loan Rates

When you need to borrow money, credit unions typically offer the most competitive rates whether you need a credit card, auto loan, personal loan, or mortgage. Average rates are usually between 0.5-1% lower versus big banks.

On a $250,000 mortgage paid over 30 years, a 0.5% lower rate could save over $30,000 in interest payments over the life of the loan. Maximize your buying power and reduce the total cost of all your borrowing needs with a credit union.

Personalized Service

Since credit unions focus on serving members rather than making profits for far-flung shareholders, you often benefit from more personalized customer service.

Developing a relationship with member representatives allows them to understand your full financial picture and unique needs to recommend the right products. Credit unions are also typically more flexible as they have more autonomy to work directly with members.

How To Pick the Best Credit Union For You

Deciding which credit union to join can feel overwhelming with so many to choose from. Here are the most important factors to consider in your search process:

Membership Eligibility

While credit union membership was historically limited by employer or location, most now have wide-open eligibility requirements. Determine which ones you are eligible to join based on criteria like:

• Place of employment
• Geographic area
• Group affiliations
• Family members

Many credit unions allow you to become eligible by simply joining an affiliated association for a small one-time donation to charity.

Branch and ATM Locations

Convenience is key – assess credit union locations near where you live, work, and frequently to ensure ample access. Search branch and ATM finders online or use locator apps to map proximity.

Some credit unions are part of shared co-op networks providing fee-free access to thousands more locations nationally. Compare networks for the widest reach.

Products Offered

Take inventory of your financial needs both now and anticipated in the future – savings/checking accounts, loans, credit cards, mortgages, investment accounts, etc. Make sure potential credit unions offer the necessary mix of services and features.

Also, determine whether digital product access like online/mobile banking and peer-to-peer payments is available if tech capabilities are important.

Rates and Fees

As we covered in the section outlining benefits, credit unions generally offer the best value. But there can still be major variances between institutions so always compare:

• Interest rates paid on deposit accounts
• Loan and credit card interest rates
• Balance minimums to earn interest
• Account fees like monthly maintenance

Finding a credit union that pays high deposit rates while also charging low loan rates and fees is the trifecta.

Member Satisfaction

Member feedback is invaluable during the vetting process. Check online customer reviews on sites like Google to gauge real member perspectives on things like branch service, digital product functionality, and loan rates/approvals.

Also, consider browsing social media or asking family/friends about their experiences to further evaluate their reputation.

Credit Union Membership Requirements

Now that you know how to evaluate credit unions, the next step is understanding the typical eligibility requirements to join. Membership criteria vary greatly between individual institutions but most fall into a few main buckets:

Employment

Some credit unions limit membership to employees of certain companies, industries like education or healthcare, or even self-employed occupations. Criteria can range from very narrow to quite broad.

Location

Geography remains the most common delineating factor for credit union eligibility. Many tie membership specifically to those living, working, or worshipping in certain counties, cities, school districts, or neighborhoods. Some have expanded to full statewide access.

Associational Groups

Affinity membership opens the door for people to join credit unions based on organizations or causes they support. Examples include university alumni associations, religious groups, electric cooperatives, volunteer fire departments, and more.

Family

Those related to people qualifying through employment or associational membership often can also join as a family member. This might encompass people like children, spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, adopted relatives, and even members of the same household.

How To Join a Credit Union

Once you have identified one or more promising credit union options that you qualify to join, here is the typical process to open membership:

1. Apply Online For Membership

Most credit unions allow you to pre-qualify and submit membership applications directly through their websites. Provide any required eligibility verification like your address, employment details, or association affiliation. Accept and agree to any terms/disclosures.

2. Make A Small Charity Donation

Oftentimes, you will be asked to donate a nominal one-time amount (usually $5-$25) to the credit union’s charity foundation. This step essentially takes the place of purchasing an equity share like you would join a traditional co-op business.

3. Open Your Primary Savings Account

To remain an active credit union member, you need to open and maintain a regular share savings account. This functions as your primary ownership account. The minimum opening deposit is typically just $5-$25. Be sure to fund the account within 30 days.

4. Select Additional Products/Services

With your membership established, you can now sign up online or visit a branch to open supplemental accounts like checking money market, and certificates. Apply for loans, credit cards, mortgages, investment accounts, safety deposit boxes, etc.

Begin by focusing on where you currently conduct key financial transactions like direct deposit payroll, monthly bill pay, debit card payments, withdrawals, etc. Then shift them over to your new credit union’s offerings.

5. Manage Your Membership

Once all your new accounts, payments, and transactions are in motion, you’re all set! As an owner-member, you have a voice in nominating the Board of Directors as well as voting on key credit union decisions. Attend annual meetings and maintain your eligibility.

Make the Move for Major Benefits

The bottom line is credit unions exist expressly to benefit their member-owners financially through better rates, lower fees, personalized service, and valuable community programs. So if you aren’t already a member, find one that you qualify to join and make the switch today for an immediate financial advantage.

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