A credit union can be a more rewarding option when you're saving for a rainy day and looking for a safe place to keep your cash, or a more frugal choice when you're planning for major life events and want lower interest rates on loans.
Credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives that offer banking and related services to their members. You effectively become part owner of a credit union when you join, receiving shares when you open an account.
To become a credit union member, you must meet its eligibility requirements. Every credit union has different rules on who can join. Those rules are usually based on where you work, live, worship or go to school. You may also qualify if you belong to a specific group, such as a labor union, service organization or special interest association, or if someone in your family meets one of these tests. Once you're in, you can be a member for life.
Federal regulations require new credit union members to provide valid identification that shows legal name, date of birth and home address. That includes such thing as a driver's license, state-issued ID card or passport. Depending on the membership requirements, you may need to present additional documents, such as an association card, school or work ID or paycheck stub.
Compared with big for-profit financial institutions, credit unions can provide advantages because they aren't focused on generating earnings for shareholders. The upshot can be lower interest rates on home equity, personal and auto loans and better returns on savings than those offered by traditional banks. Some services, such as access to cash machines and checking accounts, may also have lower fees. Many credit unions also supply free or low-cost financial guidance to members, including advice on how to pay for college, and financial education resources.
The National Credit Union Administration, a federal agency, oversees an insurance fund that backs credit union members and their money, generally up to $250,000 (PDF).
If you're looking for a safe place to keep your funds — and a place where it will work for you — a credit union can be a good choice. When you meet the eligibility criteria, you're all set to take advantage of the benefits they offer.
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