Credit unions duke it out with banks

By Gerri Willis, CNN personal finance editor

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Had it with your bank this year? It's time to start fresh. Continuing with our Financial Resolution series, we'll show you how you can join a local credit union.

Let's first take a look at how they work. Credit unions, unlike banks, are non-profit institutions. For you, that translates into lower fees and better rates. That's because profits tend to go back to members in the form of lower rates and fees rather than going to stockholders.

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Credit unions also don't pay taxes, so there's a lower cost of doing business.

But let's look at just what kind of rates you can get from a credit union versus a bank -- from DataTrac -- an independent research firm.

Keep in mind, this isn't a perfect world. Credit unions are just as vulnerable to a bad economy. So far this year, 23 credit unions have failed.

Credit union credit cards are also a bargain. According to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts, interest rates on credit union credit card are 20% lower than bank cards. Over-limit fees are $19 lower than at banks. And penalty interest rates at credit unions are 18% versus 29% at banks. In addition, 25% of credit union cards charge a fee to transfer a balance from another card, compared with 88% of bank cards surveyed.

But that's not to say a credit union credit card is for everyone. Rewards cardholders may prefer the more generous rebates of major bank card issuers.

Becoming a member of a credit union is usually based on where you live, who you work for, what you do for a living, or what religious community you belong to. Credit unions service those in the military, teachers, firefighters, policeman and people who work for specific companies.

To find out if you're eligible to join a credit union, go to And make sure the credit union is insured by the National Credit Union Administration -- that's the credit union's equivalent of the FDIC. Your money is insured up to the same limits as with a traditional bank.

-- CNN's Jen Haley contributed to this article.

Talkback: Are you thinking about leaving your bank? To top of page

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