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Credit unions have historically had a special place in the U.S. economy. These community-based banks are, in effect, not-for-profit financial institutions owned by their depositors. That means by design credit unions have a vested interest in keeping the cost of services like loans and banking fees low for their customers, while offering competitive rates.
On the other hand, credit unions don’t enjoy the same economies of scale of larger banks, which means they struggle to afford higher costs of adopting the latest mobile banking technology or toll-free telephone banking services. So it may be fair to ask if, by joining a credit union, you may be trading lower fees for some inconveniences, such as likely incurring more out-of-network ATM fees and shorter banking hours.
In a new study, MagnifyMoney figured out which credit unions are the true standouts when it comes to offering consumers the same conveniences of a big bank.
We collected information on the 50 largest credit unions (by assets) in the U.S., and ranked their relative convenience in five separate categories:
We found many credit unions have also used technology to their advantage, by creating services that are nearly as good as those provided at larger banks. Some credit unions even share their branches with one another, allowing, for example, a credit union member on the East Coast to use branches and ATMs from a different credit union in California.
These credit unions excelled in many, if not all, of the five criteria we used to measure relative convenience. In general, they all offer longer-than-average branch hours; extended personalized telephone service (many open 24 hours); surcharge-free ATM networks; decent smartphone apps; and the ability to track your credit union transactions from applications outside of the website.
Traditional bank branches have been closing in droves. There are nearly 5,000 fewer bank branches today than five years ago, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation data. Meanwhile, credit unions have grown their modest footprint, with the average credit union having more branches than three years ago.
One aspect that allows credit unions to artificially expand their branch reach even further is by belonging to a cooperative that offers the same services you might receive in your hometown credit union branch. The Co-op network, one of the largest, allows its member credit union to share activities like teller deposits and withdrawals at over 5,600 credit union branches nationwide.
But locally, extended hours still count, so we checked the working hours of credit union branches of the 50 largest credit unions. All but two credit unions had branches that were open on average of more than 40 hours per week.
Even 40- to 60-hour branch hours aren’t always convenient if you have, for instance, a long commute or unusual working hours yourself. So we also wanted to see how personalized phone services were at these credit unions.
We were surprised when early one New York morning we decided to call Alaska USA Federal Credit Union, where it was really early (4:30 a.m.). Nonetheless, the representative indeed answered, and confirmed that banking assistance was available 24 hours a day. (To be fair, Alaska USA also has branches on the West Coast of the continental U.S.).
But seven other credit unions also offer round-the-clock telephone assistance, which may come in handy for procrastinators, or simply those who like to bank in the dead of night.
If you can live without features like sending money on a separate mobile app like Venmo, credit union apps can be just as effective as those provided by the big banks, just with a little less bling and pizazz.
We annually rank the best smartphone apps of both banks and credit unions at MagnifyMoney, but have never looked at credit union apps separately.
As it turns out, most have relatively good ratings (as defined by iPhone and Android smartphone users). Of the 10 best-scoring credit unions, all but one ranked as high or higher than apps of the three largest brick-and-mortar banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo). The credit union apps have all the features of those of larger banks, like deposit-by-photo and ability to check balances without logging into the app.
In addition, all of these credit unions allow you to download your transaction history to budget apps like Quicken and Mint.com.
Banks typically charge around $3.00 for a using a non-network ATM for cash withdrawals. Often, you get dinged for fees both coming and going by using the “wrong” ATM — once by the bank that owns the machine you use, and again by your own bank. By participating in surcharge-free ATM networks like CO-OP and Allpoint, credit union members can avoid these fees.
And with these ATMs available in many drug stores and other nationwide retail chains, you can be reasonably certain you won’t incur surcharge fees on your next out-of-town trip.
MagnifyMoney collected information on the 50 largest credit unions (by assets) in the U.S., and ranked their relative convenience in five separate categories:
Each category represented 20% of the credit union’s overall score. The highest score was 90.0 (out of 100) and the lowest score was 46.6. Credit union data was collected in November 2017 for mobile app ratings, and in February 2018 for all other categories.