Credit Unions: Better for College Students – and Many Others

A study of student checking accounts found credit unions usually beat campus banks. Other results: Average credit union rates are better on EVERYTHING, from checking to loans and credit cards.

Last week, we wrote about an analysis of senior checking accounts and mentioned a similar study of student accounts.

A company called NerdWallet then contacted us about some research of their own on student checking accounts, comparing on-campus banks and credit unions. Some quick findings…

  • Credit unions have a lower average overdraft fee: $28 compared to banks’ $35.
  • Credit unions are more likely to offer free student checking: 99 percent to 82 percent.
  • Credit unions have an average of almost twice as many ATMs within a mile of campus as banks do: 7 to 4.
  • Credit unions are more likely than banks to have a branch on campus: And they’re less likely to have out-of-network ATM fees.

As college classes ramp up for the new school year, those numbers should grab students’ attention. But the specifics are what matter. For that, NerdWallet has created a best student checking tool to compare campus banks and credit unions at more than 80 U.S. universities. (Last week, we wrote about their neat tool to look up the taxes major companies pay.)

Credit unions are also a good place for students and recent grads to build credit, because they’re often more flexible with lending. But they might make sense for anybody, not just students. Check out this video Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson shot a couple of years ago, offering five reasons to join a credit union. While the numbers may have changed, these reasons haven’t…

Let’s recap and expand on the points Stacy made…

1. Lower loan rates

According to the latest data from independent national interest rate-tracking service DataTrac, the average credit union rate on a car loan is 1.5 to 2 percentage points lower than at a bank. Home equity lines of credit average about half a percentage point lower. Mortgage rates are pretty competitive – within a tenth of a percentage point on average.

2. Higher savings rates

The same data from above shows savings rates at credit unions beat the banks by an average of 0.2 to 0.35 percent on savings accounts, including basic checking and savings, CDs, and money market accounts.

3. Better credit card deals

The same data says average credit card rates are almost 2 percentage points lower at credit unions than banks. Credit unions also tend to have fewer, and lower, fees.

4. Easier borrowing

While few big banks would make what’s called a “signature loan” – an unsecured loan guaranteed only by your signature – credit unions usually will do this for members with good credit.

Credit unions are also a good source for small business loans, and they’d like to be better. Credit union business loans are capped at 12.5 percent of assets, something they’d like to change.

5. Equal convenience

One argument in favor of big banks is that they have more branches, making your money more accessible. But how often do you visit your brick-and-mortar bank these days, when regular bills can be automated online and purchases can be made with a wave of your phone?

Even if physical locations are important to you, many credit unions belong to a shared branching network that allows members of one credit union to conduct business at any other member credit union anywhere in the country – even overseas. There’s an app to find the nearest participating credit union.

6. Lower fees

For the past couple of years, banking fees have risen and are appearing in new places, while the majors have struggled to keep up profits after the financial reforms of the Dodd-Frank Act.

But credit unions are nonprofit – a key reason their deals are typically better. Whether it’s fees to keep up a checking account, foreign ATM fees, or overdraft fees, they’ll probably be lower, or the requirements to waive them will be simpler.

7. Human beings answer the phone

Big banks are national – they serve a lot of people. As you know if you’ve ever called customer service numbers, you can expect to please press 1 to press 5 to press 3 to listen to awful music and wait a while to speak to someone who can fix something that shouldn’t be broken in the first place.

Credit unions are typically far smaller, so the odds are much greater that you’ll be talking to a live person quickly.

Sounds great. How do I sign up?

Once upon a time, joining a credit union meant you had to work at a specific company, or be a member of a specific organization or profession. Laws still require credit unions to have a defined group of members, but that definition can be broad – like a community.

About a quarter of the almost 8,000 credit unions nationwide are community-based, meaning you only have to live, work, or attend school in the right city or county to qualify. Being related to another member could qualify you too.

You can look up credit unions and their qualifications in many places, including Find A Credit Union, CU Lookup, and at the Credit Union National Association site.

And once you’re ready to get out of your abusive banking relationship, here’s a lifeline: 6 Steps to Ditch Your Bank Without Fees and Hassle.

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