No Fees, No Bailouts. America ditches banks for credit unions.

People at occupations all over the world are focusing their anger on the consumer banking industry. There is outrage at the massive bonuses handed out after a taxpayer-funded bailout, anxiety about the banks’ ability to dictate government policy and fear that not enough is being done to keep something like 2008’s collapse from happening again. But after the public outcry that caused banks, most notably Bank of America, to retreat from putting new fees on debit card use, consumers are looking for new ways to store their money.

At a big bank, large shareholders and the board of directors make the decisions. The bank invests depositors’ money and charges them fees to make as much profit for its shareholders as it can. When someone puts money in a credit union, however, she is a member and an owner. The board of directors controlling investments is made up of elected, unpaid members.

The structure of credit unions tends to make them treat depositors well, said credit union historian and proponent Matthew Cropp. “It simply doesn’t make sense for a credit union to try to screw its customers, since any extra money made is simply returned to the members” in the form of better rates and free services, he said. Those services often include reimbursement of ATM fees, since many credit unions do not have their own ATMs.

John Bratsakis, president of the Maryland and DC Credit Union Association, said there were big spikes in membership as the financial crisis unfolded, and after the announcement of new debit card fees. “It seemed like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “People said, ‘I’m gonna go out and look for an alternative.’” In fact, the Independent Community Bankers of America polled their member banks and found 60 percent had seen an increase in new accounts.

Supporters like Cropp say the structure encourages safer investing as well. They cite, for instance, that credit unions engaged in little subprime lending — lending to riskier borrowers at higher interest rates — and fared far better in the fallout from the 2008 housing market crisis. Corporate banks, meanwhile, are more willing to make risky decisions because they risk other people’s money, he said, and deposits are insured by the Federal government.

Cropp is disappointed that the bailouts saved the “reckless and corrupt” corporate banks at the expense of responsible institutions. The bailouts, he said, “functioned to protect the wealth, power and market share of the very institutions that caused the crisis, while robbing their alternative competitors of the opportunity to reap the rewards of their prudence.”

Small community banks have long been a refuge for those concerned about entrusting their savings to gigantic banks. But sometimes small community banks are bought out by behemoths.

In the Washington, D.C. area alone, customers of Adams National, Provident Bank, Chevy Chase Bank, and Wachovia Bank have found their institutions disappear into Premier Bank, M&T Bank, Capital One and Wells Fargo respectively.

Not surprisingly, federal government employees have a variety of credit unions to choose from in the D.C. area. But for those not eligible for a credit union through their employers, there are institutions that base membership on church affiliation or place of residency.

CommonWealth One Federal CU — www.cofcu.org
Open to all residents of the D.C. metropolitan area. Commonwealth’s policy is: Once a member, always a member.

District Government EFCU — www.dgefcu.org
Established for D.C. government employees, but also open to residents of neighborhoods including Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights. See the website for details.

USAA — USAA.com
Though it was started as a credit union for military servicemembers, and though its insurance products are still restricted to that community, checking, savings and credit cards products are open to all.

Agriculture Federal Credit Union — agriculturefcu.org
Open to all “who work, worship, volunteer, attend school in, and businesses and other legal entities in the District of Columbia.”

Signal Financial – www.sfonline.org
Open to all who “live, work, attend school, or worship in Washington, D.C. or inside the beltway in Prince George’s County.” Occupy DC is a member!

Websites to help you in your search:

www.cuna.org — Credit Union National Association

www.findacreditunion.com — search by area of residence or affiliated groups

www.creditunionsonline.com

www.creditunionaccess.com

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