People have associated banks with trustworthiness, longevity and stability in the financial world – at least, until recently. With the shake-down of the financial markets and the collapse of many financial institutions, many of us are starting to question if banks are the best way to store, transfer and save our money.

TUTORIAL: Banking

Misconceptions About Credit Unions
Jenn Cloud, the Young and Free Spokesperson for Vantage Credit Union, notes that credit unions are often mistaken for "a payday lender or some exclusive club that requires you to be a part of a union or work in a certain field to join." But, continues Cloud, neither of these misconceptions are true. So if you're considering a credit union instead of a bank, there are quite a few reasons to make the jump.

Friendliness and Accessibility
Big banks can seem cold, formal and even unreachable. It often seems that branch managers don't have the authority to make the decisions to help you, or that the bank itself is so enormous it doesn't really care about having your business. Credit unions can be friendlier in atmosphere and tone, and simply more accessible on every level. According to Cloud, "being smaller and local allows them to be very connected to their neighborhoods and versatile to respond to feedback."

A Co-Op, Not a Corporation
Credit unions often consider themselves "financial cooperatives" rather than financial institutions. The goal is not to make more money from customers, but to "address a common need through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise," according to the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union.

Nothing to Lose
According to Cloud, the only standard requirement for membership in most credit unions is that you live in the area. According to Cloud, credit unions offer all the same services as banks: "checking, saving loan and investment options."

It's a Democracy
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of credit unions is that they are member-owned and member-run. Credit unions are free to make decisions to benefit their members, rather than seeking to please "some removed group of stockholders somewhere," says Cloud.

Better Rates
"Being member-owned generally allows the rate of returns on savings accounts to be higher and the interest rates on loans to be lower than at a bank," notes Cloud.

The ability to make money on your own money is a huge step in the right financial direction, but something that's often out of reach at a corporate bank unless you reach a high dollar balance in your account. Since profits to stockholders aren't a part of the company vision, credit unions are free to pass surplus money on to members, "in the form of fewer fees, more services, lower interest on loans and higher dividends on deposits."

Cool Perks and Free Education
Some credit unions, such as Vantage, offer fun and useful products such as individual health and pet insurance and financial advisory services, says Cloud. Most credit unions focus on community enrichment and financial education, with many offering free classes or other means of education to the community.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to banking services, credit unions offer the same menu of financial services that you'll find at large banking corporations. If you're frustrated with long lines and unresponsive customer service, a credit union might just be the best place to put your money. It's tough to beat a place that's community-focused, friendly and offers better interest rates. (For more on credit unions, read Tired Of Banks? Try A Credit Union)

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