Credit Unions vs. Big Banks: Where Should You Put Your Money?

In the wake of the financial crisis, the retail banks that so many millions of consumers relied on for decades suddenly became Public Enemy No. 1.

When Bank of America and Chase threatened to levy $5 monthly fees on debit cards in 2011, an entire holiday –– National Bank Transfer Day –– was created to encourage customers to cut up their credit cards and ditch big banks.

Millions have answered the call. In the last year alone, the credit union industry surpassed $1 trillion in assets, adding more than 2 million new customers.

But what if you’re not quite convinced credit unions are the right path for your finances? There are pros and cons to each option. Here’s a guide to help you choose:


Big banks: Probably the biggest reason retail bank customers are sticking with them is their accessibility factor. ATMs are typically plentiful and branches are open on the weekend if ever they need to make a quick withdrawal or deposit. On top of that, most major banks offer a wealth of mobile and online tools that make banking on-the-go a cinch.

Credit unions. Because credit unions are meant to serve local communities, they are most often not available outside of that area, and ATMs are practically nonexistent. To compensate, most credit unions will offer to reimburse customers for ATM fees if customers have to go out of network, which means you could basically use any ATM for free. And since many credit unions also offer mobile banking options, customers can search for nearby ATMs in their area. However, some credit unions cap the amount they’ll reimburse for ATM fees, typically around $15 per month.

The winner: Draw.

Checking Account Fees

Big banks. Big banks are notorious for levying major fees against customers for everything from overdrafts to monthly maintenance fees and they’ve only gotten worse. According to’s new semi-annual survey of bank fees, the average monthly maintenance fee rose by 18 cents to $12.26 –– that’s an extra $150 out of consumers’ pockets per year. Overdraft fees average more than $30. Banks are sticklers about overdraft fees, too, and have gotten flack in the past for mis-ordering transactions in a way that made customers overdraw their accounts unknowingly. And then there’s the charge for using out-of-network ATMs, which is now running at $2.60.

Credit unions. Unlike retail banks, which have large overhead costs and spend a lot of money to manage millions of accounts, credit unions are typically smaller operations and are able to pass on their overhead savings to customers. That means fewer fees across the board for the most part. More than 70% of the largest credit unions offer free checking, compared to 39% of banks, according Overdraft fees run around $20 to $30 a pop, and while many do charge monthly maintenance fees ($2 to $5), customers don’t have to keep anywhere near as much cash in their accounts to escape them ($30 or less in most cases), according to

The winner: Hands down, credit unions are friendlier on the fee front.

Interest Rates: 

Big banks. Good luck finding an interest-yielding bank account in this day and age. Interest rates fluctuate all the time, and even savings accounts at big banks are yielding next to nothing for account holders. We recommend doing your homework using a tool like Nerdwallet’s interest rate tracker or to compare interest rate offerings.

Credit unions. Credit unions are known for offering higher-yielding savings and checking accounts, but recently, they haven’t been much to call home about. A 2012 study by found that nearly 70% of major credit unions do not pay interest on checking accounts and those that do, yield an average of 0.12%, down from 0.17% last year.

The winner: Credit unions do offer higher yielding accounts, but rates are so low it’s probably not enough to convince bank customers to go through the hassle of switching banks.

Customer Service

Big banks. Banks had a better year with customers in 2012, scoring a 77 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index; an increase of 2.7% over the previous year. But the ACSI chalks up the gains mostly to JP Morgan Chase’s 6-point gain in customer satisfaction. It remains the nation’s largest bank, “but still trails the small banks, which tend to offer more personalized service, free checking, and lower fees,” the report says.

Credit Unions. As the saying going goes, more money means more problems. As credit unions have been inundated with new customers, their customer service rates have taken a hit. Customer satisfaction with credit unions fell 5.7% to an ACSI score of 82 in Dec. 2012, though it’s worth noting they were still rated the highest overall for banking services.

The winner: Once again, credit unions beat big banks. But as their customer base grows, it will be crucial for the industry to ramp up resources to meet demand.

THE VERDICT: Credit unions. 

We get it. Big banks are attractive, what with their vast array of credit products, flashy commercials and glossy logos. But for the most part, credit unions are hard to beat. If you are able to take advantage of a credit union and don’t mind the lack of ATMs and physical branches, they are by far the best option for banking today. At the very least, it’s worth opening a checking or savings account with a credit union, based on their fee structure alone. You’ll pay fewer fees and get more personalized services out of the deal as well.  If they don’t offer the credit products you like, trust us, banks will still be more than thrilled to take you on as a borrower.

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