By Robert McGarvey
The nearest branch of my credit union is 2,400 miles to the east, meaning it is on the other side of the country. But you know what?—I get the services I need regardless of the physical separation, thanks to advantages that give credit unions an edge over big banks—advantages that are almost industry secrets.
That they are almost a secret, particularly to consumers, should bother you. It’s an opportunity squandered, in my opinion.
When I look at any article that sums up the top reasons consumers cite for not joining a credit union, on the list—just about every time—is the claim that credit unions do not have enough branches, joined by the worry that there are no nearby ATMs and, definitely, the typical credit union does not have enough ATMs. So consumers seem to believe.
Pretty much universally.
How can that be?
What’s especially sad about the outcome—where many people feel credit unions couldn’t work for them—is that for most consumers a credit union will be a better deal. The 2016 Bankrate survey said 76% of credit unions offer free checking, up from 72% in 2015—but misconceptions are keeping those potential members away.
Look at ATM access and know that the numbers don’t lie. Many credit unions not only offer free checking, with no minimum balance, but they also have more ATMs available to members with no surcharges.
Another Bankrate data dump pinpointed the largest bank owned ATM fleets and, in sixth, with 4775, is BMO Harris. Fifth is US Bancorp with 5001. Fourth is PNC with 8996. Third is Wells Fargo with 12800. Second is Bank of America with 16062. The top spot belongs to Chase, with 18623.
No single credit union has an ATM fleet that belongs on that list, not even close. But it doesn’t matter because credit unions have a powerful edge that changes the game. They work together to help their members.
The CO-OP ATM fleet numbers about 30,000, according to that CUSO.
The CULIANCE surcharge free network, by its count, has three times as many surcharge free ATMs than the biggest bank. It also has more than CO-OP.
Belong to a credit union that participates in one of those networks and just about wherever you go there is a surcharge-free ATM. There are maybe six surcharge-free ATMs within a mile or two of where I live in Phoenix, for instance.
The deal offered by the big banks gets rawer. Use a non-network ATM when you are a Chase customer and you will be charged $2.50 by Chase, plus whatever fee the ATM owner imposes. Ditto for Bank of America customers.
Who has more convenience? Not the Chase customer.
What about deposits? Easy: Mobile Remote Deposit Capture. If you can take a picture with a smartphone, you can use MRDC to instantly deposit into an institution cross country. I use it frequently.
Or use surcharge-free deposit taking ATMs. There’s one a half-mile from my home. That network, too, is another credit union edge.
There are also two shared branching locations at credit unions within a mile of me. It’s a service I have never used—I’m a fan of digital banking—but for those who want personal, face-to-face interactions with tellers, it’s available to credit union members, pretty much anywhere in the US. That’s a third big edge.
You know all this. Why don’t more consumers?
Here’s the money question: why do so many people say they would join a credit union, citing a lack of nearby branches or ATMs as their only impediment, when this this impediment doesn’t actually exist?
With the networks available to credit union members—networks that leverage the co-operative fundamentals of every credit union—a member who belongs to one of the tiniest credit unions can have ready access to a massive and global ATM network, plus shared branching for those who want it.
Not all credit unions belong to these networks, but well over half do.
Not every member needs network access and for those who live or work near an ATM or branch and don’t travel that much, it won’t matter.
For those who live a mobile lifestyle—and especially for those who live at some distance from their credit union—join a credit union that belongs to larger networks and the services are the equal of a giant bank’s.
Yet that is not widely understood, and this is a pity.
Why has there been so much silence about these powerful credit union advantages?
Of course some credit unions are more comfortable selling themselves—not the broader concept of credit unions. But listen up: the way to supercharge the credit union pitch is precisely to double down on the credit union story of cooperation and how, with many joining together, each gets stronger.
That’s how to get across the message that, together, any credit union is bigger than the biggest bank. Bigger and also better.