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Posted at 01:07 PM ET, 10/18/2011

Everything you need to know about credit unions

Natalie P. McNeal is the creator of TheFrugalista.com and author of The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out Of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life, detailing how she got rid of $20,000 worth of debt while living life on the frugal side of fabulous. In this post she unveils the mysteries of credit unions and asks an expert on how they can help you.

Hey, Frugs! I know we’ve been rapping about Big Banks and fees for a while. A lot of people are saying that credit unions are the answer to saving our wallets from evil bank fees. Well, I asked Ondine Irving, credit union expert and owner of Card Analysis Solutions and CreditCardConnection.org, to do a Q&A with me so we can get the 411 on everything that we need to know about credit unions.

Here we go!!

1) Why should I consider a credit union for my banking needs?
There are more than 7,000 credit unions in the United States and virtually one for everyone. Credit unions are based on the principle of cooperatives. The investors of a credit union are its members- not Wall Street. Therefore, any profits made on loan interest income and fees are returned back to the members in terms of higher savings interest rates and lower loan rates. Profits of credit unions are not made to line the pockets of investors- profits at a credit union are returned to the members to help improve their financial lives. Most credit unions offer free checking, free debit cards, free credit cards and GREAT loan rates and savings rates.

2) What is a credit union and what can I use it for?
A credit union for all intents and purposes, offers the same services as any bank. Savings products include savings, checking, money market, CDs and IRAs. Some credit unions also have health savings accounts. Loan products include auto loans, mortgages, home equity loans, credit cards and other vehicle loans (including yes, some airplane loans, RV loans and motorcycle loans).

3) How may I find a credit union in my area? Is it possible?
The best site to locate a credit union in your area is www.ASmarterChoice.org. Most communities in America have community based credit unions- you simply have to live or work in their geographic area. In addition, affiliations with industries including the military, airlines, religious groups, municipalities, school groups, realtors, universities and most major employers have credit unions. If any of your family members belongs to a credit union, you are also eligible to join- make it a family affair.

4) What questions should I ask before joining a credit union?
Be sure the credit union is insured by NCUA (National Credit Union Administration). This is the government backed agency, just like the FDIC and your deposits are insured up to $250,000- just like the FDIC. Look for the NCUA logo on the credit unions website.

Credit union membership requires an initial deposit ranging from $5-$50, You will want to ensure this initial deposit remains YOURS and becomes part of your new savings account. Some credit unions (very few) have actually started a membership fee- and your initial deposit is indeed a fee and not your intial deposit. Again, this is very few credit unions, but I suggest not going this route. We are not talking about Costco or Sam’s Club membership fees.

If you are used to online banking, ensure your new credit union has an adequate online banking site which allows you to receive e-statements, online banking, transfers, account history, etc.

Also ask your credit union if they belong to the shared branching network. This give you the ability to conduct face to face transactions at other credit unions in your area- at a location most convenient for you.

Ask your credit union if they OWN their credit card program- or if a bank runs it. This will tell you a lot about the credit union’s philosophy on fees. Better yet, check out www.CreditCardConnection.org- these are all credit union owned credit card programs- so you will have a sneak peak into the credit union’s philosphy. In addition, if you are thinking of switching from a bank, most often it is easiest to get the ball rolling via the credit card product- and then delve into the checking/debit, with all the switches of payroll, auto deductions, etc.

5) I worry about ATM fees. I know my Big Bank has ATMs on every corner. What about credit unions?

Credit Unions belong to a nationwide surcharge free ATM network called CO-OP, the largest “credit union” only ATM network with access to 28,000 surcharge free ATMs nationwide. This includes 9,000 deposit accepting ATM’s and 5,500 7-Eleven locations throughout the U.S. and Canada. And as like banks, your ATM/debit card can be used at more than 800,000 ATMs worldwide via the NYCE, Cirrus, Pulse and PLUS networks. Click here for a locator link.

6) What websites should I look at to do more research on credit unions?

To find a credit union, the most comprehensive Credit Union locator that I prefer is www.ASmarterChoice.org.

To find a great credit union card, the best website is www.CreditCardConnection.org (this weeds out credit union card programs run by banks).

To find over 28,000 surcharge free ATMS, go to http://www.co-opfs.org/public/locators/atmlocator/index.cfm

To find any credit union branch, where you can conduct business with your credit union, go to Credit Union Service Centers. For information on government backed insurance (equivalent of FDIC) go to the NCUA Web site.

Ondine Irving has been part of the credit union community for more than 25 years with experience in operations, lending and product design.

Natalie P. McNeal is addicted to Twitter, so follow her @frugalista.

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