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Credit unions: A haven from hungry banks

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Stacie Spring is a general assignment reporter for the East Valley Tribune. Contact her at (480) 898-5645 or sspring@evtrib.com

Posted: Friday, October 14, 2011 6:45 am

When Bank of America announced last month that it would charge $5 each month that a debit card was used, and the Associated Press reports that Wells Fargo and Chase are testing $3 fees, I again became grateful I belong to a credit union.

Credit unions are not for profit and all money that they make is passed back to members. Yes, “members,” not customers. Generally, this also translates to higher return rates on savings and lower interest rates on credit cards than banks, among other benefits.

The first time I remember getting that feeling of relief was during the college check-in process my freshman year. Wells Fargo was practically part of check-in and nearly everyone around me was signing up for new checking accounts since their old bank didn’t have easily accessible branches.

However, I knew I could use shared branching (which allows credit union members to use other credit unions’ services and facilities) and online banking for all of my needs. There are over 6,000 shared credit union branches available to members, which can make travel anywhere in the country easy.

When I started working at a restaurant on Mill Avenue later that year, I deposited my checks at Desert Schools Federal Credit Union. There, I could also withdraw money from my checking account as well. And the best part was I didn’t have to pay any fees.

While my college roommate bemoaned an increase in annual fees on her credit card, I didn’t have to worry about it. I’ve never paid an annual fee on mine.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been a lifetime member of my hometown credit union. A savings account was opened for me shortly after I was born. I received my first debit card when I was 13 years old. At 16, I opened another account called “Send Stacie to Australia,” something I’m still putting money into.

Like many 18-year-olds, I got my first credit card right before heading off to college — for emergency purposes only, of course. But beyond using it for online purchases and textbooks, I was starting to build my credit.

All of this was opened through the local credit union where my mom worked. While I may not have always been the most responsible of my family when it comes to money, I learned a lot from her.

Besides her work ethic, starting at the credit union as a file clerk (while they still had those) to eventually retiring after 26 years with the credit union as the vice president of administration without a college degree, my mom taught me a little bit about personal finances. Okay, she basically taught me everything I know.

As I just begin entering the world of bills, regular paychecks and 401(k) accounts, having a knowledgeable financial “consultant” has been priceless.

For instance, she taught me that it’s a lot easier to cancel a stolen debit card than it is to recover stolen cash. And since I got a debit card basically as soon as I started babysitting as a teenager, I’ve grown up using “plastic.”

This is why it seems like these banks are backtracking. Like many of my generation, I’ve grown up using debit and credit cards and cash is not something I carry all the time.

The banks report the fee for debit use is only in months when the card is used and that using it at bank ATMs won’t earn the customer a fee. But I’m not alone when I say that I don’t think I’ve ever gone a month without using my debit card, especially since I now use it for nearly everything, including gas, groceries and entertainment expenses.

I have no intention of switching to cash and cash is more of a hindrance than anything else. Who wants to carry around heavy change and a wad of bills?

Some people say they like using only cash because they know when it’s gone, it’s gone. But I like having the ability to look online at my purchases and analyze what I’m spending my money on.

So for the few who opt not the accept banks’ fees on something that has become less of a perk and more of a necessity, I suggest checking out your local credit union.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-5645 or sspring@evtrib.com

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