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The little bank you did business with for years got swallowed up by a big conglomerate. You receive your monthly bank statement and the service fee has gone up-again-totaling well over a hundred dollars a year. You telephone this conglomerate bank, listen to recording after recording (including advertisements), then have to punch in dozens of numbers before you actually get to speak to a human being. What else can you do?

Join a credit union. Their fees are lower and interest rates are better, adding up to more dollars for you.

What exactly is a credit union?
It's a private membership institution. Unlike a bank that is open to anyone. Members' savings fund other members' loans. It's a low-cost method of serving the member's financial needs, unlike a bank that exists only to earn money for its owners.

Many large companies have employee credit unions, as do groups such as teacher organizations. To join any credit union, you must qualify by being part of the particular group.

Credit Unions were authorized by the Federal Credit Union Act of 1934.

What services do Credit Unions provide?
In short, many provide the same services as banks: checking and savings accounts, credit cards, a variety of loans (including auto) and mortgages. The generally offer fewer and lower fees than banks, have lower balance requirements, pay better interest on savings, and charge lower interest on loans. They also offer greater flexibility.

Are deposits insured?
Absolutely. The National Credit Union Administration-not the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that insures bank deposits-insures credit union deposits up to the same $100,000 level as the FDIC, both of which are backed by the United States government.

What are the drawbacks?
In a word, size. Smaller credit unions may not be able to offer all of the features that larger ones can or that banks can. Some may only do savings and loans. Bigger ones have more resources to offer credit cards, checking accounts and so on.

How can I find a credit union?
Check with your employer, your union or other organization of which you might be a member. You can also call the Credit Union National Association at 800-358-5710. You might have to call around to various credit unions to see if you qualify for membership, and then, of those that you do, determine which offer the services you require. If there's not one in your area, or one that you qualify for, there are national credit unions that you might be able to join.

If you're fed up with big banks, consider taking your business to a credit union.