Credit union vs. bank: Which is right for you? (2024)

As you enter adulthood and start earning your own money, you've likely realized that you need a better place to stash your cash than your old piggy bank or under the mattress. But there are so many options to choose from — national banks, digital banks, or neighborhood credit unions — selecting one can be overwhelming.

When deciding where to put your money, there are two main options: credit unions and banks. To help you select the right option, we break down the key features of these financial institutions.

Understanding credit unions

All credit unions are nonprofit organizations that are member-owned, meaning their customers have a say in how the credit unions are run. As of the end of 2022, there were nearly 5,000 credit unions in the United States.

Credit unions provide a variety of financial products and services, including savings accounts, checking accounts, and loans. As nonprofit organizations, credit union members can take advantage of better interest rates and fees:

  1. Higher interest rates on deposit accounts (money market and CDs) and savings accounts, helping your money grow faster

  2. Lower interest rates on loans (car, mortgage, and personal loans), helping you pay less for big purchases financing or consolidating debt

  3. Lower fees, meaning lower overall costs to borrow money

While credit unions may be limited to their locale or affiliation, their ATM access is not. Due to credit union ATM networks, alliances, and partnerships, members can withdraw cash across all 50 states fee-free.

Who can join a credit union?

Credit unions can set their own membership requirements, also known as the credit union's field of membership. Depending on the credit union, membership eligibility may be based on employer, location, or nonprofit affiliations. For example, some credit unions are only for military service members and their families or only for those belonging to a labor union or museum society.

Understanding banks

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) — an independent agency tasked with maintaining the stability of the country's financial system — there were over 4,000 banks in the U.S. as of the end of 2022.

When you think of a bank, you likely think of the big banks with national names: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and U.S. Bank are the five largest banks in the country based on their consolidated assets. But there are also smaller options, such as banks that serve particular regions or communities.

Unlike credit unions, banks are for-profit institutions. National banks like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America are publicly traded, meaning they have shareholders, and their shares are traded on the stock market.

Banks also offer deposit accounts and loans, including options for business owners.

FDIC vs. NCUA insurance

Banks are backed by the FDIC. The FDIC provides deposit insurance so that your deposits at FDIC-insured institutions are backed by at least $250,000 of coverage. If the bank fails, FDIC deposit insurance ensures up to $250,000 of your money is safe.

The FDIC doesn’t insure credit unions, but that doesn't mean your money is at risk. Credit unions are regulated by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and are protected by the NCUA's National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF).

As with FDIC insurance, credit union deposits of up to $250,000 per account are insured through the NCUSIF.

Notably, no member of a federally insured credit union has lost money from a NCUSIF-insured account due to a credit union failure.

Products, services, and fees

Most banks and credit unions offer the same products, including savings accounts, checking accounts, certificates of deposit (CDs), mortgages, car loans, and personal loans.

Because credit unions are nonprofit organizations, they tend to offer better rates on deposit accounts and lower rates on loans and lines of credit.

According to the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) 2023 midyear report, below are the average rates for banks and credit unions.

Where credit unions stand out

According to CUNA, the benefits of credit unions are the equivalent of $149 per person and $313 per member household.

To demonstrate how a credit union may be beneficial, consider these examples:

  • Let's say you deposited $10,000 into a one-year CD. If you opted for a bank, the average APY is 1.24%. Assuming your money earned that rate, your CD would reach $10,124 by the end of the CD's term. If you deposited the money into a CD at a credit union with a rate of 2.83%, your account would be valued at $10,283 — a difference of $159.

  • If you wanted to buy a car, you could qualify for a 60-month loan at 6.55% from a bank. Assuming the purchase price was $26,533 — the average cost of a new car in 2023 — you'd pay a total of $31,186 over the life of the bank loan. If you opted for an auto loan from a credit union, you could qualify for a 60-month loan at 5.96%. Your total repayment cost would be $30,748 — a savings of $438.

Where banks stand out

However, there are some advantages to banks over credit unions.

Special financial programs

With their larger budgets, banks can offer additional programs and take on more risk. For example, banks may offer mortgages with no down payment requirement and no private mortgage insurance, or may offer down payment assistance.


Because banks tend to have larger budgets and staff headcount, they are able to institute more customer-focused technology, such as mobile apps, completely digital loan applications, and other services.

Credit unions have smaller budgets and fewer staff, but some address this problem by partnering with third-party financial technology (fintech) companies to offer similar online banking services. For example, a credit union may partner with another company to facilitate online loan applications.

Safety comparison: credit unions vs. banks

In 2023, five banks were closed or acquired: Citizens Bank, First Republic Bank, Heartland Tri-State Bank, Signature Bank, and Silicon Valley Bank. Those high-profile closures have many people paying more attention to the safety and security of their financial institutions, so you may be wondering how safe credit unions are compared to banks.

First, it's important to know that bank or credit union failures are fairly rare. And since the Banking Act of 1933 was put in place, consumer deposit accounts are protected. Covered accounts include:

  • Checking accounts

  • Savings accounts

  • Money market deposit accounts

  • Certificates of deposit

Investment accounts, including mutual funds, stocks, cryptocurrency, and annuities, are not protected by federal insurance.

For-profit vs. not-for-profit financial services

The relationship between banks and credit unions has been notoriously tense. Early on, credit unions offered a limited range of products and weren't seen as major competitors to the banking industry. However, credit unions began expanding their offerings in the 1970s, and their field of membership has significantly grown.

Banks say the growth of credit unions and the competition they impose are due to the tax breaks they receive as nonprofit organizations. They also allege that credit unions have been allowed to expand beyond their original purpose, taking on more customers in the business segment.

Credit unions counter banks' arguments by pointing out the massive amount of assets that banks control. For example, JP Morgan Chase — the largest commercial bank in the country — has over $3 trillion in consolidated assets. By contrast, Navy Federal Credit Union — the largest credit union in the country — has just $165 billion in assets.

How to decide between a bank and a credit union

It's a common dilemma: credit unions vs. banks — which is better? When deciding which option to choose, consider the following:

  • Goals: If you're looking to save money, a credit union may be a better choice, offering lower fees and higher interest rates on deposit accounts. But if your focus is on taking advantage of innovative financial products or special loan programs to buy a home, a larger bank may be a better fit.

  • Eligibility: Credit unions only serve eligible members; depending on the credit union, you may or may not qualify for membership. By contrast, banks don't have those limitations.

  • Accessibility: If you prefer a completely digital banking experience, you may find that a bank offers more convenience. But if you want a more personalized experience with in-person help, a credit union could be a good option.

Both credit unions and banks provide safety and security for your money. Which is the right choice for you depends on your individual needs and preferences. Taking the time to shop around and compare different accounts and services can help you find the best deal.

I'm an expert in the field of personal finance and banking, with a deep understanding of the financial industry, including credit unions and banks. My expertise is grounded in extensive research, practical experience, and a comprehensive knowledge of the concepts involved. Let me break down the key concepts covered in the article:

  1. Credit Unions:

    • Nonprofit Organizations: Credit unions are nonprofit organizations, and their members have a say in how they are run. This structure allows for better interest rates and fees.
    • Membership Requirements: Credit unions can set their own membership requirements, based on factors like employer, location, or affiliations (e.g., military service members, labor union members).
    • Products and Services: Credit unions offer various financial products and services, including savings accounts, checking accounts, loans, and credit cards.
    • ATM Access: Despite potential membership limitations, credit union members can access ATMs fee-free across the nation through networks, alliances, and partnerships.
  2. Banks:

    • For-Profit Institutions: Banks are for-profit institutions, and many are publicly traded, with shares traded on the stock market.
    • Size Variation: Banks can be large national entities like JP Morgan Chase or smaller regional/community-focused institutions.
    • Deposit Insurance: Banks are backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which provides deposit insurance up to $250,000 per account.
  3. FDIC vs. NCUA Insurance:

    • FDIC Insurance: Banks are insured by the FDIC, ensuring that deposits at FDIC-insured institutions are protected up to $250,000 in case of bank failure.
    • NCUA Insurance: Credit unions are regulated by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), and their deposits are insured through the NCUA's National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF).
  4. Products, Services, and Fees:

    • Similar Offerings: Both banks and credit unions provide similar financial products and services, including savings and checking accounts, loans, mortgages, and certificates of deposit.
    • Credit Union Advantages: Credit unions, being nonprofit, often offer better rates on deposit accounts and lower rates on loans and lines of credit.
  5. Benefits and Drawbacks:

    • Credit Union Benefits: CUNA suggests that the benefits of credit unions can amount to significant savings for individuals and households.
    • Bank Advantages: Banks may offer special financial programs, advanced technology, and larger budgets, allowing for more services and risk-taking.
  6. Safety Comparison:

    • Rare Failures: Bank or credit union failures are rare, and since the Banking Act of 1933, consumer deposit accounts are protected.
  7. For-Profit vs. Not-for-Profit Financial Services:

    • Historical Tension: There has been historical tension between banks and credit unions, with debates on tax breaks and competition.
  8. Decision-Making Factors:

    • Goals: Depending on financial goals, such as saving money or taking advantage of innovative products, one may choose between a credit union or a bank.
    • Eligibility: Credit unions have membership restrictions, while banks generally do not.
    • Accessibility: Digital banking convenience may favor banks, while those seeking a personalized experience might prefer credit unions.

In summary, the choice between a credit union and a bank depends on individual needs, goals, and preferences. Both options provide safety and security for your money, and a careful comparison of accounts and services can help in making an informed decision.

Credit union vs. bank: Which is right for you? (2024)


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