MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, many people opted to skip the crowds this year and to do at least some of their holiday shopping online. And yes, they may have saved time and money and hassle, but what about the small business owners whose livelihoods depend on bringing customers into their stores? We'll hear how technology is affecting competition between online and traditional brick and mortar stores. That's just ahead.
But first, as 2011 winds down, we're taking some time to offer a twist on the traditional end-of-year roundup here at TELL ME MORE and in fact across NPR. We're highlighting people, movements and ideas that had a good year, and today we're going to take a look at credit unions.
Credit unions counted more than a million new members this year, according to the Credit Union National Association, which said that 1.1 million new members were added through October of 2011. The latest American customer satisfaction index showed credit union satisfaction scores jumped seven points to record high of 87 out of a possible 100 points.
We wanted to hear more about why credit unions had such a good year, so we've called upon our regular contributor on matters of personal finance and the economy, our money coach, Alvin Hall. Welcome back, Alvin. Happy holidays.
ALVIN HALL, BYLINE: Happy holidays to you.
MARTIN: Well, first, tell us, how are credit unions different from regular banks or retail banks?
HALL: Credit unions are nonprofit cooperatives, so they can't issue shares to people at all and they are made up of a group of people who come together, basically to try to use their money in ways that will help that group of people have easier access to credit. Also get mortgages much more easily, but benefit the general population and sometimes the community.
MARTIN: So members of a union, for example.
MARTIN: Members of a particular employee group...
HALL: Armed forces division.
MARTIN: Armed forces division, like Navy Federal Credit Union. Many ads for them in the Washington, D.C. area. You know, I think that many people will intuitively understand what started the rush to credit unions this year.
Last month, for example, I spoke with Molly Catchpole, who was angry when her bank, Bank of America, planned to charge $5 a month to use debit cards for purchases. She started an online petition that gained hundreds of thousands of signatures in very short order. The bank eventually dropped the fee. I'll just play a little bit of that conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MOLLY CATCHPOLE: Customers have a right to protest when they're unhappy about something, and I think people haven't been protesting enough when they're unhappy about something, and I just kind of felt like that needed to happen.
MARTIN: Alvin, is it your sense that many people were actually motivated to join credit unions out of anger over fees like the one that got Molly Catchpole started?
HALL: Absolutely. First banks said, oh, don't write checks, we're going to charge you for checks, but if you use your debit card, it'll be okay. It'll be cheaper. And then all of a sudden they added fees for debit cards. It was just one step too far for many people, and they saw this as the banks using the small guy, the guy who may not be able to maintain that minimum balance, as the source of revenues. And people said I've had enough.
MARTIN: You know, there seems to be some data to support that point. There was a grassroots effort called Bank Transfer Day in which organizers urged big bank customers to switch financial institutions on November 5. And according to the Credit Union National Association - now, let's say that this is an industry trade group, but their data showed that almost 700,000 people did, in fact, join credit unions between September 29th and the first week of November. So it does seem as though there is a data point there.
But, Alvin, I have to ask, is there any down side to a credit union?
HALL: Well, it depends upon where you live. For example, if you live in an area where there isn't a credit union that's easily accessible to you, then transferring may be difficult. Also, credit unions typically don't have as many branches. They can be part of a broad network, but it may cost you to use some of those ATMs, some of those ones that are part of the other network. So there can be downsides.
You should always look to make sure it's appropriate for you, but what people like about credit unions is the fact that they seem to be much more personal. They're not there to try to exploit you. When they hear the term shareholder value these days from these big banks, they think, oh, the shareholder value will be the fees that they charge on my account, not that rich guy's account.
MARTIN: So it can be physically inconvenient, and if you want that personal service, it can be actually harder to get because you had to travel farther to go.
What if you don't belong to a union or an employee group or the military or other groups like that that automatically have a credit - or not automatically, but for whom credit unions have been longstanding? What do you do? And if you're interested in joining one, do you have any option?
HALL: It's hard to do that because I've thought about this. I actually am one of those people who left a big bank this year to move to a smaller bank that would offer me better customer service. And I personally couldn't find a credit union that was appropriate for me and my needs.
So I think that some people won't have that as an option, but if you look, maybe there's a group you can join, a church-related organization that's affiliated with a credit union. There are all these aspects of our individual lives which may give us access to one, but we have to do the research and that's important. Do your research. Make sure that the fees are lower. Make sure that it is convenient for you and that if you wanted to support a particular cause or something in your community that is actually doing it.
MARTIN: What about the regulatory framework? Who's looking over the shoulders of these institutions? Because obviously, you know, any institution can be subject to - you already told us that there isn't the same profit incentives because these are, by definition, nonprofits. They don't have shareholders to satisfy. They only have their customers to satisfy, but they still have to be run by somebody. Is there anybody looking over the shoulder of credit unions?
HALL: The same institutions. The same institutions. They have to be a member of the Federal Reserve system so your accounts will be insured. They have to meet all of the necessary requirements from the Federal Reserve banking system. All of those are set up. And then there's their own advocacy group, which is out there making sure that the rules and regulations are fair to them.
But, you know, Michel, that's also a very good question because if credit unions eventually become very successful as a result of this movement, they will capture the attention of the big banks and the big banks will then, I think, try to challenge them, if this movement continues.
MARTIN: And do you think - that is going to be my last question, actually, in the couple of seconds that we have left. Do you think that this move away from the big banks - and obviously, the big banks still have a huge, you know, share of the market. I mean 700,000 people sounds like a lot, but it is, in the big scheme of things, you know, most people still bank at one of these large retail institutions or their own bank, as we've discussed.
Do you think that this move toward credit unions will continue?
HALL: Yes, I do. I think it will gradually spread across the economy as more and more people are trying to save money, trying to use their money most effectively. Why do they want to pay these fees? And as one lady observed in some article that I read, you know that if a bank charged a fee yesterday and they may have pulled it back, they'll come up with another fee tomorrow because they're always looking for new fees or a way to try to make up for money that they feel they have lost as a result of new regulations.
MARTIN: Alvin Hall is our regular expert on matters of personal finance and the economy. He's our money coach and he joined us from our studios in New York. Thank you, Alvin, and Happy New Year.
HALL: Happy New Year to you.
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