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Your Financial Future:

Bye-Bye, Megabank?

Maybe it’s disgust over multimillion-dollar executive bonuses and multibillion-dollar federal bailouts, but consumers these days are looking for alternatives to big commercial banks.

And there are alternatives out there, including credit unions, community banks and online banks. Lower-income customers can even opt for limited banking or no bank at all.

“The good news for consumers is that there are plenty of fish in the sea,” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. “The financial services industry remains very competitive,” he says. “Sometimes it pays to be a free agent.”

Which I guess would describe me. I have a mortgage with a megabank, which gave me the lowest rate when I was refinancing. I have my savings and checking accounts and home equity line of credit with my credit union. And I have a money market account with an online bank, which offers a fairly high (by today’s low standards) interest rate and charges no fees.

Bankrate.com has done a lot to make comparison shopping for rates easier. It also offers its own ratings of the safety and soundness of financial institutions, using its own system of evaluating capital adequacy, asset quality, profitability and liquidity. But really, most of us are covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s coverage of up to $250,000 per depositor, which remains in effect until Dec. 31, 2013.

Consumer-friendly credit unions

“One of the most attractive alternatives to banks and thrifts for most people are credit unions, but not everyone can qualify for credit union membership,” says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

“While credit unions are not perfect and they sometimes charge relatively high fees, they are consumer-owned organizations,” he says. “They don’t rip people off, and they are relatively sympathetic if you have payment problems.”

One reason customers should take a look at credit unions, says Patrick Keefe, vice president for communications for the Credit Union National Association, is that “they’ll pay less in loan interest and get a better return on their savings.”

For a comparison, I checked on Aug. 3 the Datatrac ratings that CUNA updates daily on its website. Credit unions were paying interest on regular savings accounts at a rate of 0.44 percent, compared with an average of 0.31 percent for banks. Credit unions were also offering lower average loan rates for home equity lines of credit, credit cards and new car loans, but a higher average rate for 30-year fixed mortgages.

I’m a big fan of credit unions. My sister J.E. McNeil helped found the Houston Feminist Credit Union many years ago to help meet the needs of women, including single working women who found that, when they applied for mortgages, the banks wanted their fathers to cosign. And I’m on the supervisory committee of my own credit union, where I’ve continued to bank since I left the Washington Post.

Some disadvantages

But credit unions have their disadvantages too, including limited numbers of branches and ATMs. Fortunately, most of my income arrives via direct deposit, but when I receive a check from another source, I have to mail it in. Even though my credit union belongs to a network of ATMs, none of the ATMs that are convenient to me will accept deposits.

And even if you are a credit union member, it pays to shop around. For instance, you may find better rates on money market accounts at online banks, whose costs are lower because they don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence.

 

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