Except that millions of Americans are second guessing their decision to bank with Wells Fargo, not much has changed since the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced the massive fake accounts scam perpetrated by Wells Fargo on its own customers. Predictably, a few proposed class action lawsuits have been filed by Wells Fargo customers, shareholders, and former employees alike.
Americans expressed outrage over the first highly publicized banking scandal in a few years, and observers on both sides of the political aisle cheered Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) much-deserved verbal spanking of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf during a Senate Banking Committee hearing.
That video never gets old.
Industry analysts say that the Wells Fargo scandal has damaged the bank’s reputation, but there is no indication that a mass exodus has occurred among the bank’s customers.
Why not? So-called “stickiness.”
When a company — any company — has a customer so deeply entrenched that an extraction is complicated, lengthy, costly or intimidating, the customer has more incentive to stay than to leave. And that’s problematic.
But it’s not unfixable. When the news of Wells Fargo’s fraudulent account scheme broke, I vowed to leave Wells Fargo for a local credit union. Wanting to feel empowered, and not just moving on — but moving up — I researched the benefits of credit unions to find out what it would take to live up to my word and tell Wells Fargo, “Buh-bye.”
Here’s what I learned.
What’s a credit union?
If you’ve never belonged to a credit union, you might not know what one is. That’s right, I said belong. Credit unions are not-for-profits that serve their members, and if you open an account with a credit union, you become a member. As a not-for-profit, credit unions don’t have shareholders, so its decisions are made with the interest of the membership in mind. Credit unions are also cooperatives. So if you’re a member, you’re an owner. They don’t have to keep earning money, they just have to break even.
What’s in a name?
You may have noticed some credit unions have particular names. Each credit union is either state or federally chartered, and has a particular field of membership. For example, the world’s largest credit union, Navy Federal, is only open to active and retired members of the Armed Services, reservists and Dept. of Defense civilian employees and their families. Some other credit unions extend membership to a geographic region, such as Boeing Employees’ Credit Union, which serves current and former employees of The Boeing Company and their families, as well as residents of Washington State. Sometimes your affiliation with a school or place of worship can render you eligible for membership in a credit union. Therefore, you’ll have to do some minimal research to determine which credit unions you’re eligible to join.
Make a plan.
Not unlike the diet you say you’ll start on Monday, you have to put your bank departure plan into action and commit to it. “There is a perception among consumers that the process of changing financial institutions takes a long time, and so people don’t make it a priority,” says Todd Pietzsch, a spokesman for Boeing Employees’ Credit Union (BECU), one of the nation’s largest. “In reality, it takes about 30 to 45 days to move direct deposits, then automatic payments, and monitor the balances of both accounts during that period.”
“Getting that ball rolling is well worth it,” says Lynn Heider, a spokeswoman for Northwest Credit Union Association, a trade group representing credit unions in the Pacific Northwest. “The average household saves hundreds of dollars in fees every year over retail banks, and that alone makes the decision a no-brainer.”
Discover the benefits.
For the vast majority of consumers, credit unions offer banking services comparable to those of traditional banks. Whether you’ve been a retail bank customer because that’s what your parents did, or because of a convenient branch location, there’s a common perception that you’ll have to give something up to leave a retail bank for a credit union.
“Not true,” explains Pietzsch. “While credit unions tend to have fewer branches than big banks, they belong to a co-op network, which offers members access to 5,000 shared branches and 30,000 surcharge-free ATMs throughout the country. Credit unions have also embraced mobile technology, so online banking is equally convenient.”
My discussions with credit union leadership revealed some unusual practices. Unusually awesome.
“At BECU, if a member’s credit score goes down, we never raise the rate on their loan,” Pietzsch explains. “But if their credit score improves, we annually review their account and if they qualify for a lower rate, we automatically lower their rate, where they’ll be locked in. We recently lowered rates on our credit card, personal loans, auto, RV and boat loans for over 40,000 members, saving them millions of dollars over the life of the loans.”
Huh. When was the last time your financial institution voluntarily saved you money?
Many credit unions even sweep monthly statements for fees charged by bank ATMs and refund them back to their members.
A different approach.
“In the for profit world of banking,” Pietzsch says, “banks ask how programs will benefit stockholders. The major difference in credit unions is looking to see how decisions will benefit the membership. That perspective drives our culture.”
Funds placed in credit union accounts are not insured by the FDIC; instead, funds up to $250,000 per account are backed by the National Credit Union Administration, an independent agency of the federal government. In that respect, the two types of institutions are similar.
What’s not to like?
With branches near home or work, a national co-op of branches and ATMs and industry-tested mobile technology, there seems little reason to stay another month with Wells Fargo. And the customer service relationship model embraced by credit unions seems to suggest I won’t be hounded by staff to open a credit card, or any other unwanted account. The no-pressure banking environment would be a big — and welcome — change.
“Consumers should always be looking to credit unions as an option to save their family money and increase community engagement,” Heider offers. “Don’t wait for the next fee increase or banking scandal to consider making the switch.”
It’s like she knows it’s coming.
We all do. Now’s the time to get out of the way.
To learn more about the benefits of credit unions in your area, visit http://www.asmarterchoice.org/.