The Secret to Scoring Free Checking
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The Fiscal Times
March 3, 2014

Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s credit unions offer standalone free checking accounts – an offer that is available at just 38 percent of large banks.

In addition to the 72 percent of credit union checking accounts that are always free, another 24 percent can become free if certain requirements (such as e-statements or direct deposit) are met, according to the 2014 Credit Union Checking Survey by Bankrate.

Related: What Rising Interest Rates Will Cost You in 2014

“Free checking remains well within the reach of most Americans and often means looking no further than their credit union,” Bankrate’s chief financial analyst Greg McBride said in a statement. “Very attainable minimum opening deposits are another hallmark of credit union checking accounts.”

More than half of the credit union checking accounts surveyed have no minimum deposit requirement, and those that do have minimums of less than $100.

The study also found differences in fees between banks and credit unions. The average insufficient funds fee at a credit union is $26.90, compared to $32.20 at banks; and the typical ATM fee is $1 to $1.50, compared to $2 at banks. Nearly a third of credit unions either don’t charge for out-of-network ATMS, or provide one free withdrawal per week.

While credit unions – not-for-profit organizations that exist to serve members rather than maximize corporate profits – typically offer slightly higher savings account rates than banks, only 36 percent of credit unions pay interest on checking accounts at the minimum opening deposit, and the average rate is just 0.1 percent.

As consumers grow increasingly frustrated with big banks, membership in credit unions continues to grow. Membership is expected to surpass 100 million this year, after reaching a record 98.87 million in 2013, according to the Credit Union National Association.

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Life + Money Editor Beth Braverman covers all things personal finance. Formerly a senior reporter and social media editor at MONEY magazine, she’s also held gigs as a newspaper reporter and trade magazine editor.