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Free Checking Still Typical at CUs, Including at Arkansas Employees FCU
Friday, March 7, 2014 7:00 AM

A new Bankrate.com report shows 72 percent of America's 50 largest credit unions offer standalone free checking accounts. This is almost double the rate at the nation's largest banks and thrifts (38 percent). By "standalone free checking," Bankrate.com refers to accounts with zero monthly service fees or point-of-sale transaction fees regardless of balance.

At $40 million in assets, Arkansas Employees FCU certainly isn’t among the largest credit unions in the U.S., but they do offer free checking.

“When we say free, it’s really free. There are no monthly fees with our free checking account, and there are no minimum balance requirements other than the required $25 to open the account,” Susan Cary, operations manager with the Little Rock, Ark.-based credit union tells the Leaguer. “I personally don’t understand why anyone would want to pay a monthly fee to access their own money. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Cary says she isn’t surprised by Bankrate.com’s findings.

“There’s a reason we call them members and not customers,” she adds.

In addition to the 72 percent of credit union checking accounts that are always free, Bankrate.com finds that another 24 percent (for a grand total of 96 percent) can become free if certain requirements are met (e-statements and/or direct deposit are the most common fee waivers). Since 2010, the availability of standalone free checking at credit unions has declined modestly from 78 percent to 72 percent. At banks, the percentage has plummeted from 65 percent to 38 percent.

"Free checking remains well within reach of most Americans, and often means looking no further than their credit union," said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com's Chief Financial Analyst. "Very attainable minimum opening deposits are another hallmark of credit union checking accounts."

More than half of the credit union checking accounts that Bankrate.com surveyed do not have a minimum opening deposit requirement (54 percent) and no account requires more than $100.

Additional Findings:

  • The average non-sufficient funds fee at credit unions is $26.96 (versus $32.20 at banks). The most common is $25 (versus $35 at banks).
  • 30 percent of credit unions either do not charge their members for using out-of-network ATMs or provide at least one free withdrawal per week. Among the credit unions that assess fees, $1 and $1.50 are the most common amounts compared with $2 at banks).
  • Almost all credit unions (96 percent) charge non-members for using the credit union's ATMs. The most common fees are $2 and $3 (versus $3 at banks).
  • Only 36 percent of the credit union checking accounts that Bankrate.com surveyed pay interest at the minimum opening deposit, with the average a measly 0.1 percent.

Click here to view more information about Bankrate.com's 2014 Credit Union Checking Survey.