The following post contains advice from Angi Christensen Harben, the Director of Communications for Georgia Credit Union Affiliates. When she was younger, a credit union stepped in and supported Angi’s finances and life. Now, she enjoys supporting credit unions and spreading the financial wisdom she’s gained.
People often ask what the difference is between a bank and a credit union.
There are several differences, but for me, the answer to that question is personal and significant. A long time ago, a bank didn’t want me. But a credit union did.
And I don’t blame that bank. It has a responsibility to its shareholders to deliver a profit, and with the too-often negative balance in my little broke college student checking account, I certainly was not going to contribute to the success of that mission! I get it. I really do. I didn’t have anything to offer in terms of being a good profit center.
Having my bank account closed was embarrassing, and I was desperate for a place to cash my meager paychecks. A co-worker suggested I talk with her credit union, but I was sure they wouldn’t want me either. After all, I truly had nothing to offer. Just a bad ChexSystems score and two steady paychecks to cash from part-time college jobs.
I didn’t even know if I could join a credit union. I thought I had to belong to some kind of special group to be a member. Turns out that “special group” was made up of residents of the county where I lived. Requirement met!
Thus began my relationship with credit unions. They got me because they would take me. And quite honestly, the bar seemed pretty low.
In truth, I was looking forward to the day when I could work my way back into the good graces of a bank. I’m from a small town, and was afraid I wouldn’t have access to my money when I was home on school breaks without access to a big institution’s network.
It turns out, credit unions have a national shared branch system that made walking into a credit union in my hometown, or later across the country, the same as walking into my credit union. And they had a huge ATM network to go along with it.
But there was “that thing” about being shut out by banks. I’d been rejected. It stung. I wanted them to want me.
Over the years, as that credit union helped me become a smarter consumer and a better steward of my resources, I became a little more attractive to banks. Then when life threw a few curve balls, I became a little less attractive. But I figured it out and got it together and became attractive again to banks. And finance companies. And credit card companies. And Finger Hut.
The point is, as other organizations saw my credit score increase and my salary rise and my debt-to-income ratio go down, I started looking like a good bet as a profit center.
But my credit unions have always seen me as a member. Someone to welcome. Someone to help. Someone to work for and with. And more than anything else, they never made me feel ashamed or embarrassed about where I was. Rather, they always make me feel confident and hopeful about where I could be.
And as I look at where I am – and at my mailbox with a bunch of “you are approved” credit offers and an insurance renewal reminder for the boat and the Amazon Prime order for driving gloves because I know Prince Charming will look great in them behind the wheel of our convertible – I realize that I am not the same person I was all those years ago.
Yes, I am better off financially. I have worked for, and I certainly enjoy, all the “things” that make up a great life. But even more than that, I am confident and empowered and equipped to manage the highs and lows that come.
In credit unions, I have allies. They have always wanted me. They have always been on my side. Since I am a member, they are accountable to me. My success is their success.
Banks exist to help bank shareholders afford their lives. My credit unions exist to help me afford mine.