Escape from Chase
June 1, 2009 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Credit union virgin. Several questions re CUs in Seattle area.

I want to get out from Chase, who took over Washington Mutual this year. I can't stand them. Totally subjective reasoning, but that's not what I'm writing about. Would like to understand the benefit of using a credit union. And understand what credit unions are about in general. Totally innorant. And finally, can someone recommend a credit union in West Seattle or near that area (I live on Vashon Island). One that has online banking abilities and will be able to handle my personal AND business accounts.
posted by zenpop to Work & Money (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My experience has been: fewer/lower/no fees. Terrific customer service. This is far from objective but fwiw I will be a member of my CU for the rest of my life. I belong to 1st Tech CU. I believe they have branches in the Seattle area.
posted by itsamonkeytree at 1:38 PM on June 1, 2009

The benefit? In theory, you're joining a club, or buying stake in a group of equals, so you don't get pressure or influence to find ways to get money out of you. It's not a business, answering to unrelated shareholders, with a mandate to make a profit out of you somehow.

I've just joined my first credit union two months ago, so I can't give you meaningful data or anecdotes yet.
posted by cmiller at 1:51 PM on June 1, 2009

There's a pretty good brief introduction to credit unions on Motley Fool. In my experience, they offer slightly better loan interest rates, lower and fewer fees and far better customer service than banks.
posted by cog_nate at 2:02 PM on June 1, 2009

Had WaMu, moved to First Entertainment Credit Union.

Pros so far:
- If you overdraft your checking account automatically, they move enough money from savings to cover all the day's overdrafts for a $3 charge, versus WaMu's $20-per-item overdraft.
- Very good rates for loans and whatnot, and 7% interest on the first $500 of savings accounts (under certain straightforward terms.)
- Quick, flexible service.
- Nice people.

Cons so far:
- For security purposes, they set a very low limit on per-day debit card charges ($300) and visa-as-check charges (a couple thousand or so); this means we have to be cognizant of what we charge as debit and meant more than a few phone calls when trying to pay for portions of our kitchen remodel via Visa.
posted by davejay at 2:05 PM on June 1, 2009


"If you overdraft your checking account automatically accidentally,..."
posted by davejay at 2:06 PM on June 1, 2009

I have had a bank account at the Spokane Teacher's Credit Union for the past 10-13 years or so. I love them. Their online banking is simple. They do not harass me with junk mail. I am getting decently competitive interest rates. When I want to talk to someone at the bank for some reason I can contact a banker [who is IN SPOKANE, afaict] who will help me over phone or IM. I have never lived in Spokane and never actually seen my bank in person. I also have a local bank account where I live in Vermont but I've hung on to the STCU account this whole time because they are the best bank I've ever had. The only problem I've really had from them (besides not being able to change my PIN because I'd have to go to the bank to do that] is because of their online security, I seem to be unable to get my account linked to

"If you live, work, worship, or go to school in the state of Washington or in Bonner or Kootenai counties in Idaho, you are eligible to join STCU."
posted by jessamyn at 2:09 PM on June 1, 2009

Best answer: It works like this: the purpose of a bank is to extract as much money from you as possible without driving you away.

The purpose of a credit union is to provide financial services to you without making a profit. Any extra money left over from covering operating expenses is given back to the members (that's you) in the form of better rates or lower fees. The credit unions also join forces to provide shared services like being able to perform transactions at shared branches (imagine going to a Chase bank branch and depositing money into your US Bank account; this is a reality for credit union members), shared ATMs, and on and on. Frankly I don't understand why people don't abandon banks en masse, but I suspect inertia and/or legal subterfuge by banks.

There's a credit union search thingy here.
posted by mullingitover at 2:10 PM on June 1, 2009

I like Watermark but BECU might be more convenient to your location. Both are open to any WA resident.
posted by coolsara at 2:10 PM on June 1, 2009

I can add to the positives for 1st Tech CU (although I live in Portland, not Seattle).

I have no fee checking (with direct deposit of my paycheck), online banking, overdraft protection with no fee for using it, and a 6% interest rate on my Visa credit card. I recently refinanced my mortgage -- it was very quick (around 30 days) and easy (took about an hour). The branch is located close to my work and the few times I have gone in there, they're very friendly and helpful.
posted by elmay at 2:13 PM on June 1, 2009

A credit union is not a for-profit bank (accounts are still federally insured under the NCUA). Membership is usually restricted geographically or by employer (thank the banking industry for that).

In theory, you don't 'open an account', you 'buy a share' in the credit union. In practice, the fees are lower, interest rates paid to you are higher, interest rates you pay to them are lower, every year or so you will get a mailing reminding you to vote in the directors election. Major business decisions (acquiring/divesting units) requires a membership vote.

Credit Unions Online has a good basic orientation to credit unions, and there is a locator on the site. Also see Credit Union Coop, this article on MSNMoney, an article on, and this page on a consumer information site.

(can't help you on local-to-Vashon-Island CUs, though.)
posted by jlkr at 2:24 PM on June 1, 2009

I'm a long-time member of WA State Employees CU. Last year I moved to West Seattle, where there are no WSECU branches, which is inconvenient but not very. I do a lot of my banking online. And pretty much every local credit union is a member of the CU Service Centers and/or Co-op networks, so I can use their branches and ATMs (and also ATMs in 7-Eleven stores). I also deposit checks by mail occasionally.

WSECU has eligibility requirements for membership and they have very few branches in Seattle, so you'd probably be better off at a different credit union. I know BECU has locations in West Seattle. (I sometimes use their financial center in the Safeway on SW Roxbury.)
posted by mbrubeck at 2:25 PM on June 1, 2009

I have memberships at BECU and WSECU. BECU has more locations, but a member of any credit union can use any other credit union's cash machine. I am very happy with them both but I would prefer BECU.
posted by matildaben at 2:40 PM on June 1, 2009

The CU should do all the services your bank does, but at lower cost with better service, so you can think of it as just another bank if you want, just one that comes more highly recommended than your current bank.

A good idea is to find a CU that is hard to get into (ie has high standards for membership), as you'll get the best outcome there, because in addition to non-profit, they're also only dealing with less risky or expensive customers, and that benefits everyone in the pool (at the expense of the pools where bad customers end up, such as your current bank)

I really like First Tech, which is in your area. An interesting thing for me (and for you) - because 1st Tech is for tech workers, they're ahead of the curve in the kinds of banking you can do online through them. I use banking services constantly, and yet it's generally years between visits to a branch, because there is no need - they're just set up so well online that you can do just about anything that I previously needed to visit a branch to do when I used a bank.
(I think that even if you don't qualify for 1st tech, there are still ways to get in, such as if a close relative is a member)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:48 PM on June 1, 2009

The ONLY downsides to credit unions, in my experience, have been:

1) Very limited number of branches, when compared to regular banks. On the order of 1 CU branch to every thousand or so bank branches.

2) Ditto non-fee ATMs. Most CUs belong to a nationwide ATM network, but usually only the ATMs at your home CU are fee-free. And, the fee-free ATMs are, generally, located only at the branches (see #1)

But, those are really tiny issues, when compared to the overall excellence of the CU experience. YMMV in Seattle.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:49 PM on June 1, 2009

I'm a member of WSECU and of Prevail CU (whose main office is in downtown Seattle). I can't say I like their online banking very much. In fact I don't like their online banking at all. Perhaps BECU would be a better fit. I only joined WSECU and Prevail for their car and motorcycle loans, they are not my primary accounts.

(I'm also a member of First Tech and they ARE my primary account and I like them a lot, but I'm in Portland. I think their only Seattle-area branches are on the eastside though, so probably not convenient for you.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:52 PM on June 1, 2009

I think everyone else covered why CUs are cool, but I want to second harlequin's advice about the online banking. I have been a member of a CU for over a decade, but not as my primary bank anymore, for a number of reasons. Those reasons include having a crappy online presence, not having a branch near me and also finding the local CU service center to be a pain to deal with. I used to try to make credit card payments at the CU service center and every month it was a struggle to explain which credit union it was and how to apply it.

So, when I needed to take out a car loan recently, I decided to look elsewhere. I know that the folks at my CU would have done a good job setting me up for the loan over the phone, but I was not looking forward to the hassle of making those car payments. (I say hassle because I don't want to write out a check every month).

So - consider whether "convenience banking" is important to you, and if so, choose your CU carefully.
posted by cabingirl at 3:03 PM on June 1, 2009

Thorzdad, I didn't mention it explicitly above, but I can use any Co-op/CUSwirl ATM for free. That includes ATMs at or operated by any participating credit union, plus the ones in 7-Eleven stores. Most credit unions (at least here in WA) seem to offer the same free service.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:08 PM on June 1, 2009

...Most credit unions (at least here in WA) seem to offer the same free service.
Yet another reason to move my sorry butt out of Indiana.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:45 PM on June 1, 2009

The quality of a CU's online banking system will vary from CU to CU, much as the quality will vary from bank to bank. Some CU's explicitly cater to remote shareholders via phone and online services. I think you need to check out the websites of whatever CU's you are interested in to see how sophisticated they are (including checking out the online banking services, if possible). Also, if you go with a CU that has billions in deposits, it is more likely to have a sophisticated online presence, all other things being equal.

If the CU you pick is a member of the Co-op network (most are), you can use any ATM marked with the Co-op symbol for free (including ATMs at 7-11) and also bank at any Co-op member CU branch as if it was your CU branch. Check this out to see if the locations work for you.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 5:17 PM on June 1, 2009

Another longtime CU member here, in the Seattle area.

Most of our family banking is through Wash State Employees. We also have accounts at BECU and Watermark, taking advantage of the high-yield "Member Advantage" accounts--6+% interest for the first $500 in each of checking and savings, subject to a few easily-accomplished contingencies. (Between the husband, the kids, and me, we have several thousand dollars of our nest egg in these higher-than-average interest-bearing accounts). Also, our home mortgage is with BECU.

I've had no problem whatsover with walking into a branch of another CU and doing business with the aforementioned accounts. Verity is the CU with a branch closest to our house, Group Health is the CU closest to my work. I regularly waltz in, show my driver's license, give my CU and my account number, and we're off to the races.

Watermark definitely seems least polished of the three, BECU the most--both in terms of their physical locations and their web sites. But in my experience all three have been fine for every banking transaction I've ever thrown at them.

Criticisms include: WSECU's online security method seems peculiar at best (though it hasn't been compromised yet, so far as I know). Also, when we refinanced our mortgage through BECU, they had us *fill out the application from our home computer*, which was rather hair raising, even for people who'd been through the mortgage/refinance schtick a few times.
posted by Sublimity at 5:21 PM on June 1, 2009

I live in Seattle and left Washington Mutual around January. After researching it a fair amount I went with BECU. I'm very happy with them; I wish I'd switched years ago. It's harder to remember where the ATMs are, though.
posted by kprincehouse at 5:51 PM on June 1, 2009

I can report positive experiences with BECU and FirstTech.
posted by bz at 5:59 PM on June 1, 2009

BECU, hands down. I went from BoA to BECU nearly 4 years ago and have never looked back. Great service, interest rates, loan terms, online banking/bill pay - you name it. Very, very happy with them. They keep adding more neighborhood service centers all around the area which is awesome as well.
posted by karizma at 7:20 PM on June 1, 2009

I like 1st tech so much I stayed with them after leaving the west coast many years ago and they are still my only bank. Here in NYC I can withdraw cash for free at work or from ATMs in McDonald's and their online services are quite good enough for almost everything else I need to do. I've never regretted going to a credit union.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:56 PM on June 1, 2009

A credit union is not a for-profit bank (accounts are still federally insured under the NCUA).

A small nit: some credit unions in Alabama, California, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, and Puerto Rico are not NCUA insured. Of course, they will be in Washington. Still good to check.
posted by grouse at 10:04 PM on June 1, 2009

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