credit cards

Should you get a credit union credit card?

A stack of credit cards
Highlights
  • Median interest rates on credit union cards were 20 percent lower than banks.
  • Rewards programs are not as generous as you get on bank credit cards.
  • Only a quarter of credit unions charge a fee for a balance transfer.

In an environment of rising bank card fees and rates, credit cards  from a credit union can make a better choice than a bank-issued card. Credit unions are nonprofit financial cooperatives owned by their members, and usually offer more reasonable rates and fees on their credit cards than banks.

Median advertised interest rates on credit union cards were about 20 percent lower than on bank cards, according to a July 2009 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which compared credit cards from the 12 largest credit unions and 12 largest banks. The median late and over-limit fee was $20 at credit unions and $39 at banks.

"Bottom line, the credit unions are offering lower upfront rates, with lower fees and less risk of unfair or deceptive practices," says Nick Bourke, author of the report and manager of the Pew Safe Credit Cards Project.

Still, credit union cards might not be for everyone. Rewards cardholders may prefer the more generous rebates of major bank card issuers, while those with large balances and high interest rates might benefit from a credit union-issued credit card. Weigh the pros and cons of credit union cards before you make a switch.

Pros

Lower fees and interest rates. Consumers who routinely pay a few days late or carry a balance may find that a credit union card is much cheaper to use than a bank-issued card.

Besides lower APRs on new purchases, penalty rates on credit union cards are also lower than on bank cards. Credit union cards imposed a median penalty APR of 17.9 percent, while bank cards charged 28.99 percent, according to the Pew Safe Credit Cards Project.

Half of the credit union cards surveyed didn't even charge penalty interest rates, and over half of those that did imposed it only when the account was 60 days past due, which meets the CARD Act restriction on retroactive rate hikes. Only 10 percent of bank cards didn't charge a penalty rate.

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Many credit union cards don't charge a balance transfer fee. Consumers who haven't been able to negotiate a lower interest rate on their bank card may enjoy a fee-free, or low-cost, balance transfer to a credit union card.

The Pew study found that only 25 percent of credit union cards charge a fee to transfer a balance from another card, compared with 88 percent of bank cards surveyed. The median balance transfer fee on credit union cards was 2.5 percent, compared with 3 percent on bank-issued cards. All of the credit union cards that charged a balance transfer fee also set a maximum fee, while only 13 percent of bank cards that charged a fee also capped it. The median cap for credit union cards was $50 and $75 on bank cards.

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Product Rate Change Last week
Balance Transfer Cards 15.71%  0.01 15.70%
Cash Back Cards 16.36% --0.00 16.36%
Low Interest Cards 10.91% --0.00 10.91%
 
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