In my last Off the CUff post, I wrote about my decision to make the move from JPMorgan Chase, my primary financial institution that has no branches in the DC area, to a credit union. Over the past few weeks, I’ve researched a few DC-area credit unions, mostly flailing around on the Internet, and asked friends and colleagues for recommendations.
Here are three options that I’ve seriously considered so far. All offer 24-hour online banking and have ATMs close to my workplace. In all likelihood, I’d probably be happy if I were to choose any of these listed. But given the surplus of choice, what differentiates one from the other comes down to idiosyncrasies that have more to do with personal preference.
Congressional Federal ($735M; Washington, DC)
Congressional offers a decent dividend-earning checking account, with a minimum average daily balance of $1,000 to obtain the rate. However, the disclosure of fee policies on its website gave me pause. While I appreciate the transparency of such a clear, comprehensive fee listing, it was also a bit overwhelming. There were charges for transgressions that I didn’t even know existed, such as $10 for a statement copy, or $7 for a bad address.
In reality, Congressional’s fee policies may not actually differ that much from the policies at other credit unions or at Chase. If I were to become a member, I likely wouldn’t encounter most of the listed charges. Even still, that didn’t alleviate the sense that I would need to learn a whole rulebook just to open a checking account. Next, please.
Library of Congress ($216M; Washington DC)
The smallest of the three options considered here, Library of Congress has very few branch offices, including one located at the Library of Congress itself. However, it belongs to an extensive ATM network, which includes ATM brands such as Star, Cirrus, CU24. Some of these, particularly Cirrus and Star, I recognize as mainstays of late-night corner convenience shops. Generally, the times when I am most in need of an ATM is on a late weekend night, needing cab fare or extra bucks for cash-only joints. These are the times when I usually find myself in these marts, paying $2 or $3 in surcharge fees. The fact that I’d be able to make free transactions at these ATMs makes this credit union an attractive option.
In contrast to Congressional, Library of Congress emphasizes the fees it doesn’t charge for its checking account: “No monthly fees.” “No per check charges.” “Free Visa checkcard.” Sure, why not?
Pentagon Federal ($15B; Alexandria, VA)
As one of the largest credit unions in the nation, PenFed is hard to miss when you live in the DC area and it was the first option that sprang to mind. As a matter of personal preference, however, PenFed’s size works against it. If I’ve already decided to switch from a national big bank to a credit union, I’m not really looking to bank with another institutional behemoth. The appeal of joining a credit union, in theory, is its smaller scale and cooperative spirit, the idea that every member will be heard. Joining PenFed’s 1 million plus members seems counterintuitive to that idea.
Additionally, I found the PenFed website to be quite impersonal, workmanlike but aesthetically clumsy, and had a hard time finding a lot of information about new memberships and opening an account. This may not be quite fair, but my impression of PenFed doesn’t get any more specific than “Ehh.”
So, at the moment, I haven’t quite settled on a credit union choice yet. I’ll keep considering other options in the upcoming weeks, but I hope to come to a decision soon.
Any suggestions or tips? Feel free to leave them in the comments.