The 'Shining Virtue' of 2009?

by Lynn B. Johnson on January 3, 2010

2009It’s almost to the point that I don’t want to read the Business section anymore. Are you with me? And cognizant as I am that “if it bleeds, it leads,” it’s time for a feel-good financial-services story. So I emailed Liz Pulliam Weston, nationally syndicated personal-finance writer and author of many books, to “get her thoughts on the best and worst financial products and services of 2009.”

Tell you what: the woman’s smart with a capital MART, but I was surprised by her answer.

“I would say that some of the best products and services of the year have been from the credit unions,” Weston said. “Their virtues are shining this year.”

Credit unions? I was turned off by credit unions when a friend who worked at one accidentally bounced a check and the next day, her bosses told everyone in the office.

“Most people find credit unions when they want car loans,” Weston said. “But, if you poke around, you’ll see that they’re member-owned and have a whole different focus.”

When Liz Pulliam Weston suggests you poke around, well, you poke around. Having heard radio advertisements for my local CU, I took a look at their Web site to see what they offered. Would it really be so different from Bank of America (or Fleet, the bank I opened my account with and then the next week they were bought by Bank of America)?

The unwieldy monikered UMass Five College Federal Credit Union (aka UMassFive) is “an independent not-for-profit cooperative financial institution.” OK, that’s a lot of words well-liked by people who live in Massachusetts.

“All Credit Union members have equal voting rights.” Intriguing. Even better, “accounts at UMassFive are federally insured to at least $250,000.”

I remembered that Liz Weston said most people find credit unions when they’re looking for a car loan, so I checked their loan offerings. Not only do they have a page for New & Used Car Loans, but also offer something called a “Green Auto Loan,” which lets you finance a 2005-or-newer model vehicle that goes 30-plus miles per gallon. No app fees, no prepayment penalties, automatic 20% down rate plus they shave another quarter point off of that. Co-op Points lower the rate further.

Sounds good, but what’s a Co-op Point? It’s a reward program: one point for every $1 of loan-interest paid, or each $5.00 spent on your debit card, all the way up to 1,500 points for opening a mortgage. Co-op Points can reduce your loan rate by .50% by turning in 5,000 points, or let you waive a fee. Plus, you can transfer points to other credit-union members.

Yeah, I don’t have that with my Bank of America account.

I clicked back to Loan Options. UMassFive offers an Energy & Fuel Conservation Loan, which is low-interest financing for pre-paid heating oil, wood or wood pellets, and the stoves to burn them in, or public-transit passes, or “fuel-efficient alternative transportation devices such as bicycles, mopeds, and scooters.” I don’t think B of A wants to handle my loan for a new bike, or give me free money to upgrade my boiler. UMassFive members might also qualify for a HEAT Loan, a no-interest loan that finances “the installation of qualified energy efficient improvements.”

“The [other] credit card companies have lost their mind” was how Weston had put it, and knowing the truth in her statement, I clicked to the VISA credit card page. Their APRs listed in the online Shumer Box ranged from 9.9% – 13.9%, with a 25 day grace period and no annual fee.

Well, hello stranger… where have you been all my life? I went back to find out more about their loans and fell head-over-heels in love. They offer a Farm Share Loan. I’m kind of a nut about farmshares. A Farm Share Loan allows members to finance an individual share at any local CSA farm and spread the payments over six months.  Once your enrollment in a farmshare is verified, UMassFive pays the farm the full share price, up-front. This way, the farmer gets all of his money at the start of the season, while the consumer gets to pay over time without accruing interest.

This is no small thing. I just paid $600 for a share. Worth it, yes, but $600 leaves a draft upon exiting my bank account.  The opportunity to pay $100 monthly would have eased the chill. (For that matter, so would a Fuel Loan.)

My friend Nicki  found a credit union in another state, while looking for a car loan.

“They gave me a great rate on my loan,” she said, “and then they offered me a great rate on a credit card, and now I don’t know why anyone would bank anywhere else.”

Me, too. My husband is a student at UMass so I’m pretty sure we’ll qualify for UMassFive.

The only problem is, not everyone qualifies for credit union membership. Back in June, I reported on a 6.01% APY Interest Plus Checking account (which, now that I look at it, is shifting to 3.65% as of January 1).

Anyway, it sounded great, but I didn’t qualify. But, hope is not lost if you want to join a local CU of your own. Visit www.findacreditunion.com to find one within your membership parameters.

And, when you do qualify… well, tell them that Liz Pulliam Weston and LBJ sent you.

Discussion

Winter
Disclosure: I work for a credit union trade association

Another place to find listings of credit unions is www.creditunion.coop You'll actually get a pretty big list there. Many credit unions have "open fields of membership" meaning they are open to their local community. So it's easier than ever to join...
January 6 at 11:11 am

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