Bank sign © John Foxx, Stockbyte, Getty Images

In recent years, the turbulent banking industry has increasingly driven consumers to seek financial alternatives to the biggest national banks. A taxpayer-funded bailout, new and growing fees for basic banking products and a series of industry scandals have combined to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many bank customers. Enter credit unions.

Though they're by no means a new concept (the oldest dates back to 1908), credit unions gained new attention in late 2011 after Bank of America -- at the time the largest U.S. bank by asset size -- proposed a $5 monthly fee for checking account customers who used a debit card to make purchases. In response, a grassroots-driven event known as "Bank Transfer Day," urging consumers to leave big banks for smaller, community-focused credit unions, made national headlines. B of A ultimately decided not to impose the $5 fee, but the event signaled the depth of tensions between the bank and its customers.

Such an atmosphere warrants a closer look at the advantages of credit unions over the four big banks: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and B of A. Credit union advocates point out that banks are for-profit and serve stockholders, while credit unions are not for profit and serve members. They also note many banks have a national or even international focus, while credit unions set their sights on their local community.

All of that is true, but are there quantifiable benefits for individual consumers who are considering switching to a credit union?

Over the past year, has extensively analyzed of various facets of banking, pitting credit unions against banks. The results show that, when it comes to many basic services, credit unions outperform the biggest banks.

Checking accounts

According to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, 90% of families in 2010 held some assets in a checking account, making it the most-common deposit option. These accounts are also critically important for their primary uses: depositing income, paying bills and making regular purchases. Because of the necessity and frequent transaction activity of checking accounts, the potential for slip-ups -- and the ensuing fees -- is high.

Since the July 2010 enactment of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, big banks have been making significant changes to their checking account offerings and fees. To make up for increased regulatory costs and new limitations on their ability to charge certain fees, such as overdrafts, most banks have eliminated free checking accounts for most customers. Many who use banks now must maintain a minimum balance or meet other requirements to duck monthly fees.

What about credit unions? Most have been able to maintain truly free checking accounts, which translates to savings of more than $100 per year on average, when compared with bank customers who don't meet the requirements to waive a monthly fee. Further, many credit unions pay dividends on checking balances -- something that's usually found only with high-fee premium checking at big banks.

Savings accounts and CDs

For consumers with extra funds, credit unions can also offer higher deposit rates than their bank counterparts do. The big banks are currently offering effectively no interest on a basic savings account and annual percentage yields of less than 0.75% for five-year certificates of deposit. By comparison, NerdWallet found that credit unions average more than 0.15% interest rates for a typical savings account and 1.42% APY for a five-year CD -- nearly double what's offered by Bank of America and its peers. As consumers struggle to keep up with inflation, every bit of extra yield helps.

Branches and ATMs

A common concern among bank customers considering a switch to a credit union is that they'll face limited access to branches and ATMs. What they don't know is that most credit unions have addressed these concerns. Many are members of the CU Service Center network, which allows members to make transactions at any credit union within the network. That means members have access to nearly 5,000 branches nationwide, which is comparable to Wells Fargo's 6,300, as well as B of A's 5,700.

Further, credit unions actually outperform the big banks when it comes to self-service access to your money. Many are part of a surcharge-free ATM network, so members are not limited to just their own institution's machines, as with a bank. The largest of these networks includes more than 30,000 ATMs. At Chase or any other bank, you'll be limited to fewer than 20,000.

They may be smaller than the big banks, but credit unions can operate like much-larger institutions and also offer higher-quality financial products for their members. As the anniversary of Bank Transfer Day approaches, don't ignore your local credit union as a viable option for your banking business. Lower fees and higher deposit yields are likely worth exploring a switch.

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