After a few years of banking with Wells Fargo, I recently made my way back to the cozy confines of a credit union. As is par for the course, I’m tardy. Bank Transfer Day on November 5, 2011 came and went and I still had my money in an institution that allegedly steered Black and Latino borrowers into sub-prime mortgages, spent $11 million on lobbying while receiving $681 million in tax rebates in the two years following the $25 billion taxpayers spotted them at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.
Around the same time as I moved my meager holdings from Wells Fargo to my local credit union, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer posted a blog entry “Credit union switch fizzles.” In it he cites the Federal Reserve’s flow of funds account for the forth quarter of 2011 where deposits in credit unions increased by $9.9 billion, or 1.2 percent. Comparing this to the fact that deposits in commercial banks increased by $232.2 billion, or 3.5 percent, while at the same time the US economy grew by 3 percent, it seems Henwood’s use of the term “fizzle” is appropriate.
Some in the Occupy Movement and its progressive supporters called for personal divestment from commercial banks. From websites, news articles and social media postings the worthy call garnered lots of attention. According to a study by Javelin Strategy and Research, 5.6 million adults in the US switched financial institutions in the forth quarter, and 610,000, or 11 percent, cited Bank Transfer Day as their reason. During the same period 26 percent said excessive fees were their primary reason for switching.
The Credit Union National Association originally reported credit unions added 650,000 members to their rolls, but later adjusted the number to 214,000. It would seem that smaller commercial banks were the real winners on Bank Transfer Day.
For some the convenience of banking with bullies outweighs its costs. It was Wells Fargo who gave me a checking and savings account at a time when I was cashing meager checks at my local liquor store and payday loan shops. At that time no credit union would touch me—two of them had in fact reported my delinquent accounts to ChexSystems. Plus, Wells Fargo was in nearly every small Alaskan town where I have spent much of the past few years.
Having improved my finances and settled my accounts closed in the red, I went back to my old nonprofit cooperative credit union. Gone is my iPhone app where I could easily move money and check the balances in my Wells Fargo accounts. Gone are paperless statements and back into my life is the clunky, outdated online banking platform of my humble credit union.
Henwood is right when he says creating a better and more just financial system is a matter of politics and not individual financial decisions. Activism on the point of consumption is largely a masturbatory act; it makes one feel good but has little to no impact on anyone else.
Yet for personal finances credit unions are the better option. Lower fees and better interest rates are a fact. My first overdraft fee at my credit union was $25, $10 less than what Wells Fargo normally charged me. Although the fee was an error of the credit union and was quickly reversed after I said something. If that had happened at Wells Fargo I would have assumed it was a big bank maliciously trying to screw me out of my money, however since it was a friendly nonprofit credit union I chalked it up to benign incompetence.