The Big Story Blog

What's the difference between a bank and a credit union?

Posted at 2:05 PM on November 4, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Banking

There is no love lost between credit unions and banks. Bankers have long viewed the credit unions as unfair players in the lending game. They are non-profit and so are tax exempt. Bankers have often argued that the different tax treatment gives credit unions a key competitive advantage.

What are the other differences between banks, credit unions and other savings institutions?

The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions has an easy to read breakdown in the differences between credit unions and other financial institutions. Check it out.

Banks, Credit Unions and Savings Institutions operate under federal or state charters. Their deposits, up to $250,000, are insured by one of two federal agencies: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). All institutions are subject to periodic regulatory and federal insurance examination.


Banks are community, regional or national for-profit business corporations owned by private investors and governed by a board of directors chosen by the stockholders.

Credit Union

Credit unions are non-profit financial cooperatives owned by their members and governed by a board of directors elected by, and from among, those members. Usually there is a common bond among the members, such as belonging to the same organization or living in the same geographical area. Credit unions accept deposits from their members and use them to make short-term loans. Deposits are regarded as purchases of shares, and all earnings of the credit union are paid out as dividends to members

Savings Institution

Savings institutions (also called savings & loans or savings banks) specialize in real estate financing. They can be either corporations or mutuals (a type of business where making a deposit is like purchasing stock in the organization). Savings institutions always have the letters SSB or FSB after the name to indicate whether they are a state savings bank or a federal savings bank, respectively. Both types are governed by an elected board of directors.

All financial institutions usually offer basic banking services (checking and savings accounts, consumer loans, etc.) with larger ones offering a fuller range of services (credit cards, mortgages, foreign currencies, etc.). Each has some special features:

* Banks emphasize business and consumer accounts, and many provide trust services
* Credit unions emphasize consumer deposit and loan services
* Savings institutions emphasize real estate financing

About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.

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