Best Deals for Credit Cards Come from Credit Unions

By Mitch Lipka, dealnews Consumer Advocate

Looking for a better credit card deal? Consider getting it from a credit union. A recently released study by the Pew Safe Credit Cards Project examined the credit card market since the federal Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act was passed two years ago. Pew found that the cards offered by credit unions give you a better deal, across the board. They have:

  • Lower interest rates
  • Less costly cash-advance charges
  • Lower penalty charges
  • Lower fees

The lowest-advertised APR Pew found in its study was 9.99% for a card issued by a credit union versus 12.99% from a bank. The interest rate on a cash advance was as low as 10.9% at a credit union compared with 24% at a bank. There was a brief period before the rules imposed in the law took effect, so companies pushed interest rates higher.

"Pew's research counters predictions that the legislation would spark new charges and long-term interest rate growth," Nick Bourke, director of Pew's Safe Credit Cards Project, said in a statement.

"Whatever increases in advertised interest rates we saw going into 2010 have not continued into 2011. The CARD Act created a new equilibrium where interest rates have flattened, penalty charges have declined and a number of practices deemed "unfair" or "deceptive" have disappeared. Consumers are enjoying safer, more transparently priced credit cards — and banks and credit unions are able to compete on a more level playing field."

For those who missed a payment and were subject to a penalty APR, banks charged a median of 29.99% compared to 17.99% at credit unions.

The study also found that overdraft fees have become increasingly rare among banks and nonexistent at credit unions.

Credit card expert Bill Hardekopf says credit unions have traditionally been more consumer-friendly than banks.

"The credit unions are owned or run by their members, as opposed to banks that are owned by shareholders, where everybody wants a profit," he explains. "For a credit union to try to stand out and be noticed by you the consumer they have to do something that's going to differentiate them."

Offering lower rates and fees is the main way they do that. But credit union-issued cards are not for everyone, he says, noting that there is one type of card you'll likely do better with from a bank.

"If you're a rewards-driven customer, whether that's cash back or airline miles — you're going to probably get a better deal with a card issued from a major bank rather than at the local credit union," he said.

Other good news for consumers in this report is that the CARD Act apparently has had the impact that lawmakers were hoping for: Interest rates and fees have stabilized and issuers are more upfront with their customers.

Mitch Lipka is an investigative journalist for consumer issues who formerly wrote for, Consumer Reports, thePhiladelphia Inquirer and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel,among other places. Follow him on Twitter — @mitchlipka or on Facebook. You can also sign up for an e-mail alert for all dealnews features.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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I have a few cards that give 3% on restaurants, office supplies, and pet services.  I have one card that gives 5% on gas. I also have several cards that offer 5% on rotating catagories.
  That said, at the present time, my best all around card is from Empower Federal Credit Union...11/2% on everything.
Interesting that you say that Credit Unions don't have good rewards programs for thier cards. I have a Credit Union credit card and I love thier rewards. I've gotten books, electronics and even gift cards to major retailers. This may just be a local thing because there are about 5 credit unions in town and they may be trying to really compete with one another.