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Saving Money

No free checking accounts at your bank? Try this.

Many banks weigh eliminating free checking accounts. But more than a third of US credit unions expect to keep free checking accounts.

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First, inquire whether the credit union is in a legitimate nationwide ATM network, which grants you access to surcharge-free ATM service at a large number of terminals. The three broadest ATM networks commonly offered by credit unions are MoneyPass, CO-OP, and Allpoint, all with more than 20,000 ATMs. The three largest banks in America, as of the end of 2009, were Bank of America, Chase, and Wells Fargo, with 18,000, 15,400, and 12,363 ATMs, respectively.

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Second, see if they are members of CU Service Centers. This is a consortium of credit unions that share branches with each other, allowing you to access branch services away from home. With 4,234 branches nationwide, this network has nearly the branch presence of Chase and Bank of America, and nearly half the branches that Wells Fargo does. At the end of 2009, the three banks reported branch counts of 5,100, 6,000, and 10,000, respectively.

Here's a chart of how they stack up:

  ATMs Branches
CU Service Center   4,234
MoneyPass ATM Network 20,000  
CO-OP ATM Network 28,000  
Allpoint ATM Network 43,000  
Chase 15,400 5,100
Bank of America 18,000 6,000
Wells Fargo 12,363 10,000

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