Pennsylvania Credit Union Association

Typical Questions About Credit Unions


Q. What is a credit union?

A. A credit union is a not-for-profit financial cooperative that is owned by its members. Member savings form a pool of money from which low-cost loans are made to other members. Once overhead and other expenses are paid and reserves set aside, income from loans is returned to members in the form of dividends on savings, expansion of services, a larger cushion against loss, etc. After a credit union has met its other goals, it may give any remaining surplus back to the members as bonus dividends on savings or loan interest rebates.

Q. What is the purpose of a credit union?

A. The philosophy of the credit union movement is Not for Profit, Not for Charity, But for Service. Credit unions promote thrift and teach the wise use of credit. Credit unions encourage their members to develop a systematic savings program and they provide a source of low-cost credit. Because credit unions are not-for-profit and have low overhead costs, they are usually able to offer lower interest rates on loans and higher dividends on members' shares (savings). A credit union is also non-profit in the sense that its purpose is to serve the members, not to make money. It needs money to provide services and benefits. But money is the means, not the end itself.

Q. Who may join a credit union?

A. Every credit union serves a specific field of membership as defined by its charter. Anyone who falls within the common bond of the credit union may join and share in its ownership. A common bond can be defined as the employees of a company, members of a civic or church group, residents of a community or numerous groups together. Generally, persons within a member's family, by blood or marriage, may also join. To locate a credit union to join, click here.

Q. How are credit unions operated?

A. Credit unions are democratically controlled by their members. The members, themselves, elect a board of directors from among the membership, which is responsible for setting policy. Day-to-day operations are handled by paid professionals, or in the case of a small sized credit union, by volunteers.

Q. Who governs credit unions?

A. A credit union receives its authority to operate by obtaining a federal or state charter. Federally chartered credit unions follow the regulations set by the Federal Credit Union Act, and state chartered credit unions follow those under the State Credit Union Act. Annual examinations and oversight is conducted by the supervisory agencies—the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) for the federal credit unions and the Pennsylvania Department of Banking for credit unions chartered under Pennsylvania laws.

Q. Are savings insured?

A. Member savings accounts at all Pennsylvania credit unions are federally insured up to $250,000 by NCUA's share insurance fund. This fund is backed by the full faith and credit of the government. No taxpayer funds are used to support the NCUA or the credit union insurance fund.

Q. How many credit unions are there?

A. In Pennsylvania, there are 545 credit unions that serve more than 3.5 million members. Collectively, they hold $33 billion in assets. In the United States, there are 7,598 credit unions that hold $916 billion in assets and serve more than 91 million members. Worldwide, 49,000 credit unions operate in 97 countries, providing affordable financial services to 184 million members.

Q. How did the credit union idea originate?

A. 1849 is generally accepted as the year that the first credit union was organized. Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, mayor of a small German town whose inhabitants had suffered heavy financial losses due to a crop failure and a depression, conceived the idea. He believed that by pooling small sums of money, a fund could be established from which loans could be made at a low rate of interest. Now, as then, credit unions make small loans that other financial institutions would consider too small for processing.

Q. When were credit unions first organized in the United States?

A. The first U.S. credit union was formed in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1909. This was accomplished with the help of Alphonse Desjardins, a Canadian journalist, who had introduced the idea to Canada in 1901.

Q. How did the credit union movement expand in the United States?

A. Edward A. Filene, the famous Boston merchant, was on a world tour in 1909 and witnessed credit unions in action...first in India and later in Europe. When he returned home and learned that there was such an organization in New Hampshire, he began a one-man campaign to extend the idea in this country. He is reported to have used more than a million dollars of his personal funds for this purpose. He succeeded in getting state laws giving credit unions legal status, and in 1934 he saw his dream come true when the United States Congress enacted a federal credit union law. Since then the movement has grown tremendously.