There are so many kinds of credit cards, it can be hard to sort through them and determine the pros and cons of the kinds of plastic you have (or want to have) in your wallet. Chances are the institution you use to manage your finances has some sort of credit card offering, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to their products. It’s always a good idea to shop around for the best deal you can get, whether you’re looking for a new credit card, an auto loan, a mortgage or anything else.
If you’re weighing credit card options from a large bank or a credit union, there’s not really a difference, as far as product function goes — applying for a credit card results in a hard inquiry on your credit report (which causes a minor, temporary hit to your credit score), and your balances and payment history on the card will be reported to the major credit reporting agencies. The fundamentals are the same, so you’ll only want to spend a small portion of your credit limit before paying it down (keeping your balance at less than 30% of your limit is a good benchmark), and you should always make payments on time, even if you’re not paying in full.
The difference between a credit card from a credit union and one from a retailer or bank is often the interest rate, according to Jason Steele, a frequent contributor to Credit.com on credit card issues.
“Credit unions can have lower rates and fees in some cases,” Steele said via email.
Based on Informa Research Services data pulled on April 14, platinum credit cards from credit unions have an average APR of 8.87%, compared to the 10.36% average APR of platinum cards issued by banks. The Credit Union National Association provided Credit.com those figures.
“On a $10,000 balance, for example, a consumer would save $150 per year for having a card at a credit union,” said Mike Schenk, vice president of Economics and Statistics at CUNA.
Average annual fees and maximum late fees were also lower than the averages from bank-issued credit cards.
The biggest obstacle most consumers face in getting a credit union credit card is that you have to be a member of that credit union, which requires you to meet certain qualifications laid out by that union. Schenk said many of these cooperatives have eased their restrictions for membership in the past 30 years.
If you’re the type of credit card user who carries a balance or occasionally uses cards to finance big purchases, looking at cards from a credit union may offer you the best options for saving money. At the same time, if you’re looking at rewards, you need to compare more than just interest rates and fees. It really depends what you’re looking for in a credit product. (You can get a sense of what a good credit card looks like by checking out the winners of our Best Credit Cards in America series.)
“I think the main thing is if you’re in the market for a credit card, do a little shopping,” Schenk said, “[and] include a credit union in those shopping plans.”
Opening up a credit account isn’t a decision to make without doing a bit of research first. When applying for new credit, you should make sure your credit is in good shape to maximize your chances for approval. While lenders may use different credit scoring models, reviewing a single score over time will give you an idea of how your behaviors affect your credit standing and roughly where you fall in the spectrum of credit-worthiness. You can see two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.