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Best Way to Get Free Checking

While many banks are shifting away from free checking accounts, the country's biggest credit unions are bucking the trend.'s 2011 Credit Union Checking Study examined 50 major credit unions - not-for-profit financial institutions that are owned and controlled by members - and found that a 96% still offered free checking accounts or accounts that can become free as long as you meet certain conditions, such as keeping a minimum balance.

I've always been a huge advocate of credit unions - ever since opening my first checking account as a teenager with the local Digital Federal Credit Union in Shrewsbury, Mass. Even though I moved away, my account is still active and I enjoy free checking, as well as a monthly ATM fee reimbursement for using out-of-network ATMs. It's nice to know some things haven't changed.

My MoneyWatch colleague Jill Schlesinger is also a fan, as she writes in her piece: Hate Your Bank? Dump That Sucker For a Credit Union!
That said, credit unions haven't been completely immune to the financial crisis, and have raised some other fees. Credit union ATM fees, for example, have increased by an average of 5%, or 10 cents per withdrawal. The Bankrate survey also found that bounced check or insufficient fund fees have jumped 5% to $26.05 on average. And for those credit unions that do require a minimum balance to open a checking account, the average initial deposit is also on the rise: Last year the minimum requirement to open a checking account was at least $124.94; this year it's up 7.5% to $134.56.

Still, many of these increases are less than what bigger banks have recently imposed on customers.

I think parking some savings at a credit union, as either your sole banking destination or part of your overall banking "portfolio," is a fine way to bank smart. The Credit Union National Association boasts that practically everyone is eligible to be a member at credit union based on where you live, the company your work for, the school you attend or organizations you're a part of. Need somewhere to start your search? Check out and
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