Money to the members.

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A credit union is a financial co-op, where members' well-being takes priority.

You've probably heard of co-ops: food co-ops, childcare co-ops, housing co-ops, energy co-ops.

The stuff they're sharing varies — groceries, babysitting, housing, kilowatt-hours —? but the concept is the same: In a cooperative, people join together to form an organization, sharing resources for the benefit of all members.

So what's a credit union? It's a money co-op ?— a group of people who put their dollars together, forming an organization that offers savings and checking accounts, makes loans, and offers essentially the same services as a bank.

But a credit union is grown from different DNA: A credit union is a not-for-profit organization owned by its members.

Money goes back to the cooperative

Like banks, credit unions must adhere to government regulations, and they're federally insured by the NCUA. But rather than paying dividends to stockholders, credit unions return the money they make to their members. That means members get low loan rates, high savings rates, low fees (if any), and quality service.

And the member-owners are ultimately in charge, voting on a board of directors to make the big decisions.

That all adds up to a financial institution where members' well-being is the true priority. Credit unions often provide free financial education for children and adults, along with special programs to help members organize their finances or recover from financial problems. They tend to emphasize social responsibility, contributing to local programs that benefit the community.

Small contributions add up

The first deposit in North America's first credit union was just 10 cents.

That credit union opened in 1901, in Quebec, organized by a journalist named Alphonse Desjardins. Desjardins had noticed a lack of adequate banks for workers — and that when workers could get small loans, they paid unreasonably high interest rates.

Counting that first dime, the first collection from all members totaled $26, according to the Northwest Credit Union Association.

The first credit union in the United States opened soon after, in New Hampshire in 1909, providing affordable credit to farmers, tradespeople, and other working people.

Because everyone had a stake in their credit union's success, members took care to repay their loans. And early credit unions' founding principles reflected those that guide modern ones: democratic governance; an emphasis on education and social responsibility; ownership by the members.

They're principles with popular and lasting appeal. More than 235 million people belong to 68,000 credit unions today, in 109 nations, according to the World Council of Credit Unions.

And at each of them, it's all about pooling resources — for the benefit of all.

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