Since banks have existed, bank customers have been conditioned to have certain expectations. Banker’s hours: everybody knows they’re supposed to be nine to five, but more often than not, they open later and close early enough to prevent a traditional nine-to-fiver from banking in person. Bank decor: bullet-proof glass is as much a staple of bank interior design as the velvet-roped rat maze organizing the customer queue. Banker’s motto: profit uber alles! Then, of course, there’s the you need us more than we need you mentality drilled into every hourly employee. If you’ve ever had a bank account, chances are good that you have a horror story involving the bank inventing an enigmatic fee to subtract a few decimal places from your balance and add it to their balance sheet.
If my mattress paid annual interest, my wife and I would be sleeping on our life savings every night. Instead, up until recently anyway, we kept our money in an online bank simply to avoid ever having to enter one of these stuffy institutions. We soon realized that a brick-and- mortar bank had its advantages too - namely, customer service people to help answer questions and guide us through the investing process. A friend recommended North Shore and, begrudgingly, I went to inspect the nearest branch. But before I get into that, I think it’s time we were honest about banks. As patrons, in general, we want two things: high returns on our accounts and investments and low rates on our mortgages and loans. Banks figure that if they can deliver on those two themes with a few minor variations, they’re doing what the public expects and providing a valuable service - even if it is the exact service the bank across the street is offering.
But what if there was an alternative to banks-as-usual? What if you didn’t dread having to walk into your bank? What if the tellers weren’t behind bullet proof glass? What if there was a comfortable place to wait your turn? What if they served cappuccino? After touring and inspecting North Shore, I knew I had found such a place. For one thing, it looked more like a Starbucks than a financial institution! The tellers sat with their customers before them in comfortable armchairs. No bullet proof glass anywhere. Instead of omnipresent posters trying to sell me on a new, high interest credit card or a mortgage refinance, prints from local artists hung on the wall.
Rather than the velvet-roped rat maze, a flat screen television set to Bloomberg entertained the credit union’s “guests” who actually were sipping espresso! Progressive coffee- house refinements aside, the smart money banks here for a decidedly traditional rea- son. Since credit unions are “owned” by their customers, they are not responsible to a faceless cadre of stockholders demanding ever higher returns on their investment. Credit union profits are spent, how shall we say, wisely. Specifically, they go back into the pockets of members. For example, instead of paying 10% interest on a personal loan from a bank, you could pay 7% from North Shore. The reverse is true for investments - even the riskless CD. Most banks act like 5% on a 12-month CD is a robust, healthy return. A North Shore customer can kick up his feet and feel very smart about earning an additional 3% on the exact same investment.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was completely taken in by the enlightened interior design and the “open” floor plan. And I’m as susceptible to great coffee as the next man. But I also consider myself slightly brighter than the average bird. Frankly, I’m stunned I wasn’t aware of North Shore earlier. So now we’re both in the know. I don’t know about you, but from now on, I’ll be earning more interest on my money, paying less on my loans and enjoying the progressive hospitality of this new credit union. Not to mention a mocha latte while I wait.