Sinead Ryan: Credit unions may again be a force to be reckoned with
I spent time on Monday with a great group of credit union workers from around the country.
Some of these community facilities have had a torrid time over the years with financial collapses, mergers (some enforced), taking their eye off the ball on what they were supposed to be about and a general sense that perhaps they were losing their relevance in the 21st century.
We've all become super-sophisticated, switching to online banking and clicking our way through our accounts, knowing the banks don't want sight nor sound of us in a branch if they can help it.
So, it might have taken a while to see the obvious answer for a movement considered a little fuddy-duddy by comparison, but it's welcome all the same.
In the spirit of 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em', credit unions have decided to up their game and add in basic banking to their product offerings of community lending and deposits.
They've realised that in fact, many of us don't actually relish the prospect of going into our bank branch and being directed to a box in the corner in which to conduct our business because staff are too busy to talk to us.
We don't derive great joy from playing telephone roulette with an automaton to find out if a direct debit was paid, diverting though that can be.
Inexplicably, we're not invigorated by seeing fees and charges swiped from our accounts after we do our bank's work for them.
Credit unions offer something unique which used to be ubiquitous: human contact. You could be forgiven for thinking we've done away with all that guff these days, but it's only when it's gone you realise you miss it.
Yes, the fancy Apps are grand and handy; why queue when you can use an ATM? The hole in the wall is fantastic on the holliers compared to those messy travellers' cheques.
But that local contact, the nod of the head in recognition when you walk in and the chat about something in the area, can make some people's day.
Credit unions aren't social services, no more than banks or post offices are, but there's a happy medium and they may well have struck it.
It's true that not every one of them will make it in this brave new banking world, but most of them are giving it a go, with 200 signed up before the end of the year on a new system which will allow the vast majority of their members, in my opinion, to switch quite fully to them, for far less money, than staying with their big, expensive bank.
The Credit unions welcome the physical interaction. They have cheery tellers waiting to take your deposits and complete your lending applications. Crucially, they also have money to lend, and lots of it - but often members feel like a burden when they ask; they need to be convinced they're doing it a favour instead.
So, what's in store for members who decide to take the leap?
Well, it won't be free. Banking is an expensive business, loaded with costly paperwork and labour intensiveness. However, credit unions exist and are owned by their members, so costs only have to be covered. Surplus funds go full circle to them anyway in the form of dividends.
But charges are expected to be considerably lower than the banks, which isn't a high bar.
Members will be able to have their wages or pension paid in directly, pay household bills, lodge and withdraw cash, transfer money, set up direct debits and use a debit card.
This pretty much caters for most of what we all do every day. Loans of course, will still be on offer. Many credit unions already have foreign currency services, so what's left?
Not much, unless you happen to require the services of a wealth fund manager (thought not), or need to manage your off-shore accounts (No?) or keep your savings in a high interest-bearing instrument (don't worry, there aren't any of those either).
CUDA, one of the credit union umbrella bodies is trialling an App in the giant Member First credit union in Dublin, which they'll download for customers who bring in their own laptop or smartphone. It's free and a real, live person will help you with it. They'll probably even smile too.
Credit unions have lost their way over the years, perceived as the granny's parlour of banking. Measures like this may well make them a force to be reckoned with again.
You'd almost feel sorry for the banks. Almost.