What Is a Credit Union—and How Is it Different From a Bank?

iStock/sshepard
iStock/sshepard

Between the 2008 financial crisis and the recent Wells Fargo fiasco, consumers have grown distrustful of banks and are considering credit unions as an alternative place to park their cash. Just like banks, credit unions accept deposits and make loans—so how, exactly, are they different?

For one, they have a democratic history. The first credit unions were established as cooperatives, meaning the people who kept their cash in the credit union also helped manage it—and they still operate this way today. As such, you are treated as a member, not a customer, and have the right to vote on a board of directors. Typically, personal finance expert Tal Frank tells mental_floss, membership often means you can expect better service at a credit union than at a big bank.

“However, if comparing a credit union to a community bank or a small local bank, you will probably find that you get a high level of service at both," Frank says. "The smaller guys try harder. They also have more of a personal connection with clients or members.”

Credit unions are also non-profit organizations. "So, unlike banks, they don't have stockholders who expect to receive a quarterly dividend payment," Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University, tells mental_floss. "And without the need to pay stockholders, federally insured credit unions can benefit their members by keeping fees low.”

As Weidman says, because they’re non-profit, credit unions can use any excess earnings to offer customers lower rates and better financial products. “Most banks pay lousy rates of interest, have too many fees, charge too much for those fees, and charge too much interest when loaning money,” says Wiedman. “Virtually all federally insured credit unions beat most banks in nearly every one of those categories.”

But the fact that they're community-focused cooperatives doesn't mean credit unions are a free-for-all: They operate under certain rules set by an organization called the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). In addition to setting guidelines, the NCUA also insures your funds (just as the FDIC—Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—does your deposits at a bank).

Interested an opening an account? Credit unions are a bit more exclusive than banks. “In the olden days, one had to be an employee of a particular company or member of a certain group to join a credit union,” Frank says. “Over the years that distinction has eroded for many credit unions. Guidelines changed to include allowing membership for family, a specific occupation, or all those who live in a geographic area (even as large as an entire state). As an example, Delta Community Credit Union is the largest in Georgia. Although there are ‘membership eligibility’ guidelines, the guidelines are so broad that it is pretty much open to anyone.”

Many credit unions will expand their membership to people outside of an industry or area if you make a small charitable donation, too. The Pentagon Financial Credit Union, for example, is typically only open to military employees, but just about anyone can get a membership with a one-time $15 donation to Voices for America's Troops or the National Military Family Association.

If you’re looking for a credit union, ASmarterChoice.org is a good place to start your search. You'll need to vet the credit union carefully, as you would any other financial institution: Make sure they are indeed insured by the NCUA, and read member reviews on comparison sites like NerdWallet and Bankrate. If convenience is important to you, you’ll also want to check out their mobile and online banking options to make sure they fit your needs.

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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Grocery Stores vs. Supermarkets: What’s the Difference?

gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images
gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images

These days, people across the country are constantly engaging in regional term debates like soda versus pop and fireflies versus lightning bugs. Since these inconsistencies are so common, you might have thought the only difference between a grocery store and a supermarket was whether the person who mentioned one was from Ohio or Texas. In reality, there are distinctions between the stores themselves.

To start, grocery stores have been around for much longer than supermarkets. Back when every town had a bakery, a butcher shop, a greengrocery, and more, the grocery store offered townspeople an efficient shopping experience with myriad food products in one place. John Stranger, vice president group supervisor of the food-related creative agency EvansHardy+Young, explained to Reader’s Digest that the grocer would usually collect the goods for the patron, too. This process might sound familiar if you’ve watched old films or television shows, in which characters often just hand over their shopping lists to the person behind the counter. While our grocery store runs may not be quite so personal today, the contents of grocery stores remain relatively similar: Food, drinks, and some household products.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, have taken the idea of a one-stop shop to another level, carrying a much more expansive array of foodstuffs as well as home goods, clothing, baby products, and even appliances. This is where it gets a little tricky—because supermarkets carry many of the same products as superstores, the next biggest fish in the food store chain, which are also sometimes referred to as hypermarkets.

According to The Houston Chronicle, supermarkets and superstores both order inventory in bulk and usually belong to large chains, whereas grocery stores order products on an as-needed basis and are often independently owned. Superstores, however, are significantly larger than either grocery stores or supermarkets, and they typically look more like warehouses. It’s not an exact science, and some people might have conflicting opinions about how to categorize specific stores. For example, Walmart has a line of Walmart Neighborhood Markets, which its website describes as “smaller-footprint option[s] for communities in need of a pharmacy, affordable groceries, and merchandise.” They’re not independently owned, but they do sound like grocery stores, especially compared to Walmart’s everything-under-the-sun superstore model.

Knowing the correct store terms might not always matter in casual conversation, but it could affect your credit card rewards earnings. American Express, for example, offers additional rewards on supermarket purchases, and it has a specific list of stores that qualify as supermarkets, including Gristedes, Shoprite, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods. Target and Walmart, on the other hand, are both considered superstores, so you won’t earn bonuses on those purchases.

And, since grocery shopping at any type of store can sometimes seem like a competitive sport, here’s the ideal time to go.

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