Frustrated with getting charged every time you use a non-bank ATM or your account balance dips below a certain point? If you’re like most, you probably think dealing with whatever fees your bank decides to throw your way is your only option.

But it’s not, and it might be time to check out an alternative: a credit union.

Credit unions aren’t new, but they’ve gained popularity in recent years: At this time last year, credit unions and smaller local banks garnered media attention around “Bank Transfer Day,” a movement that sprang from frustration with increasing fees charged by larger banks. According to Credit Union Times, credit unions gained 214,000 new members in the month leading up to Bank Transfer Day on November 5, 2011. And last Thursday marked International Credit Union Day, which recognized the more than 196 million credit union members in 100 countries worldwide.

But the difference between credit unions and banks—and what can make them a better choice for your personal accounts—is still not well known. So today, I’m sharing a few reasons.

They Work for You

Credit unions are non-profit, member-owned financial cooperatives. That means, while banks are accountable to their stockholders, credit unions answer to their members. Rather than paying out profits in dividends, credit unions put the money they earn toward serving their memberships with things like better interest rates on loans and accounts and improvements in technology that will let them deliver more convenient services.

Plus, since credit unions benefit when their members thrive, they’re incentivized to offer you the tools you need to understand and take control over your finances via educational seminars, online resources, and personal advising—and usually do a rather good job with their offerings, too.

They’re Cheaper (and More Convenient)

Most credit unions offer the exact same products and services as banks, from basic checking accounts to mortgages, investment services, and business accounts—but at a lower cost. When it comes to overdraft fees and minimum balance requirements, credit unions tend to be more reasonable and flexible. (To see fee comparisons between banks and credit unions, see this article from Consumer Reports.)

And if you thought you had to choose a bank with locations nationwide to ensure that you always have easy access to ATMs, think again. The majority of credit unions are part of an ATM co-op that allows you to use the thousands of ATMs within the network at no charge. Some even reimburse you for non-network ATM fees.

Worried that a smaller financial institution is a riskier choice? The NCUA protects the money you have in a federally insured credit union up to $250,000, the same protection the FDIC provides bank accounts. (You can learn more on the NCUA website.)

They’ll Save You on More Than Just Banking

Credit unions also often have a local focus. In their early days, credit unions were typically only open to those working in specific companies, and while they’ve expanded since then, they still concentrate on retaining their community roots and feel. Most now welcome all who live or work in the area they serve.

This means, credit unions often get involved in their communities by giving back to charities and developing partnerships with local businesses, which often make members eligible for discounts elsewhere. Simply by banking with my local credit union, I qualify for reduced prices on my cell phone bill, eye exams, tax preparation services, insurance, and tickets to local cultural events.

Making the Move

Considering a credit union? Take some time to ask yourself what you need from your financial institution. Are you looking for a low cost checking account? Easy online access and bill pay options? Help establishing credit? Identify what matters most to you, and start by asking yourself if your current institution meets those needs.

If your current bank isn’t cutting it, then I would suggest looking for credit unions in your area (here’s a handy CU locator). Keep in mind that just as all banks are not created equal, not all credit unions have the same focus. One may have the mobile app you need to bank on the go, while another may have better office locations if you often handle transactions in person. Make your needs your top priority, and look for an institution that fits them.

After all, knowing you’ve picked the best place for your financial needs will give you peace of mind as you make other decisions about your money.