Bank tellerMany readers -- as well as a number of financial experts -- have suggested joining a credit union as an alternative to consumers concerned about the rising fees and diminished perks at many big banks. For instance, 38 of the 50 largest credit unions in the country still offer free checking. It's not hard to find and join a credit union; often, you only need to live, work or worship in a specific area to be eligible for membership.

But how can a would-be member make sure that the institution to which they're selecting to entrust their financial life is fiscally solvent?After all, hundreds of banks were labeled as troubled last year, and that was after the big bailouts many of them received. WalletPop spoke with Bill Hampel, chief economist at the Credit Union National Association, to find out what prospective credit union members should keep in mind and look for in this situation.

"The main thing is to check for deposit insurance," he advises. "Ninety nine percent are insured by NCUA, which is equivalent to FDIC insurance for a bank." Like the FDIC, the insurance protects your deposit accounts up to $250,000. In addition, Hampel says you can ask about the credit union's capital ratio. Recent research shows that, according to their capital ratios, 96% of all credit unions fit or exceed the criteria for being well-capitalized. In addition, Bankrate has an online tool that helps people evaluate the health of any credit union in the U.S.

Hampel says that the culture of credit unions plays a big role in keeping them financially healthy. "No credit union CEO or board member has any stock options so they have a reduced incentive to take the risks that would make those stock options worth a lot of money," Since credit unions don't operate as profit-driven corporations, "They operate at a much lower risk level, and executives don't get much of a reward for taking on risk," he says. The proof is in the numbers, Hampel asserts; while around 20 credit unions failed in 2010, 157 banks bit the dust last year.

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