I like to think I always check out my options when I make purchasing decisions.

I don't.

Take banking. Years ago I set up small business accounts at the bank branch closest to where I live and work. National bank, locations in just about every state, most of all was convenient. No brainer decision--not in a good way but in an "I didn't give the decision any real thought at all" way.

Setting up checking accounts, credit card accounts, merchant accounts, and a gateway for credit card processing was a pain, so once everything was in place I truly quit thinking about it. Occasionally I would notice all the monthly fees for checking and credit card processing and the annual fees for credit cards, and I would wonder if I could do better... but since a bank relationship at rest tends to remain at rest, wondering was all I did.

Then a credit union opened a branch near the grocery store. I drove by it several times a week for a long time and finally stopped in. Turns out I will save over $1,000 a year by switching my business accounts to the credit union: no monthly checking fees, no annual credit card fees, and dramatically lower merchant account and credit card processing fees.

How do you know unless you shop around?

After I got over feeling stupid for over-paying for so long I called Bill Cheney, CEO of the Credit Union National Association, to ask if my experience is typical.

"Absolutely," Bill said. "Too many small business owners don't check to find out if a cheaper service is available. Too many don't push established vendors--of all kinds--on costs."

I had no idea credit unions offer business accounts and business loans, much less that interest rates are often lower. For example, the average credit card interest rate from a credit union is 3 percentage points lower than from a bank. (Follow this link for a breakdown of rates on a variety of savings and lending products; results are updated daily.)

"Credit unions are not-for-profit cooperatives so they tend to offer better deals and establish better relationships with their members," Bill said. "Members can sometimes qualify for a loan a bank did not approve. Many credit unions also make the process of switching easier by extending no-interest or low-interest loans."

What to know before you go

There are no costs associated with joining a credit union but you are required to own membership shares. In practice that means you'll deposit from $5 to approximately $25, depending on the credit union, into a savings account. (The money you deposit is not a fee; it's still your money.)

Eligibility is also restricted based on geographic location, etc.; to see which credit unions are available to you, go to asmarterchoice.org and enter your address. (In my case, I could have joined four different credit unions all within about five miles of me--and I live in a small town.)

Granted a credit union might not be the best option for your banking business. Maybe another bank will offer cheaper rates and better services specific to your needs. Maybe your bank will offer cheaper rates... if you ask.

You won't know unless you treat banking as a purchase decision--and check out your options.