It’s your wonderful life

Move Your Money campaign promises a better America via local banking

Rank ’em On its Web site, Move Your Money has teamed up with an independent service, Institutional Risk Analysis, to provide a search interface where you can get a list of banks in your area with a government rating of “B” or better. For the 95928 search, three B-or-higher banks came up: Golden Valley, Northern California National, and 11 branches of Tri Counties.

Credit unions are FDIC insured as well, but they’re not required to disclose the same financial data, so ratings are harder to come by. Searching the Credit Union National Association’s site brings up five different credit unions—STAR, Sierra Central, Golden 1, Butte Federal and Silverado—with a total of eight branches in Chico, Oroville and Paradise.

Money-moving links

Move Your Money:

Break up with your bank:

Break up the big banks:

Local bank finder:

Local credit union finder:

“Once upon a time in America men like George Bailey ran small community banks. They made a living, but they also made people’s lives better.”

Doesn’t that sound like a refreshing scenario? Especially today, in the wake of an economic collapse caused in large part by derivatives-trading, subprime-loan-guaranteeing big banks, those faceless entities that seem preoccupied with the complex activities on Wall Street at the expense of the simple needs of Main Street.

The quotation above is from the opening of the promotional video for the Move Your Money movement, a campaign sparked by Arianna Huffington (author and creator of the Huffington Post) that encourages people to move their accounts from big banks to local community banks. In the four-minute video, documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarcecki re-edits footage from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life to draw parallels with the current financial crisis.

The idea is that, just as the community of Bedford Falls banded together to save the small-town Building and Loan from the greedy majority-shareholder Mr. Potter and return it to the hands of community-minded banker George Bailey, we can similarly regain a semblance of control over our destiny by banding together and moving our money from big banks to smaller community banks.

While the reality of the equation might not be as simple as big banks=bad and local banks=good, the breakdowns in our economic system have people reassessing old models like the “too-big-to-fail” banks, allowing new ideas such as Move Your Money to change the way people do business.

“More and more people and businesses are looking for safe, sound community banks,” said Mark Francis, president of Chico’s Golden Valley Bank. “They want to know that their money is being used locally.”

And that’s the most solid reasoning behind making the move. While frustrations with big banks’ financial dealings and government bailouts may be the prime motivator for enduring the hassle of switching accounts, resetting online bill payments and paying the occasional additional ATM fee that comes with belonging to a bank with no out-of-area branches, keeping it local is probably the best reason to switch.

“Community banks lend out money from local depositors to other local people,” Francis explained.

And other than the inconvenience of not having a physical building or branch ATMs outside your community, there’s no difference between banking locally and with big banks. Your deposits are still FDIC insured for up to $250,000, and your ATM debit/credit cards will still buy groceries.

Of course, it’s worth noting that local banks can make risky investments as well, and many have even accepted Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) monies (check for the full bailout list), so on those counts small can be just as dicey as big. But they are not as beholden to shareholders as the big banks are, and they lend their holdings to small-scale, community-friendly projects, not huge—and often environmentally damaging—corporate endeavors.

The movement is growing. Francis said that at Golden Valley he’s “absolutely” seen an increase in customers switching over from big banks. “I think what a lot of people say to community bankers when they’re coming from a big bank is, ‘I don’t know anyone there any more,’” he said. “They want to go someplace where they feel welcomed and comfortable.”

According to the Credit Union Times, searches for local credit unions on both CUNA and the National Association of Federal Credit Unions sites have tripled in volume since the Move Your Money story appeared online in the Huffington Post. And it’s not just individuals joining the charge; the state House of Representatives in New Mexico recently voted 65-0 in favor of moving up to $5 billion of the state’s holdings from national banks to community banks and credit unions.

“My advice is to support your local community,” Francis said. “You’re going to find safe, sound community banks right here in Chico.”

Of course, Francis is biased toward having depositors choose a local institution like his, but as the on-site president of a one-branch, local bank, his position calls to mind the other reason cited for going local: the feeling that there’s a person, not a corporate headquarters, that holds your financial interest.

And, in this area, at places like Golden Valley Bank—which was started by local business leaders and includes the very familiar faces of Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman and Collier Hardware’s Syl Lucena on its Board of Directors—you’ll certainly be more likely to find a George Bailey than at a big bank.