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Online members do their homework before making financial decisions, according to analysis recently published by the likes of Financial Insights, Forrester Research and the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

And credit unions help members to do their homework by offering online financial calculators. Nearly 40% of credit unions surveyed about their IT spending in 2004 said they are adding calculators to their websites, according to a Callahan and Associates report.

"Most consumers do their research online," said Anni Evans, vice president of eBusiness at Meriwest CU in San Francisco. "Our calculators help educate members when they're doing their own research."

That education also helps members make purchasing decisions about products, added Michael Lee, member education manager at The Golden 1 CU in Sacramento, Calif.

"Members figure out the affordability and monthly payments for products they want to purchase, which helps us make a smoother sale," Evans agreed.

To enhance sales, two years ago The Golden 1 integrated the calculators into the sales channels of its website. Previously, members could only access the calculators on a separate "landing" page, Lee said.

Meriwest and Golden 1's calculators are a slicker generation than their type-and-click predecessors. Users can slide a computer mouse across a calculator's visual interface to adjust amounts or rates and play with "what-if" loan and investment scenarios. Results appear in colorful graphs and charts.

"The visual aspects and ease of use are fantastic," said Lee. "We feel that the average member can use the calculators to get good data."

The interactive calculators-featured at nearly 150 credit union websites nationwide-are provided by El Dorado Hills, Calif.-based VisualCalc.

The most frequently used calculators at both credit unions are the Home Loan and Auto Loan calculators. At Meriwest, members use each of these calculators about 500 times per month, Evans said. Meanwhile, one of the credit union's most popular web pages, the Locations page, gets about 7,000 visits per month, she said.

At The Golden 1, the Visa Inquiry pages got up to 65,000 hits in September and are the website's most frequently visited after its homepage, which got more than one-million hits in September, Lee said.

By comparison, the Home Loan calculator got about 8,000 hits in September, Lee added. "Calculators don't get the most hits at our website, but never the least number of hits either," Lee said. "They are a web tool of medium interest."

Lee thinks members would use the calculators more if they could easily print results from the screen.

"The print functionality presents a good opportunity for improvement for the tool," he said.

The 600,000-member Golden 1 CU currently features eight VisualCalc calculators, in addition to approximately 15 calculators offered via CUNA's Home and Family Finance Resource Center.

The menu of 11 calculators at Meriwest will soon include VisualCalc's Rate vs. Rebate auto calculator, as well as a new Home Equity tool, which will help members work through calculations for available equity, Evans said.

Both $920-million Meriwest CU and $5.3-billion Golden 1 CU have offered VisualCalc to members for about five years.

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