According to a 2012 financial literacy survey conducted by Harris Interactive, fewer than half of Americans track their expenses as part of a monthly household budget. Researchers from Rasmussen Reports reported similar findings in their own survey, adding that many of us without personal budgets rely on credit cards or personal savings when our paychecks don't make it all the way to the end of the month. The surveys show that we tend to rely on habits when dealing with money, but that running out of cash isn't always enough to inspire us to change our financial routines.

Fortunately, many banks now include budgeting tools in their online banking services. The American Bankers Association reports that nearly 40 percent of us choose online banking as our preferred way to handle our finances. That figure grows to cover more than half of Americans if you factor in both telephone and mobile banking, the boundaries of which have been blurred by sophisticated smartphone applications.

Americans using credit card rewards for savings and splurges

In 2010, a team of researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago estimated that a typical cash back credit card holder earns about $25 every month in rewards. Until now, those balances have been building up because, as Lightspeed's report concludes, redeeming credit card rewards hasn't always been the easiest process.

Survey respondents told researchers that they typically enlisted the help of telephone agents to cash out rewards balances. While less frustrating than redeeming frequent flyer miles for air travel, the process of converting a rebate into a statement credit still daunts many of us. Therefore, we tend to rack up larger and larger rewards balances.

Researchers commissioned for a 2012 American Express study found that relatively few Americans use those credit card rewards balances to cover holiday shopping expenses. Yet, the percentage of consumers who treat their rewards points like a Christmas Club account rose from 2011 levels. Still, according to analysts at Lightspeed Research, consumers prefer cash rebates to other types of credit card rewards by a wide margin.

Online credit card tools that help you budget and redeem effectively

Three credit card companies offer innovative ways to build rewards into your saving and spending plans:

  • Chase Blueprint and Ultimate Rewards. One of the first online budgeting tools made available to credit card users, Chase Blueprint set the bar high with a suite of trackers designed to help cardholders pay down balances. In addition to watching spending trends, Blueprint customers can calculate how to "split" a large purchase from the rest of a balance, then redeem Ultimate Rewards points for a statement credit in that amount. Chase's system helped the bank earn top customer satisfaction rankings among participants in Lightspeed's study, with 77 percent of Chase Freedom customers declaring they found it "very easy to redeem rewards."
  • Capital One Purchase Eraser. This clever feature first appeared for customers with Venture Card accounts, and has since rolled out to Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card and Spark Business cardholders. If you're carrying a cash rewards balance, just scroll through your list of recent transactions on Capital One's website. Pick one that's less than your current rewards balance, and the bank will essentially "erase" it from your statement. Plan ahead, and you can save up for a special gift or a travel expense, then use your rewards to cover the cost.
  • Discover CashBack Bonus and Paydown Planner. Although Discover already enjoys a close third-place ranking in Lightspeed's survey, the company enhanced their online redemption tools in conjunction with the launch of the Discover it Card. For instance, 17 percent of cardholders rely on Discover's partnership with Amazon to redeem balances for goods and downloads. 26 percent of Discover cardholders trade rewards for retail and restaurant gift cards. Those numbers could shift with help from Paydown Planner, a tool that allows cardholders to estimate how quickly they could eliminate debt by adjusting their monthly payments.

Online budgeting tools still have a long way to go, but heightened competition among banks and pressure from third-party developers have already inspired innovation from credit card issuers. With convenient redemption options, an updated cash back credit card might just inspire you to save a few pennies from every dollar you charge.