This post is from staff writer Kristin Wong.

I recently came across an interesting statistic. According to a poll from Harris Interactive, 41 percent of people rarely or never redeem their credit card rewards. It almost hurts to know all of those rewards are going to waste. A more recent study found that 73 percent of Americans are enrolled in rewards programs but have no idea how many points they have.

That used to be me. I discovered the magic of rewards points sometime right after college, when I finally started to take an interest in my financial situation. I wondered what the large number looming above my account number was, and, next thing I knew, years of unknowingly accumulating rewards points turned into a $100 statement credit.

Since then, I’ve been taking full advantage. I use my credit card like a debit card, budgeting and paying off everything I spend. My card doesn’t carry a fee, and I don’t rack up consumer debt — I just earn points. And as modest an amount as it may be, I always get a little excited when I periodically redeem my rewards.

How do you use your rewards?

Mad money

Here’s something about me a lot of people don’t know: I like buying clothes. This may seem uncharacteristic for a couple of reasons, one being that I call myself frugal, and, second, I dress like crap. Still, I love buying clothes. Mostly cardigans.

But I also don’t like spending money right now, because I’m trying to save up for something that I deem more important than fashion. There’s certainly nothing wrong with spending your money on cardigans. But for someone who’s trying to save, cardigans have become a weakness.

To make myself feel a little better, I automatically categorize my cash rewards as “shopping money.” This gives me a small budget to occasionally indulge a temptation.

Obviously, I could just as easily budget for this using my income, and the numbers would be the same. Maybe this is a silly psychological mind game I play with myself, but hey, it works, as it satisfies my nagging inner consumer.

Goals

After college, my goal was paying off my student loan debt. I used any and all extra cash I’d earn from anything, including rewards points, to accomplish that goal.

But again, that was student loan debt. If you’ve got consumer debt, you probably don’t want to put out a fire by playing with one. In fact, I’d be careful about using a credit card altogether.

Travel

I have a cash back card now, but even when I had a points-based rewards card, I never redeemed my points for travel.

With my old card, the travel deals were really terrible — I could always find cheaper flights without them — so I’d just redeem my points for cash, because they were worth more that way. If I can get more in cash than the trip is worth, I’m going with cash.

But this doesn’t take into consideration luxury travel — fancy hotels and first-class flights. Instead of comparing value using the cheapest travel option, some people might prefer to use their rewards points to pay for things they couldn’t otherwise afford. Guest writer Hilary Stockton wrote about her own experiences with luxury travel using a travel rewards card. She makes a compelling argument, and the photos don’t hurt, either.

I’m not experienced in this area, so feel free to elaborate on how you determine the value of your rewards travel.

Stuff

There’s also the option of trading your rewards points in for Stuff, but according to this report, that’s a terrible idea:

“Merchandise awards typically return only one cent in value for each point or mile spent, and that is only if you consider the product’s full retail price. In fact, cardholders are getting less than one cent in value for their points…when they likely could have purchased the items at a discount and received additional rewards from using their credit card for the transaction.”

Donate

Some people feel a little guilty about getting free money, even if it is, ultimately, part of a sales promotion from a large credit card company. Redeeming your rewards for a cash donation to a charity might be a good option for those feeling a little guilt-stricken or those who just want to do a good thing. Just make sure the amount they donate is the equal of or greater than the value in cash; otherwise, you might as well just give cash.

(I understand there are other ethical concerns about using credit cards, namely dealing with small businesses and transaction fees. That’s perhaps a topic for another post, but yeah, I understand that donating to a charity doesn’t assuage those larger concerns.)

Set and forget

There’s also the option of simply redeeming your points for statement credit and not putting too much thought into it, which is just fine, too. I also used to do that. It’s not as fun, but your budget is the same either way. I have Capital One’s Cash Rewards card now, and they even offer an option for auto-redemption.

Other fun hacks:

Combining with other programs

A few times now, I’ve booked travel on Priceline or Expedia using Mypoints.com. I log onto the site, go to Priceline, then use my credit card to pay for the ticket and also use my frequent flier number. Thus, I rack up airline miles, rewards points and Mypoints (which I later redeem for gift cards).

Churning

Holly wrote about this a while back, and while I lack the stamina for churning, she was able to take advantage of several credit card offers. She did warn about the possibility of this affecting one’s credit score, but churning has really worked for her.

My rewards work for me, not the other way around

I earn points on things I already buy; I don’t buy things just to earn rewards.

Here’s an example. When I wrote about revisiting the envelope system, a couple of readers were concerned about losing rewards by paying with cash. But the thing is, earning rewards doesn’t dictate my spending or my budget. Sure, I use my rewards for mad money, but I’m not going to make significant decisions about my budget based on earning more rewards. So if the envelope system helps me to save hundreds of dollars a month, well, then, I’m just going to have to stand to lose the $3.56 I’d earn in rewards by using my card for groceries.

Rewards are awesome, but they’re an ancillary bonus, not something I consider a steady profit.

My rewards card also offers higher percentages of cash back at certain stores. I’m careful not to get so caught up in the coolness of rewards points that I spend money at places I wouldn’t otherwise spend money.

However, I love Trader Joe’s. Unfortunately, the store by my house is almost always packed, and I hate looking for parking, so I usually shop a little farther up the road at Ralph’s. But when I discovered I could earn a significantly higher cash back percentage at Trader Joe’s, I dealt with the parking headache.

As I mentioned, I use my rewards card like a debit card. I used to actually be able to put money on my card so that it would carry a credit. From there, I’d simply use up that credit until my balance reached $0.00. I’d still rack up points, but I was never carrying a balance on the card. But when I switched to the Capital One card, this was no longer possible; they don’t allow me to pay anything more than my balance. So I have to be a bit more careful, but hey, that’s what a budget is for.

At any rate, these are my experiences in dealing with rewards programs. Like couponing or any other frugal tactic, I don’t spend a whole lot of time analyzing the many ways I could save, because, at some point, my time is more valuable. But I still enjoy taking advantage of the rewards. So what are your experiences? How do you redeem your rewards, and what frugal tricks have you learned along the way?

Disclaimer: This content is not provided by any company mentioned in this article. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed here are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such company.

This article is about Budgeting, Credit Cards