NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — When budgeting, it's important to take into account rewards programs. Everyone from big box stores to financial institutions to local mom and pops offers incentive programs. Some are as simple as a punch card where so many purchases will earn you a free one. Others are more complicated – American Express incentive programs are tiered based on the card, with the Membership Rewards point accumulation program being an additional service with its own annual fee.

With Richard Cordray's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau taking a peek at how credit card rewards programs are being run and explained to consumers, it's a good idea to learn a little background about this industry. I met with Randy Hopper, Navy Federal Credit Union's vice president of credit cards and business optimization, to discuss how to maximize your benefits from these programs and how to best integrate them into your everyday spending.

1. What's the Cost/Reward Ratio?

The most important determining factor for rewards programs as a consumer is whether or not you'll actually receive value for your participation. Credit card reward programs often carry an annual fee, ranging from $15 upwards of $150. Store rewards programs have minimum purchase levels similar to the two drink minimum at The Improv. Offsetting these fees means only participating in programs where you actually gain a benefit.

Best Buy's Reward Zone program, for example, is great for tech enthusiasts, gamers and other geeks, but even a tech-savvy fitness buff wouldn't benefit from the program, as it encourages him to spend on something counterintuitive to his lifestyle. The same principle applies to credit card and other rewards programs offered by the finance industry.

The American Express Membership Rewards program is great if you're a big spender, but the average working American can't always afford the surf and turf. At the same time, Bank of America's Keep the Change program does provide a nominal match for the change on your debit purchases, but it only encourages you to spend more when you should be saving. At Navy Federal, in addition to offering a variety of credit card rewards with a good value, they make it easy to use.

"We think your rewards program should do the work for you, not the other way around," Hopper explains.

There shouldn't be much guess work in terms of earning and redeeming points.

2. How Easy Is It to Redeem?

Don't consider your rewards "free money" – you didn't win a prize at an arcade. Some rewards programs are easy to redeem – Amex, for example, has entire teams of customer service agents directly responsible for their Membership Rewards program. Within this structure, they even have teams of premium agents who are more experienced, paid a little extra, and service the high-value customers.