Personal financial management tools were supposed to differentiate banks and improve customer retention, but many institutions are struggling to make the most of the enhanced online banking technology.

So far, only 10 of the top 50 banks offer PFM, according to research by Celent last year, and fewer than 4% of online bankers are active users of PFM.

Many banks confine PFM to financial planning silos, rather than linking the tools to consumers' savings goals or using them to cross-sell. To become truly useful, the theory holds, PFM products must be front and center, and an integral part of the online banking and payments experience.

A case in point is Unitus Community Credit Union, which, over the past year, has discovered its members are even willing to pay for PFM tools.

Unitus, of Portland, Ore., has 78,000 members and about $1 billion in assets. About 12,000 members bank online and about 1,100 use the credit union's PFM tool, a white-label product from Geezeo. Each PFM user pays $2 a month, and a hundred members a month are signing up to use it.

The credit union's PFM users are also among the most profitable. Those who use PFM tend to have about seven products with the credit union. By contrast, the non-PFM-using member has about four products.

"Our more engaged members are signing up for [PFM] because they see it as a value-added service," says Laurie Kresl, vice president of planning and business development for Unitus.

Even at Unitus, there is room for improvement. It plans to integrate personal financial management more closely with standard online banking, Kresl says. Currently its PFM tool is accessed through a separate tab.

"People would rather be able to do things all in one place if possible, and we want [PFM] to be a tool that helps them manage their finances better," Kresl says.

Citigroup re-engineered its online banking site in November, centralizing its suite of PFM tools in its main online banking page.

"It allows the customer a much better way to make decisions about what actions to take as they manage their financial lives," says Michael Marion, product manager of financial tools for the banking company.

Citi doesn't charge for PFM, and says it is not considering doing so for the time being.

Citi is currently in a discovery phase, learning what consumer preferences are with the tool, Marion says. It does not allow payments from the personal financial management page.

Some bankers see greater unification of the management tools with transactions as critical.

Central Bancompany of Jefferson City, Mo., also integrated a PFM tool from Geezeo into its online banking suite in late February.

The bank, which has 110,000 active online bankers, has $10 billion in assets. About 13,000 customers have signed up for the PFM tool, which it calls MoneyManager.

"We are looking at ways to make this a seamless application, because we feel online banking will become similar to PFM today, there will be all kinds of melding together, and it will become one thing," says Matt Tollerton, head of e-commerce for Central Bancompany.

Most personal financial management pages do not integrate payments. This is a possible holdover from the days when PFM was primarily offered directly to consumers through third parties — the lack of a payments function was actually a selling point, since it assured consumers that their money was secure.

But from a bank perspective, "PFM needs to be the basic interface to your money, and you have to have that when you are checking bank balances, when you are paying bills, and paying for things," says Mark Schwanhausser, senior analyst, multichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy and Research.

Experts say that so far, banks have proven themselves either too hesitant in their rollouts or too caught up in trying to figure out how to make PFM pay. To be sure, a few have bucked the trend, with one even turning PFM into a source of revenue.

Stessa Cohen, research director of banking industry advisory services at Gartner, says that besides tying it more closely to online banking, there are other ways to make personal financial management relevant.

First, it must carefully reflect customers' financial lives, analyzing payments and transactions they've made in the past and what they currently have in their aggregated accounts. It can also help them set financial goals in the future.

Banks, for example, could design personal financial management programs to send consumers alerts to mobile devices if spending begins to seem out of line with a goal, Cohen says.

Or PFM could more closely resemble merchant-funded rewards, where customers are offered goods or services in their online banking statements based on their past buying behavior.

Personal financial management could incorporate a savings rate analyzer, compare 401(k) products, or other investment products, says Ron Shevlin, senior analyst with Aite Group.

"There is a future for PFM if it is defined more broadly to help consumers make smarter decisions about their financial lives," Shevlin says.

Some of the top PFM providers are working on providing tools and services that are more closely tied to real-time transactions and payments.

For example, Geezeo's new platform provides an interactive calendar, which allows customers to change pay dates through a drag-and-drop function that simultaneously signals how the change affects cash flow.

A new "goals" feature, to be rolled out sometime in May, will let users allocate funds to achieve multiple savings goals.

"Goals start to hit on what's aspirational for the end user," says Peter Glyman, president and co-founder of Geezeo.

Banks can then be ready with the cross-sell. An example would be to offer a sweep account when the bank notices customers are segmenting savings by goals, Glyman says.

Still, banks need to tread lightly, says Scott Saunders, chief executive and founder of Payoff.com, a free PFM suite that uses a gamelike approach to finances.

"To the extent that individuals see online banking as a bunch of advertising, it will be a big turnoff to consumers," Saunders says.