(Dow Jones) Financial advisors can draw on psychology and technology to help investors overcome their desire for instant gratification.
This means understanding the principles of behavioral economics, which examines consumers' behavior around money, and keeping clients focused on their long-term goals.
"What financial advisors need to do is help clients think carefully about what money means and what risk means," says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, where he and students are putting the final touches on several iPhone applications meant to help consumers with budgeting and spending.
Some financial advisors ask clients how much money they'd like to save for retirement. The behavioral approach would be to instead review with clients how they'd like to live in retirement and help them estimate costs.
And instead of asking investors to quantify their risk tolerance on a numerical scale, advisors could ask them to describe the minimum acceptable level for categories of expenses they've identified.
"That defines how much you can have and what risk you're willing to take," says Ariely, who wrote the popular book "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions."
Parents who are saving for their child's college education expenses might say they want to set aside at least enough to send their child to a state school. Financial advisers could then structure a portfolio accordingly. Investments whose value could increase enough to pay for an Ivy League education-but also risk losing so much that the family could only afford community college-would be off the table, for example.
Technology can help consumers control emotions that can sabotage their futures.
One of the iPhone applications under development encourages users to consider the advice certain friends and family members would dispense before making purchases. A tech twist on the "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets popular with Christian youth, the application draws on research showing that people make better decisions when they consider the advice of a trusted source.
Another application compares the costs of purchases with other items an individual has indicated she enjoys. So, someone about to buy shoes can decide whether the shoes would give her more pleasure than a massage and two books, which cost the same. Ariely says the aim is to put the opportunity cost of money in concrete terms.
A third application tracks categories of spending and the impact of purchases on retirement. A consumer who has indicated he wants to cut his coffee purchases to five cups a week from 14 cups, for example, can track his habit and see the cumulative cost of those additional cups over time.