We say we want to improve our financial situation and that we know what to do, yet we struggle. This is what social scientists call the Intention/Action Gap.

Dan Ariely, the behavioral economics expert and professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is trying to bridge the Intention/Action Gap by “hacking human behavior, for good,” the tag line of his year-old Common Cents Lab.

The Common Cents Lab, supported by the MetLife Foundation, studied 1000 low- to moderate-income Americans. Those studied shared a strong desire for financial security and could list on average four ways to improve their finances. Despite that, they felt financially insecure.

In a recent Bloomberg article, Ariely states “the temptation industry is getting better and better…technology fights with us because it’s so much easier to tempt us to do things by our emotion than our reason.” Ariely is working with smartphone apps like Digit and Qapital to encourage us to make better financial decisions.

An example? The average tax refund check is $3000 and offers a great opportunity to save. In the study, a control group of Digit customers was sent a text when their refund check hit their checking account asking them how much they’d like to save. The answer? On average 10%. The experimental group was sent a text before their check arrived asking them to commit to a savings amount. Their average? 15%. The experimental group ended up saving almost twice that of the control group…once you make a commitment, you’re more likely to keep it.

They label this technique “pre-commitment.” An everyday example of a pre-commitment tool is the automatic contribution to your 401k (or similar retirement plan). The Bloomberg article shared a projection from Fidelity:

Take a 25-year-old employee making $40,000 and getting annual raises of 1.5% after inflation. If they bumped up the percent of salary going into a 401(k) plan by 1% every year for 12 years, they’d have $1,930 more (PDF) in monthly retirement income.

Their findings support the envelope system for savings goals. Instead of lumping all of your non-retirement savings in one account, using an app like Qapital allows you to categorize your savings – a car, a vacation, etc. Spending on that new TV is harder if you’re raiding your vacation fund than your all-in-one savings account. And, Qapital recommends not just naming the account “vacation” but, instead, make it real, something like “Costa Rica Adventure Getaway.” As the app says, “Save for what you want; spend less on crap you don’t need.”

I often say that wealth is built in the margins. It’s the 1% here and there, not the windfalls that bring financial security. Try an app to shrink the gap – why not?