The couple had taken a number of bigger missteps, too, including a Hawaii timeshare, huge donations to their church and a business deal that had soured.
They needed to free up $1,600 from their monthly budget to avoid bankruptcy. A family of seven can save a lot of money by avoiding restaurant meals and prepared foods, Garrett told them.
"There's real value in going to someone's home," she said.
Some advisors are comfortable with the tough-cop approach, but others prefer a different tack entirely.
"If you understand the basics of behavioral finance, you know that 95 percent of the decisions you make with your money are made subconsciously and emotionally," said John Buerger of Altus Wealth Solutions. "We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain."
To change behavior, Buerger focuses on hijacking that pleasure-seeking/pain-avoidance system. Instead of stressing budgeting—something most clients equate with, say, a trip to the dentist—he zeros in on their current behaviors.
(Read more: Key tips to lessen the tax bite)
Using tracking software, Buerger asks clients to look at what they spent in the last 24 to 36 hours. It's a period of time that's recent enough, but not in the moment.
"Most people in the first few months see that 3 percent to 5 percent of their income is actually going out to pay for stuff that doesn't matter to them," Buerger explained.
Then Buerger can have "the conversation." It starts with: "Would you like to figure out where that money is going so that you can start spending it on stuff that matters to you?" he said.
Similarly, Jeffrey West of Financial Compass Group no longer talks to clients about their risk of outliving their money. In fact, he doesn't use the word "retirement" at all.
(Read more: What you need to be doing now for tax planning)
"I used to think I needed to scare clients into saving, but now it's a reward system—and it's a success system," he said.
West makes a game of saving, tapping into clients' weaknesses for certain luxury items, such as designer shoes. He asks such clients to bring him four shoeboxes, which become "saving buckets."
One box represents necessities; another is for discretionary spending; a third, for long-term savings; and the last, for the next pair of shoes, a reward "that gives you that special feeling," West said. He calls the approach a "shoebox budget."
Clients fill the boxes with receipts, for example, from a trip to the grocery store, or with an ATM confirmation of a savings transfer.
West believes that the concept of saving is too amorphous for most people to grasp. Instead, he talks about spending, something people do every day. Saving is therefore, simply deferred spending. "Do you want to spend now, or do you want to spend later?" he asks his clients.
Erika Safran, founder of Safran Wealth Advisors, said she's had the most success in changing behavior by being compassionate and understanding a client's motivations. Safran, a certified financial planner, tells the story of a 60-something couple. He was still working and she had retired.
(Read more:It's time to rebalance your portfolio)
The couple met with Safran monthly to work on budgeting and the husband always came armed with stacks of spreadsheets detailing his wife's spending. Safran agreed that her spending, especially on gifts for the couple's adult children and grandchildren, was becoming a problem. But she didn't want the wife to feel berated.
"I realized that she needed a purpose that could make her feel useful in her retirement," Safran said. She needed to replace the splurging on her kids and grandkids.
Safran suggested her client look into volunteer opportunities, such as reading to children in local public schools, that could provide a similar emotional outlet. The woman is now working on getting placed in a classroom.
—Ilana Polyak, Special to CNBC.com.