Apps for families

Many parents today have made a habit of feeling guilty about the hours of screen time their kids are exposed to every day.

But it’s not just entertainment that our electronics are providing.

In fact, devices — an average of more than five per household in the U.S., according to a report from Ericsson — are increasingly being used for productive endeavors.

That includes homework, keeping track of kids’ and parents’ schedules, video chats with grandparents and other family members and even virtual daily conversations to help parents and kids connect. 

In the Twin Cities, families are embracing — and, in some cases, creating their own —technology to get organized and stay close. 


Getting cozy with Cozi

David Hlavac, a dad to a 12-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, is an account director at Bellmont Partners, a public relations firm in Minneapolis. 

Every day, he and his wife, Michael, use an app called Cozi, to keep life organized in their busy Edina home. 

They started using the app (billed as the “must-have app for the modern family”) a year ago at their daughter’s suggestion. Though the app is free, they’ve upgraded to the paid version to enjoy more features.

“We love it,” Hlavac said. 

Cozi features a scheduling tool that allows families to share appointments and reminders with specific family members, or with the entire family, depending on who needs to know.

“The scheduling feature alone has saved us a flurry of texts and emails: ‘What’s going on tonight? What time do I need to pick up kids? What’s for dinner?’ 

“We have trash-day reminders, doctor/dentist appointments, sports and extracurricular.”

Hlavac said the content-rich app also features shopping lists that are updated in real time. Cozi’s paid version allows users to make multiple lists for topic areas such as groceries, pharmacy and home improvement. 

“You can easily check and uncheck things you buy every week, so you don’t need to create a brand new list every time you shop,” Hlavac said. “It’s also got a recipe box where you can store popular meals and create instant shopping lists, so we don’t have to use Epicurious or other apps to do it.”


Outings made easier

When you have young kids, leaving the house — for a Target run, a trip to grandma’s house for the holidays or even a date night — can feel like a monumental task.

Karla Lemmon, a Plymouth mother and travel enthusiast, feels your pain. 

That’s why Lemmon, whose background is in software product management, created the personal-assistant app known as Little Peanut on the Go.

It helps parents build packing lists and to-do lists, create care schedules (think mealtimes, naptimes, bedtimes and other activities) and share emergency contacts and medical information with caregivers.

Caregivers can share updates and pictures.  

Planning tools in the app help parents craft plans for scenarios, including “a sitter,” “an overnight,” “an outing,” “a getaway” or childcare.

Though the app is free to download, there is a one-time fee of $3.99 required to enable plan sharing.

Support for separated families

Divorced or separated parents are flocking to SupportPay, a free, financial-platform app that allows parents to in separate households to communicate about shared child expenses (such as ballet classes, soccer gear purchases and dentist visits) and their monthly base support payments. 

A parent can easily enter an expense, attach a receipt and submit a transaction to the other parent directly through the app. 

The other parent can then quickly review the item, confirm instantly that the expense is for their child, then make a payment. The app handles all of the calculations and tracking, communications and document storage — so parents have the transparency they need, without the stress or arguments around money in front of kids. 

Another option is exexpense.com, which offers similar features. 


High Low Glitter

Another example of how modern parents are using technology to improve family life is a new website and app — called High Low Glitter — created by St. Paul mom Stephanie Ross (pictured with her daughters, Emily and Heather Upin, in the lead photo at the top of this story).

It all started as a dinnertime game in which she asked her preschooler girls to note: No. 1: A high (the best part of their day), No. 2: A low (the worst part of their day) and No. 3: A glitter (a fun, sparkly, unexpected, delightful or funny moment in the day).

Ross turned the concept into a free “micro social network” (highlowglitter.com) when her girls went away to college to ensure the lines of communication stayed open. Users can invite up to seven people to be a part of their network.

The initial purpose of High Low Glitter was to instill a value of reflection, as well as illustrate the power of perspective. More than 15 years after creating the idea of High Low Glitter, Ross said, the three small words prompt celebration, acknowledgment, appreciation and insight. 

She recommends using the app to stay connected with family members who are in the military, grandparents who live in another state and more.

If Facebook is a cyber-cocktail party, High Low Glitter is a cyber family dinner — a place to be yourself and share your day with the people who know you best, Ross said.

Ross, a professional development coach, also has used the site as a tool for her clients.

Family web sites

Another communication tool that’s becoming popular with families are family websites.

They’re allowing families to share news, including milestones such as preschool and high school graduations, promotions, sports honors, dance recitals, children’s artwork and more. 

So why create a family website rather than updating a Facebook page? 

Quite simply, the answer is privacy. 

A family site can be password-protected to allow access only to family members. MyGreatBigFamily.com is a popular site that allows users to create a family site that includes blogs, photos, videos and reunion planning features. You can include as many family members as you’d like. It costs about $150 a year. Familycrossings.com — another family site to check out — costs $39 a year.

Zalongo.com, shutterfly.com and cozi.com also offer family-website tools, including some free options.


Simplifying gifting

What should you get your sister’s kids for Christmas?

What will you and your siblings buy for Mom and Dad this holiday season?

Families can make answering these questions much easier with the help of a free, locally developed gift-coordination app and website called Giftster.

Giftster — the brainchild of longtime Arden Hills technology entrepreneur Ron Reimann — helps families and close friend set up gift lists. That means you don’t have to constantly ask people what they want. Lists are shared so everyone can see when a gift is “reserved” or “purchased.” 

Web links can be included with each gift for easy shopping, and there’s even an Add-to-Giftster browser button to help you add items to your lists while you’re looking around online. There’s also a Secret Santa option to help you organize anonymous group gifting. 


Maura Keller is a Plymouth-based contributing writer for many local and regional publications. When she’s not busy writing, Keller helps collect books for her 15-year-old daughter’s nonprofit, Read Indeed.