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10 Cheap Ways to Stay Connected With Your Family

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Considering how busy families always seem to be these days, it's a good thing to have technology to keep in touch. There's little excuse for letting weeks go by without talking to far-flung relatives or not knowing when the school basketball game starts. Every member of the family can stay connected for next to nothing after the expense of a phone and a data plan.

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Many apps make it easy to share pictures, but not all keep them private. Sites such as Tinybeans, Shutterfly, and Snapfish allow free photo uploading and sharing with invited friends and family. No stranger can search for you or request to be your online friend. Invited viewers can look all they want for free, paying only for prints, books, calendars, and other products they decide to order.

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While waiting at the dentist's office or having the oil changed, what else is there to do but play games on your phone? Download some of the top free or cheap games and play against family members. Test trivia knowledge with Trivia Crack, help each other get to the next level of Candy Crush Saga, or brush up your vocabulary on Words with Friends.

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When it comes time to plan a get-together, texts and emails can get cumbersome. Free sites such as Doodle and Poll Maker let users create free polls to pin down preferred times and other details. Most sites allow unlimited responses and keep track of the top choice.

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Rather than having to check in every five minutes, create a shared calendar through Google, Apple's iCloud, or a free site such as Teamup. These calendars are user-friendly and can be shared with multiple people on desktops, tablets, or phones. Anyone invited can check to see when everyone will be home from work and school, or which day is free for family pictures.

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Being under the same roof at the same time may be rare for growing families, but technology can bring people face to face no matter how far apart they are. Apple devices come equipped with FaceTime; Skype is free and works on Mac and PC; and multiple family members can "meet up" in a private Google Hangout.

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An old-fashioned written list works just fine -- depending on whose pocket it's in, and as long as it wasn't left stuck to the fridge. Download a free app such as OurGroceries or Out of Milk to share lists. When an item is added, other invited users see it right away. Some apps offer other time-saving shopping conveniences, such as keeping track of ingredients for favorite meals.

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Social networks let family members keep track of each other's pictures, status updates, and location check-ins for free. Instagram is good for on-the-go photo sharing. Users can show their followers where they are and what they're doing. Twitter allows for direct messaging, and Facebook includes event invitations and private group pages.

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If someone in the family is on a lengthy trip or away at school, blogging may be the best way to keep everyone equally up to date on the adventure. Family members and other readers just have to check back to get the latest news.

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Put an end to "who owes whom" and download a payment app for the whole family. Some bank apps let customers to send money to other users no matter what bank they use, while free apps such as Venmo let members "pay" each other for goods and services without involving banks.

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Technology has its value, but it is essential every now and again to turn everything off and connect on a different level. Sit around the dinner table and talk about your day, play a board game, go for a walk, or watch the sunset. Choose a time, maybe once a month, to disconnect from it all and plan a free activity just for the family.