Expert Interview with Amy Clark on Building a Money-Smart Family for Mint

The Clark family wants to make sure their two children grow up with a healthy respect for money, so to help reinforce the value of a dollar, every now and then they have a party.

"We threw a Debt-Free Party for our family when we paid off our credit cards and then we threw a cars-themed party when we paid off our cars, with our title as our centerpiece," says Amy Clark, founder of MomAdvice. "We want them to know that there is so much joy in paying things off and pride in ownership."

In addition to their rather uniquely themed celebrations, the Clarks also make sure to include the kids in (age-appropriate) discussions of the family budget, talking over their purchasing decisions.

Amy has made it her mission to celebrate frugal living. On MomAdvice, she's worked to build a community of like-minded folks hoping to form connections with other penny-pinchers and DIYers. Here, she discusses her site, the challenges facing modern moms and her favorite tools for staying organized.

Tell us about MomAdvice...when and why did you start your site?

Our site celebrated its 10th birthday in January, and I could not be prouder. I started the site back then because there were so few well-designed sites that offered strategies for saving money that actually made it sound like fun instead of sacrifice. I envisioned a frugal site that would make frugal living attractive to our readers.

Thankfully, my husband is a web designer, and he was able to bring this concept to life for me through his design. The same categories that we started with in 2004 still remain today on the site. The space covers everything that I think moms might need in their arsenal of tools - how to save money, how to get dinner on the table, how to stay organized, and time for mom's own creativity (crafting, DIY and reading).

What type of mom should be reading your site, and what will we find on it?

Although the site is called MomAdvice, we have many readers that are male and women that aren't moms because the site covers such a wide range of topics that aren't necessarily just for moms. If you enjoy getting fresh recipes, enjoy reading, love hearing interviews with authors, need fresh ideas for celebrations and crafts, or just love to learn new ideas for DIY...then you might enjoy the site!

Why was it important for you to create a community for moms rather than start a one-way conversation that offered advice on motherhood?

I think the most important thing about being a mom is making connections with other moms, especially in those beginning days when you often feel alone and isolated. It will always be a challenge for me to create that sense of community, especially when liking or pinning is easier than taking time to comment and relationship-build. Rather than be disappointed on that, I am working on being a community member in the places that I frequent in hopes that the same dialogue can happen on my own site.

How do you think motherhood today is different than it was for the last generation of moms?

It is easier than ever to connect with people through avenues like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, unlike our mothers, who had to work a lot harder to chat to other moms. Unfortunately, it is also easy to fall into the trap of comparison when we are constantly bombarded with images and status updates that make us feel unworthy as mothers.

The best gift I gave myself when I became a mom was to join a community of mothers in a group called Mothers & More. They are still my forever friends, and those are the people that I look to for advice and comfort even now that my children are 8 and 12 years old. Although joining a community of moms might feel a little old-school now that we can talk to moms 24/7 through social media, I think going back to the idea of building real and lasting friendships like our moms did is what helped me the most as a mom.

What are some useful resources or tools you've found for mothers who wear way more hats than just housewife - what can help us juggle everything from playing chauffeur to managing the family budget to figuring out what to make for dinner?

Whenever I talk about the best apps to organize a family, I always think of Cozi first. Over the years, this app has evolved so much and fits perfectly into our family's everyday needs. Cozi is a calendar app that is made with a mom in mind. It is easy to use, color-coded (for each family member), includes pictures of your sweet little ones, helps you with your grocery list and offers text message alerts to you for appointment reminders...all from one central location.

My favorite feature that has saved our family countless fees and embarrassment is their text reminder service. When I input our family's appointments, I can have a text sent to myself or to my husband that reminds us about that appointment. The reminders can come whenever you designate them (one hour ahead, one day ahead, one week ahead, etc.). Does your child have jean day at school? Super silly hair day? Little things like that are even input in this handy calendar, and a text reminder goes out to me first thing in the morning to save my children from their mom's forgotten dollar or the super exciting monthly "skip your uniform" day.

Although I am certainly aware I am being interviewed for Mint, I genuinely love the Mint app for organizing our family finances. It can be set up through your home computer, your smartphone or tablet. An account with Mint can be set up in less than five minutes and gives you the chance to set budgets to your spending categories and track them with handy pie charts and graphs. In one glance, you can monitor your checking, savings, investments and retirement at any moment during the day.

Most of the spending categories are immediately categorized for you, while unfamiliar categories (like your favorite local restaurant or doctor's visit) may need a quick categorization for accurate reporting. For tax purposes, you can also tag items for reimbursement so that it can help later when filing your taxes.

The best part, I have found, is that Mint will alert you via email when spending or withdrawals seem high. Did the mortgage company take out an extra payment? Did you have an unusually high amount of withdrawals in one month? Was a large deposit made? Mint sends you an email to alert you of unusual transactions happening in your account, which could potentially save you from being the victim of credit card fraud.

The last app I would suggest is Grocery iQ, which is what I use when creating all of my grocery lists. With Grocery iQ, you can type, speak or scan grocery items into your list. The list automatically adds your items into categories and then alerts you if coupons are available for any items you might be adding to your list. Coupons can then be sent to your email when your list has been made or (if you have a wireless-enabled printer) can be sent to your printer for printing. As you gather your items from your list, simply check it off and the item moves to the bottom of the list. Once your whole list is complete, everything is shifted towards the bottom and then can simply be clicked to add those repeat items back on the list for your next visit.

Since I always have my phone with me, switching to an electronic grocery list has been much easier than I thought it would be. The coupon feature helps save our family money on items we were already planning to buy, and the list helps keep our family budget on track. I also love that I can sync my list from my iPad to my iPhone so I can use whichever device I have handy to add items when we need them.

What seem to be the biggest concerns your readers have about managing the family finances?

Oftentimes it isn't so much the management of the finances, but the limited and lacking budget that they are living on that leads them to our site. We try to supply lots of tutorials that will help them make the most of their money, whether it is making your own laundry soap, making fabric softener sheets, learning to create a large batch of beans in the slow cooker or exploring something like cloth diapering their baby to save funds. We try to showcase ideas that people may not have explored before and look to make projects like those as easy and effortless as possible for their family. We know that time is a true luxury, and the ideas I share have to be easy and as effortless as possible in order for someone to try them.

Much of your site is devoted to recipes...what tips/advice/best practices can you offer busy moms on making healthy meals on a budget?

Menu planning is key to staying on budget and eating well. Multiple trips to the grocery store can eat away quickly at the family budget as well as indecisiveness about what you plan to eat each night. Make a plan and stick to it - try challenging yourself to not return to the store until you have made everything from the plan you created.

Consider also making the day after you return from the grocery store a prep day for the meals ahead. For example, one thing I love to do in the summer months is to create an easy DIY salad bar for the fridge so I know I have a healthy lunch for the week ahead. I just chop all the items and place them in a container for my salads for the week so I can assemble and go on a busy weekday.

I also always double- or triple-batch everything so that we can rely on those handy leftovers for lunches and save our family a ton of money throughout the week.

What are some of your favorite tips for saving money in other areas of your life (e.g., entertainment, travel, bills, etc.)?

One thing I am most proud of was giving up our cable bill a few years ago. If you haven't explored letting cable go, the timing couldn't be more perfect with all of the great online options available to you. This is one area that I always encourage families to try exploring. It saved us $80 a month, and I rarely miss it.

I am a big fan of Groupon and use that site often for gifts for the family. I love to give gifts that are about experiences and not about more stuff, and this site caters to that well by offering experiences often for half price or more off of your purchase.

I also am a big fan of using Yelp to help us select where we should dine out. I love reading all of the reviews and tips before heading out for dinner so that I know that we are taking advantage of the best deals as well as eating the best offerings from those particular places. When you don't get many nights out, you definitely want to make the most of them.

What tips do you have for teaching basic money management skills to kids? When should we start?

My kids have never been very money-motivated, which is surprising to me since I was such a money-hungry kid growing up. I think on one hand it is because we seem to meet their needs well, and on the other hand I think it is because we gave up cable and they don't see what they don't have as much anymore.

Regardless, we do an allowance during the summer to help motivate our kids to help us around the house, to be responsible for their belongings and to help our home run efficiently. I encourage parents to start teaching their children through your own weekly routines and talking to them about your purchasing decisions while you are out running errands.

Just today, my daughter and I talked about why I bake cakes for birthdays instead of buying a cake. We went to the bakery and got the price for a cake and then headed to the baking aisle and added up how much we would save by baking our own. There are so many little moments in our everyday life where we can teach our children.

Once they get to an age where they can begin assisting with chores, consider an allowance system and some type of visual element that can help them see if they are working their way towards a reward. With our kids, we use chore ticket punch cards to work their way towards an allowance.

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