This post is part of a “Back to School Guide” group writing project by the Personal Finance Network. More articles on the subject are at the end of this post.

It’s back-to-school time in many areas, which means trips to the office supply stores and malls.

I was in Best Buy a couple of weeks ago, and they had set up the system to manage lines like you see at Disneyland. We had to weave in and out of a maze of ropes to reach the register. When we got to the front, my husband asked why they had set it up like that. “We’re getting ready for back-to-school”, they replied.

My first thought was “Why would there be lines for back-to-school at Best Buy?”.

Then I realized that people were probably buying desktop computers, printers, laptops, and calculators. (Plus a whole slew of other things.)

If you believe the ads, the following types of items are “must haves” for back to school.

High school age kids and younger “need” a new wardrobe, new backpacks, an iPod, a cell phone with a great text messaging plan, a computer, a printer, an electronic organizer, plus all the typical paper-based requirements from the school.

College age kids “need” all that plus a refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, bulletin board, matching sheet & comforter set, lamps, desk trays (and the desk!), maybe a little couch, etc. I’ve even seen a multi-function fax/printer/whatever machine recommended in an ad.

If you believe the crop of ads that appears every year this time, your child desperately needs a whole slew of things that aren’t necessary at all in the real world. But “Back-to-School” doesn’t have to mean an empty wallet.

Sure, there may be teachers who require a separate, specific-sized folder for their class. And you might need to buy a graphing calculator if your child is a certain math class. Your elementary-aged child will probably require a box of Kleenex or two.

How can you avoid spending a small fortune on unnecessary things? If you wait until AFTER school has started to shop, you’ll find better bargains AND you’ll know exactly what’s really needed. You won’t be throwing things into the cart willy-nilly because your child thinks they might need them, and then having to go back for a second trip for all the things on the list they receive the first day.

Here’s what I got my high-school aged son this year for back to school:

Some loose-leaf notepaper
2 composition books
2 binders
Some pens
A ruler to replace one that had broken
Two erasers

He already had a backpack & a calculator from the previous year, and they still seemed perfectly good to me. So our big splurge was on the 2 binders, which he wanted to keep organized. (They weren’t required for any of his classes.)

Because he’s outgrown the majority of his clothes in the last month, he also got:
A pair of shoes
3 pairs of pants
4 shirts

To avoid back-to-school overspending, ignore the hype and stay out of the big-box stores. Just like with any other type of shopping: you’ll spend less if you make a list and stick to it, once you have figured out your actual needs. Of course we all want to give our kids the best, and it’s true that things like a laptop will make things more convenient for college-age kids. But it’s also true that their school likely has hundreds of computers available 24/7 for their use.

For more back-to-school related ideas, take a look at these articles: