08/16/2012 09:57 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

Back to School Shopping Never Ends

Although I'd been assaulted since July by ads and store displays for back-to-school shopping, I was feeling bittersweet because for the first time in more than two decades, my things-to-buy didn't include planners, paperclips, pens and notebooks. The annual August spending spree ended with my youngest child's college graduation last spring, or so I thought.

I did feel a lot less nostalgic after reading that the average parent with a K-12 child will spend $688.62 on back-to-school shopping. The national tally is $7.7 billion, according to the U.S. Census.

Over the years that shopping ritual spiraled out of control, with teachers sending home longer and longer lists of what a little tyke needed to survive grammar school, from 3x5 colored file cards to speckled notebooks. The costs mounted every year as we joined the hordes of other parents and children, list in hand, searching the aisles of office supply stores. The cost of getting all the items on that list often topped $100. And that was just the beginning; next stop was shopping for jeans, sneakers, sweatshirts and a long list of other "essentials" that must be replaced before every September.

As the parents of college students know, the back-to-school costs continue to mount along with the hefty tuition bills. Extra-long twin sheets, comforters coordinated with roommates, clothes for a different climate from home, and multiple electronic devices, preferably beginning with an "i," are among the items on the higher education list. Buying all this "stuff" freshman year is no guarantee that it doesn't need to be replaced the following summers. It's amazing what disappears at the end of the spring semester. (My second son once "lost" a chest of drawers.)

The last college tuition bill was paid last winter and I was getting used to that feeling of "phew, no more spending." It didn't last. This summer, we parents of new college grads are back at the office supply stores, buying resume paper, mailing envelopes, and printer ink. We may live in an online world but those grads lucky enough to land a job interview need to bring along a resume, and not on copier paper. My daughter is applying for broadcast jobs which mean DVDs, bubble mailers and labels to send out applications across the country. Cruising the store aisles once again last week, we were tempted to throw a few fancy folders into the shopping card just for old time's sake.

Two of my daughter's friends recently landed jobs, one in marketing, and the other with a lobbying firm. The stereotypical image of a Gen Y dress code of flip flops and jeans doesn't fit these young women who needed to be outfitted with new business-chic wardrobes, including fashionable carryalls.

August found their moms pulling out credit cards again, only this time for work clothes.

Some "in my day" naysayers will argue that parents should not foot the bill for either job hunting or new outfits. Shouldn't helicopter parents finally land and let the new grad pay? With what? While the average salary of a new grad is $44,442, according to The National Association of Colleges and Employers, they actually haven't seen a paycheck yet. When they do, they need to save for that first apartment so they can finally move out of the family home.

The starting-a-career costs are just the beginning of seemingly endless expenses. Who do you think goes with the young career person when they hit Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target for outfitting their first apartment? ("Do I really need a shower curtain, mom?" Yes, I'll pay for it.) Of course, unless your young adult child was savvy enough to major in business, that first and second job will likely leave him or her living paycheck to paycheck. So when August rolls around and parents head to the annual vacation at the beach or lake, who helps subsidize the cost for the 20-somethings to come along? Let's not even mention weddings -- theirs and their friends!

So while we older parents can scoff at all those supply and sneaker ads, don't rejoice too quickly. Lesson learned: Back-to school spending pales in comparison with the price of launching a young adult.