Last-minute party planning on a budget can be summed up quickly: Sam's and Costco.
Forget that old chestnut about never being able to recoup the $35 to $45 annual fee at a warehouse club. Anyone expecting 20 or more guests can cover the annual fee while shopping for one modest party -- and enjoy one-stop shopping to boot.
Of course, nonmembers can still find good deals at liquidators such as Petters and Pierce, and specialty shops such as Party City, but you'll need to look harder.
Whether it's a graduation or birthday party, summer barbecue, family reunion or neighborhood gathering, the expenses can add up. Here's a guide for picking up the essentials on the fly and on the cheap.
While the basic meat, cheese and veggie trays are hardly original at Sam's or Costco, representatives at both wholesale clubs said they are their most popular party platters. The 7-pound veggie tray at Costco is $17. Cub and Rainbow charge $25 to $27 for similar 5-pound trays. A 7-pound meat and cheese tray is $25 at Sam's Club. Cub charges $43 for a similar platter.
If you want something other than meat and cheese, local grocery stores offer more than 20 choices, such as tacos, relish, dip and bread bowl, watermelon boats, fruit, sub sandwiches, focaccia and shrimp platters.
If your party is small and you don't want leftovers, try the mini party trays for $10 at Cub, which include shrimp, meat and cheese, veggies and fruit.
Cakes: A half-sheet, which serves 32 to 48 people, is priced at $15 at Sam's and Costco. A full sheet cake is $25. The standard price includes a cake decorated with balloons or flowers, in white, chocolate or marble flavors. Personalized messages are included. Additional designs are available for a few more bucks. The bakery generally needs at least a 24-hour notice for most orders, but a few sheet cakes can be personalized at no extra charge right off the shelf. They usually sell out on weekends, however.
Wal-Mart Supercenters and SuperTarget stores offer half-sheet cakes with a standard design for about $20, and full sheets for about $30. Prices at other grocery stores are about $26 for a half-sheet and $41 for a full sheet.
Instead of cake, Bernadette Vitullo of Inver Grove Heights bought 24 cupcakes for $11.28 at Sam's for a children's birthday party. "Kids take two bites and then run off. Why spend more money on a fancy cake?" she said.
Cookies: Try the Best Maid Cookie Company outlet in Minneapolis for a case of 240 cookies at about 13 cents a cookie. Prices vary from $25.25 for sugar cookies to $38.25 for macadamia nut cookies, but the oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, chocolate chip and M&M cookies are about $30 per case. Smaller bags with 12 cookies ($1.75 each or three bags for $4.50) are available in the outlet, but case orders need two weeks' notice. The cookies are made from frozen cookie dough. Closed weekends.
A cheaper, but slower, alternative is Sam's Club frozen cookie dough. The dough roll makes 960 cookies, according to Sam's. Prices are $22.74 for oatmeal and $37.54 for macadamia nut.
Wine: Ted Farrell of Haskell's and Andy Hall of Surdyk's said buyers can get excellent value from Australian, Chilean and Spanish wines. Hall and Farrell highly recommend the Hardy's stamp series box from Australia, available in cabernet, shiraz and chardonnay, for $17 for three liters, the equivalent of four bottles. Skeptics can buy the Hardy's stamp series by the bottle if they want a sample before buying a box.
Liquor and beer: Prices may be lower at liquor stores during sales, but Sam's and Costco's everyday prices are cheaper. A case of 24 cans of Bud Lite is $13.88 at Sam's. A 1.75-liter jug of Absolut vodka is $26.99 at Costco. Membership is not required to shop in the warehouse liquor stores. Both Costco locations in Coon Rapids (763-712-7763) and St. Louis Park have liquor stores, but the Sam's Club in Apple Valley and Fridley do not. Sam's Club also has locations in Bloomington (952-888-1050), Eagan, Maple Grove, St. Louis Park, Shakopee, White Bear Lake and Woodbury.
Bottled water: Look for the Member's Mark store brand at Sam's and the Kirkland brand in Costco for the lowest prices. Warehouse alternative: Buy what's on sale at grocery stores, especially store brands.
Cutlery: Petters and Pierce Liquidation Center have low prices, but a limited selection. Party City (Bloomington 952-948-0925, Apple Valley, Coon Rapids, Minneapolis and West St. Paul) and Paper Warehouse (28 locations, including Roseville, 651-631-4921) have excellent deals during sales, including one going on now through Sunday at Party City.
Jan Stoven of Woodbury tries to minimize the trash by using mix-and-match flatware from thrift stores and garage sales. "Just run it through the dishwasher and then put the forks in one crock, the knives in another and spoons in another," she said.
Paper products: Napkins are usually cheaper at warehouse clubs, but check clearance shelves at discounters and specialty stores. Buy generic colors that can be used for any occasion to get the best value. Stoven suggests that guests may not like using only one hand towel in the washroom. Use a stack of paper towels instead or a basket of mix-and-match fingertip cloth towels for less waste.
Flowers can be an inexpensive way to decorate. Use flowers from your garden for a thrifty way to fill bud vases. Try tulips, lilacs, fern fronds, hosta leaves, peonies, iris, columbine or hyacinth. If nothing is blooming in your garden, ask a neighbor or buy flowers at the farmer's market. Prices may decrease during the last hour at the market. Inexpensive sources of flowers year-round include wholesale clubs (24 roses for $13), Seven Bridges World Market (12 roses for $10, 400 1st Av. NE., Minneapolis, 612-331-2861), Flower Market (12 roses for $8.56 and three growers bunches for $10, 5459 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-821-4833).
Stoven suggests buying vases from thrift stores (25 cents to $4 each) and placing them on each table and in the bathroom.
Balloons: Party City offers a variety of helium-filled Mylar balloons for 99 cents each. Selected graduation-theme balloons are 79 cents through Sunday. Most sell for about $2. They last several days. Latex balloons are 59 cents each or $6 per dozen in colors without printing. Helium-filled latex balloons last about eight hours.
Place a few balloons near the driveway or mailbox to attract the attention of any guests who might be unfamiliar with the location.
Invitations: The cheapest options are often those made on your computer, unless you can do e-mail invitations. If you want personalized invitations and are planning ahead, wait for Party City's sale in March, when most personalized invitations are discounted 50 percent. Most stationery stores discount 20 percent off normal retail prices. Party City's everyday discount is 30 percent.
John Ewoldt may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org,at 612-673-7633 or by sending a fax to 612-673-4359. His articles are online at