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.