Saving Money

Cutting Wedding Cake Costs (Without Sacrificing Quality)

photo: SpiritMama

If you ever made a “most expensive foods you’ll ever buy” list, chances are good that a wedding cake would be right up there on top.

The average couple spends $384 on a cake for their Big Day, according to figures from The Wedding Report for the first half of 2010. That’s a 9% increase from 2009, when it cost $352.

And yet it’s still relatively modest compared to the estimated $12,000 price tag of the 500-pound, 4′ tall, nine-tiered monument served at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in late July. For the record, the reportedly gluten-free, mostly organic concoction consisted of vanilla cake filled with dark chocolate mousse and covered with fondant adorned with silver beads as well as 1,000 edible sugar flowers in five varieties.

Expect to pay $5 to $8 per slice for good-quality cake that’s made from scratch and iced with real butter-cream, says Joyce Scardina Becker, the author of “Countdown to Your Perfect Wedding” and the president of San Francisco-based Events of Distinction.

Cakes that are more like “edible works of art” with fondant, sugar flowers and other fancy decor can easily cost $20 per serving.

Sound too pricey? Skipping the traditional cake altogether in favor of a dessert table is one option. But even couples who want the perfectly balanced, artfully-decorated, fondant-draped tiers straight out of a wedding magazine can cut the costs of a complex cake.

Maintain a taste threshold

Cheap is great, but not too cheap. “Don’t compromise on the quality of the cake just to save a few dollars,” says Glenna Tooman, of Boise-based Memory-Makers Event Planning.  “If guests won’t eat it, then you have wasted your money.” Sample each baker’s cake, icing and fillings to make sure everything tastes good. “If the icing tastes like shortening or the cake is too dry, go elsewhere,” she says.

Cut the cake (size)

When planning, don’t order a cake big enough to feed all the guests. For a wedding of 200, “you could easily reduce the order to about 170,” says San Francisco-based bridal consultant http://www.amynichols.com/ Amy Nichols. “Not everyone eats cake, and there is often leftover cake.”

Be square

Square cakes contain more servings than round ones, says Tracy M. Leaman, the founder of Events to a T in Washington, D.C. You’ll get more bang for your tiered-cake buck.

Shop outside the box

As mentioned in an earlier column, Frugal Foodie and a few of her friends purchased their wedding cakes from a local culinary school. She paid about $3 per slice for $8-per-slice quality. Grocery chains and warehouse clubs are other options worth checking out.

Use fresh decorations

Fresh fruit and flowers will be significantly cheaper than handcrafted sugar or gum paste decorations made to look like those items. Ditto with ribbons and bows.

Sneak in a sheet cake

For big weddings of 150 people or more, consider getting a smaller decorative cake for display, says wedding planner Kelley Lee Gin, the founder of Picture Perfect Events http://www.pictureperfectevent.com/ in Los Angeles. Keeping sheet cakes behind the scenes to cut for most of the guests instead. It can cut the per-person cost in half.

Price out components

Standard chiffon cake will be cheaper than the somewhat drier Genoise, says Scardina Becker. Butter-cream icing is less expensive than fondant or ganache, and royal icing decorations trump marzipan, gum paste and modeling chocolate for cost. Ask about the costs and benefits of each component to best determine where to save and splurge.

Go plain vanilla

Or chocolate, Edwards says. Specialty flavors entail specialty pricing.

Limit artistry

Cake design doesn’t need to be intricate to be breathtaking. Shop around for a baker whose artwork you like. “Ask your baker what their design specialty is, or what is included in the cost they have quoted you, and go with that,” says Carolyn Garcia, the regional catering sales director for Wedgewood Wedding and Banquet Centers in California.

Substitute cupcakes

It can cut costs by as much as half, says Erin Edwards, the founder of coupon site FunWithFreebies.com. You can even buy or rent stands to tier them for the look or a traditional cake. Be careful, though. Elaborately decorated cupcakes can be more labor intensive — and so, more expensive, Garcia says.

Eliminate tiers

The higher you go, the higher the cost, Leaman says. Keep the number of tiers to a minimum, or opt for a display of several one-tier cakes on stands of varying height.

Fake it

Sneak in a foam layer to make a small cake look bigger and fancier. Or opt to rent an elaborately decorated foam cake with a small real layer inserted, says Rita Smircich of ToDoBeforeIDo.com. She likes CakeRental.com, which charges $175 plus shipping for pre-designed options. “It’s incredible what they can do,” Smircich says. Then get cheaper sheet cakes for serving.

Factor in extra charges

Cake costs don’t stop at the cake itself. When comparing bakers, look to extra fees such as equipment, special set-ups and delivery, Scardina Becker says. Venues or caterers may also charge a cake-cutting fee.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.