How to Save Hundreds on Your Wedding Cake

Anyone who has gotten married lately, or plans to do so soon, knows that weddings are expensive affairs. Media reports peg the average cost at close to $30,000. And the cake -- would you believe -- can add a thick $500 slice to the bottom line. In a large city, what passes as a moderately priced customized, designer creation can easily reach four figures, The New York Times reports. What's the frugal alternative for the happy couple? A DIY wedding cake.

A wedding cake is sort of a rite of passage, an expectation held by all involved. When I was planning my wedding, I wanted to serve wedding pies instead of a wedding cake, but my family was less than pleased. And so I gave in to tradition and ordered a wedding cake. Six years later, I'm wondering why I spent so much on a sweet trifle. I realize now that there are options besides the bakery down the street or the local wedding-cake professional -- much cheaper options, in fact. One of the most cost effective ways to end up with the cake of your dreams at a fraction of the price is to do it yourself.

By DIY I don't necessarily mean you personally. DIY in the case of a wedding cake could mean your best friend, your mom, or a family friend working alongside your aunt. If there is someone you know with the skills to bake large quantities of cake, you'll save yourself a fortune and may not even pay a dime, regardless whether there are 50 or 500 guests. Indeed, the cake might be the wedding gift offered by the willing baker.

Regardless who actually makes the wedding cake, a fair amount of planning is necessary. For starters, you need to know how much cake you will need. Most couples have the traditional small cake that the bride and groom cut together, the one that shows up in all the pictures but feeds only a portion of the guest list. The cake that's passed around often comes from large sheets, seen only by the venue's staff back in the kitchen.

These sheet cakes are simpler to bake and cheaper to make than the "cutting" cake and the guests are none the wiser. But you're not limited to a flat sheet cake. Popular, and doable, DIY wedding cake choices include a layered sheet cake, a tiered cake, and a round layered cake. Wayfair offers up six ideas for decorating wedding cakes (cupcakes, too) that can serve up to 80 celebrants for less than $1 a slice. And this chart can help you with all the calculations, from pan size for a given number of guests to the required amount of batter and frosting to baking time.

Other tips for perfecting a DIY wedding cake come from Catie Parrish, managing editor of Wayfair. She advises using a serrated knife to trim away uneven portions of a sheet cake and taking care to keep the knife level as you cut layers to ensure a clean and professional look. For tiered cakes, Parrish recommends using corrugated cake boards (available in different sizes) to provide extra support for each layer. She also suggests a frosting color that contrasts with the color of the cake to make the dessert really stand out; pair a white buttercream frosting with a chocolate cake, for example. And if you're tinting the frosting, do so in large batches, because matching tints from batch to batch can be tricky.

To pare cake costs even more, start shopping for ingredients far in advance and stock up when they're on sale. Perishables, such as fruit, can be washed, cut, and frozen until needed. For dry ingredients, clip coupons and scour the weekly grocery ads to land the best prices. The same goes for any baking equipment you may need.

Remember, this is not the type of project to start at the last minute; the same goes for the friend or family member who is taking it on. Have all of the ingredients, supplies, and recipes ready to go well in advance of the big day. In fact, a trial run (or two) will help work out any kinks in the plan and hopefully relieve any stress you, or anyone else, may be feeling about the task. And consider completing the DIY wedding cake a couple of weeks ahead and freezing the results. In the end, you'll have a delicious finale to the wedding meal and some extra change in your pocket.