The art of appropriate ang bao amounts
by Ryan Ong
THE appropriate amount of ang bao money is debated every year. Despite several centuries of practice, we have yet to develop a proper, codified system of determining who’s a beloved relative, and who’s a total cheap ass. I have made many requests for the creation of a proper ang bao index, to which SGX has told me to please stop writing, and definitely don’t drop by their office with my Power Point presentation. So instead, I will explain the correct system once and for all here:
The fundamental rules of ang bao amounts
The first time I helped to pack money into ang baos, I was told the correct amount is “subjective.” So I did it the most logical way possible.
I created a budget based on an estimated 35 ang bao give-outs, after a meticulous study of home-visiting behaviour patterns over three years. 10 “emergency” ang baos (for incidental encounters) and 25 marked by name.
Money was tight at the time, so after prioritising key names (12 of them) the remaining ang baos would have $3 each. Hey, they said the correct amount was subjective.
Weeks later, word got around that I secretly wished all my relatives and friends dead. I had to do a lot of damage control, and assure everyone that I didn’t wish that on all of them. Turns out $3 is only an appropriate amount at funerals. Odd numbers, I learned, are not auspicious.
So the following year I raised the amount to a nice, round $4. Which resulted in plenty of people thinking I secretly wished them dead.
So for those of you who are foreigners, or as culturally estranged as I am: always make it a round number, but avoid fours. If possible try to include the number eight.
(Information for foreigners: four = die in Mandarin, whereas eight = luck.)
For Teochew people, there is less taboo surrounding the number four. But just to be safe, avoid it.
Correct ang bao amounts by relation
The following is the correct way to determine ang bao amounts, according to science (trust me, I got a D in physics.) Also, time and experience have shown me the following causes the least amount of offence, while still preserving your savings:
1. Immediate family members
For immediate family members, the amount must be at least a double digit figure. A typical going rate for nephews and nieces is around $20. But if your siblings have an only child, you may want to up the amount to a single $50 ang bao.
I recommend giving your child $88 if you have never done so before, and they are 13 or older. Then pat them on the head and say it’s for being a good, filial boy or girl. This could mitigate their tantrums when you bring them visiting, and start comparing their performance to other children as if they’re asset classes instead of human beings.
Alternatively, go with giving your children $50 – and then use it as an excuse to not buy the next Xbox game (which is around $60.)
If your parents are retired, $88 is a good amount if you can afford it. They should receive the lion’s share of the ang bao budget.
In difficult times, I think there should be no problems explaining to immediate family that all you can offer them are best wishes. If your children complain, tell them to take over the mortgage.
2. Relatives you meet at least once a month, or more
They’re almost like family, so $20 is also the going rate for this bunch.
But I would vary the amount according to their needs. As you know them better, you probably know if they just incurred major financial damage (e.g. bought a new house, sent their children to university, ate one lunch at a Holland Village zhi char stall) and will up the amount. They’ll notice that you noticed.
On the flip side, if they know you are not in a good position financially, this bunch will probably be more forgiving when you hand out token amounts (e.g. $2).
3. Relatives you only see once a year or less
A safe going rate is about $8 to $12. For those whom you see every year, $12 is good. For “incidentals” who show up every two or three years, prepare a few generic $8 ang baos.
If you are on a tight budget, keep it to the token $2 sum and best wishes.
For younger neighbours, a token $2 is often enough, but follow-up with something celebratory (e.g. an invitation to join you for lunch.) Many people I know will give larger amounts (around $10) to neighbours who are retired, or do not have a source of income.
I find it’s also a help to retirees who celebrate Chinese New Year, as they may be a bit strapped when it comes to giving ang baos to their grandchildren.
5. Domestic helpers, condo security guards, the guy who washes your car once a week, and others
While it’s not a strict part of tradition, it’s common these days to give ang baos to the workers we see regularly.
For security guards and cleaners, many condos now have a collective pool for residents to place money in – this will be divvied up among them. There’s a lot of anonymity here, so go ahead and give any amount you feel like. If you want to give a sizeable amount to a specific person though, like $20 or more, I suggest you give it to them directly.
(According to two cleaners at my condo, they each got about $15 after the money was distributed.)
For domestic helpers, $10 makes a nice little bonus. If you have children, get your children to give it so they learn the habit early.
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