How much angbao money do I give? It’s a question that hovers as CNY approaches us every single year. The answer is simple: the amount really depends on your personal financial circumstances. Here's a practical method to customise your rates and some angbao rules and etiquette to take note of
It’s that time of the year again. Angbao (also called hongbao/angpow) guides to save the day. You know, articles that aim to tell you how much to put into those red envelopes you’re expected to give out during the Chinese New Year.
We have no doubt that these guides are written with nothing but good intentions. Perhaps, they are meant to help busy Singaporeans stay on top of any angbao trends they might have inadvertently missed. Or, maybe, they satisfy a genuine sense of curiosity about what the going rates are these days (is a S$2 angbao still acceptable?).
However, at SingSaver, we believe that personal finance should be just that — personal. So, we tend to believe that the answer to the question, “How much should you put in your angbaos?” should be, “As much as you’re comfortable with.”
We know, we know — that sounds like a cop-out, and some of us prefer to have some suggestions or guidelines that they can take away from (or, ignore, because it’s your money after all).
So, in that spirit, we’d like to offer a rather unconventional method of determining your angbao rates. It requires a bit of effort on your part, but it is ultimately a method that will work best for your personal circumstances.
Angbao rates: How much to give according to your personal budget
As mentioned earlier, this will be a rather novel way of determining your angbao rates. However, this alternative method will help you maintain better control over your finances while still being able to meet your social obligations.
Here’s a step-by-step rundown on what you need to do.
- Set your total budget for angbaos this year
- Make a list of your angbao recipients
- Sort them into five categories
- Make adjustments, if needed
1. Set your total angbao budget for the season
To start, decide the maximum amount you will give out in angbaos for the season. Doing this will help you stay in control of your budget and minimise overspending. After all, you don’t want to spend the months immediately after Chinese New Year struggling to make ends meet — that wouldn’t be very auspicious, would it?
If you don’t have a budget in mind, try using 1% to 3% of your annual income as a starting point.
2. Make a list of your angbao recipients
You don’t have to be super detailed here — you’re not drawing up your wedding banquet guest list. The main idea is to make a note of all the individuals you will be distributing angbaos to.
Now is a good time to remind yourself that angbaos are really just a way to show your care and appreciation for your family members, elders and relatives during the Chinese New Year. It is not a competition to see who gives more or less money, and thus which uncle/auntie is the most worthy.
Over time, the practice has also evolved to include individuals with whom we share casual relationships such as children of close friends or neighbours, employees and business partners, and even your kids’ friends who come visiting.
While it is customary to give out angbaos to these latter groups of people, the intention here is more about sharing the festive, joyful vibes. Feel free to leave them out of your list if you need to.
3. Sort your recipients into five tiers
After you’ve drawn up your list, you’ll want to sort each recipient into one of five categories, such as in the following table:
|Tier rank||Who to include||How much to give per angbao|
|Tier 1||Birth parents, people who brought you up, spouse||5% of your total budget|
|Tier 2||Grandparents, parents-in-law, own children||4% of your total budget|
|Tier 3||Siblings, siblings-in-law, cousins||3% of your total budget|
|Tier 4||Nieces and nephews, children of friends, colleagues, neighbours etc||2% of your total budget|
|Tier 5||Everyone else||1% of your total budget|
The above is just a rough guide and not a mandate. You could totally use this guide to categorise your recipients as you’d like or tweak the allocation of your budget for each tier.
A note on angbao amounts for your own children: some parents believe giving a token sum is sufficient to prevent their children from unhealthily associating the festival with monetary gain. Others may take the opportunity to reward their offspring for good behaviour in the past year.
Hence, how much you give your children is entirely up to you, and will pretty much depend on your parenting style and beliefs. However, it is prudent to consider your child’s capacity to understand and appreciate money when deciding on an amount.
4. Make adjustments, if needed
The last step is to check that you have sufficient budget for each tier, and make adjustments if necessary. Because there are relatively lesser people in Tiers 1 and 2, the amount you have to allocate here is controlled. This leaves plenty of wiggle room in your budget for the lower tiers, which is likely to have more members.
Oh yeah, because you’re calculating by percentages, you’ll probably end up with some weird angbao amounts. In that case, you should do some rounding up or down to align with traditional beliefs. Remember to avoid odd numbers and the number 4. Ending on an 8 is preferred, but 0, 2, and 6 are also ok.
Angbao etiquette and rules to note
Now that you’ve learnt how to set your angbao rates, let’s take a look at some angbao etiquette and rules.
Who should give out angbaos?
Tradition dictates that only adults who are married should give out angbaos. This means that besides your parents and grandparents, you can also expect angbaos from married aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins.
Today, however, the requirement to be married is less strictly enforced. Once an adult reaches the age of 30 and beyond, they may also choose to give out angbaos. For such individuals, the expectation is less pronounced.
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Who should you give angbaos to?
Strictly speaking, you’re bound by tradition only to give angbaos to your immediate family, i.e., your parents and unmarried siblings. However, it is also common to give angbaos to grandparents and other elderly folk (more for practical reasons, one might suspect).
Extended family members are also often included, but here angbaos follow a descending trajectory. That’s to say, juniors receive angbaos from their elders, such as from elder brother to younger sister, and not the other way around. There’s no need for you and your spouse to provide an angbao for your poor, spinster aunt (unless she’s getting on in years and you worry she might come into neediness).
It’s all a bit nebulous, and different families may have their particular idiosyncrasies around the subject. If in doubt, consult an elder. In any case, you won’t go wrong giving angbaos to children and young adults. This applies to casual relationships too.
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What to say when giving or receiving angbaos?
When giving angbaos to a senior, such as parents or grandparents, an accompanying pair of mandarin oranges is customarily included. The fruit is a representation of an offering of gold as a sign of good fortune and abundance.
During this process, some people choose to utter some auspicious four-word phrases. The recipient reciprocates with some well wishes of their own, uttered while handing back a pair of oranges, together with any angbaos.
In order to inculcate filial piety and hand down family traditions, some families make younger children present themselves to their elders, and make well wishes to them, in order to receive their angbaos. They may be taught to say auspicious phrases, sometimes even in dialect. On the other hand, more modern-minded families may instead go with simple greetings such as Gong Xi Fa Cai or Happy New Year. No matter what you choose to say, being sincere and heartfelt with your greetings and well wishes is the most important.
With COVID-19 capable of spreading via touch, should you give out e-angbaos instead?
With cash and hongbaos exchanging hands during the season, inadvertently spreading COVID-19 is a valid concern. As an alternative, some may decide to switch to giving out e-hongbaos instead. This can be easily done via digital banking or other money transfer platforms.
There is also an environmental reason to go the digital route. To cut carbon emissions and encourage the use of fit-for-gifting ("fit") notes, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has decided not to issue new S$2 banknotes in 2023.
Because a large amount of bank notes are returned and destroyed after the festival is over, you’ll be helping to reduce the wastage of precious resources by not using banknotes in the first place.
On the flip side, many of us (especially in the older generation) grew up with fond memories of the practice — who can forget the anticipation of getting an angbao and the excitement of tearing it open to see how much money is inside?
Giving and receiving angbaos is simply such a beloved and ingrained ritual of Chinese New Year (and other festive occasions, too) that conceiving of a world in which hongbaos aren’t a thing anymore is hard. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia kicking me hard in the feels, but there’s just no substitute for the sheer visceral joy of hongbaos. Besides, you could always sanitise your hands before and after counting your haul.
In any case, one bank in Singapore has come up with a happy medium. To help wean Singaporeans off physical angbaos, DBS is providing recyclable QR gift cards.
In place of physical notes, you can give the gift card to your recipient. They can then scan the accompanying QR code to get their money. Once used, these QR gift cards can be returned to the bank for recycling.
It’s not quite the real thing, but at least you can still enjoy the tactility of giving and receiving something physical. As a bonus, you’ll also get to help save the environment, even if just a little.
But hey, just like with the money in your angbaos, every little bit counts!
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