As one half of a young, married couple who's just moved into our own place, I am only just starting to realise that Chinese New Year (CNY) costs a truckload of money.
Up until last year when my folks ran the (very elaborate) CNY show, I have spent every festive season enjoying sumptuous seafood feasts and snacking on "branded" CNY goodies. I also crossed into the new year wearing new pyjamas, sleeping on new sheets - courtesy of Mummy.
So of course, I thoroughly enjoyed celebrating CNY growing up. But now that I actually have to make my own preparations and host friends and family? Eh, not so much.
Since we’re about 2 weeks away from Feb 1, 2022, I decided that I need to start budgeting for CNY. I compiled a list of CNY traditions and superstitions, and then I noted down the costs involved.
Chinese New Year 2022 budgeting — how much does it cost?
The first phase of my budgeting plan involved asking my peers how they celebrate CNY. As it turns out, not every Singaporean Chinese family is as hardcore as mine. In fact, for a lot of people, CNY is just another day - except with busier roads and restaurants.
I found that if you're willing to be chill on certain aspects and traditions, you can still take part in the festivities for cheap (like 70 per cent less kind of cheap).
Here's the breakdown.
CNY goodies price comparison: Bak Hwa, pineapple tarts and more
The first few items on the shopping list are always CNY goodies. That's because if you want good ones, you have to order your snacks waaaaaay in advance.
For a lot of older folks, home visitations are about "face", which is why they place a lot of emphasis on hosting their guests with the best goodies and snacks. My parents and relatives, for instance, would never be caught dead serving "no-brand" bak kwa on CNY.
If you buy the best of everything, here's how much you can expect to spend:
|“Branded” CNY goodies||Estimated price|
|Nian gao from famous confectionaries||Around $25|
|Le Café salted egg pineapple tarts||$29.90 for 20 pieces|
|Ding Bakery Kueh Bangkit||$18.90 per bottle|
|Bengawan Solo kueh lapis||$65 (large)|
|Lim Chee Guan bak kwa||About $72 for 1kg|
… And that's assuming you only get 1 bottle per item, which means only your guests get to feast. The prices are correct at the time of writing, but may vary slightly depending on when you order your goodies.
Please don't come after me if your favourite brands are not in here. This table is meant as a guide, and not the gospel truth.
Now, if you can't be bothered to pay a premium for these fancy snacks, you can check out supermarkets and neighbourhood confectionaries to pick up your CNY goodies. Most of these bakeries have samples, so you won't have to worry about finding a reasonably-priced one that tastes good.
|CNY goodies||Estimated price at supermarkets and neighbourhood confectionaries|
|Nian gao||under $10|
|Pineapple tarts||$8 to $15|
|Kueh bangkit||under $10|
|Kueh lapis||$25 to $40|
|Bak kwa||From $40+ per kg|
You can get most of the goodies for 20 per cent to 50 per cent cheaper, except for bak kwa. When I checked, even no-brand stores sold them at around $40 to $50 per kg. You can order pre-packed ones from RedMart and Qoo10 for slightly cheaper (maybe $30+ per kg), but I wouldn't risk it since there are no samples.
CNY decorations & home preparation
After you're done with the goodies, you're need to budget for all the other miscellaneous home preparations. Here are some of the popular traditions that involve buying new stuff.
- Decorating your home with seasonal plants
- Wearing new clothes
- Using new bedsheets on CNY eve
- Getting a haircut before CNY
And here's how much they cost:
|Decor and preparation||Price|
|Mandarin oranges||$8 per carton|
|Pussy willow||$15 to $22|
|CNY haircut||$40 + $20 surcharge|
|New CNY clothes||$100|
If you keep up with all these traditions, be prepared to spend over half a grand. The most basic item is mandarin oranges. This one is "bo pian", because if people visit you with 2 oranges in hand, you die-die also need to find 2 to exchange. These are easily found at supermarkets for around $8/ carton of 24.
The next cheapest item is the pussy willow, which is a must-buy for most traditional Chinese families. The "cotton wool tree" symbolises good luck, wealth and growth (yes, just like almost everything else that's part of the tradition). Typically these trees cost $15 to $22, depending on how tall you want yours to be (3 to 6 feet). They're priced similarly at wet markets and big nurseries so it doesn't really matter where you buy it.
Next up, tradition says you're not allowed to have a haircut during the 15 days of CNY because you'll cut away your good luck. Because of this, many people flock to hair salons in the weeks preceding CNY. There's usually a ridiculous $20 surcharge because of the demand.
You're also supposed to be in brand new clothes from top to toe, and sleep on new sheets on CNY eve. Assuming you buy a dress, shoes and maybe some new accessories, expect to spend about $100. A brand new set of bedsheets and quilt covers cost about $150 (Queen size).
The last item is optional, but a tradition many families follow: buying super expensive flowers. This is another "face" thing - with so many people visiting your home, you want it to look as nice as possible right?
Plant nurseries and florists bring in flowers that are set to bloom during the CNY period and charge exorbitant prices for them.
People buy peonies, bamboos and kumquat plants. If you get the fancy cherry blossoms and orchids, each pot can cost around $100 or more. A few of these will easily add up to $200+.
Not many young couples can afford such extravagance, so what I intend to do is pick and chose which traditions to follow. I'll just buy the oranges, pussy willow and 1 article of new clothing for symbolism (total = $76.50).
CNY eve reunion dinner traditions & symbolic dishes
Once all that is done, you're left with the actual reunion dinner on CNY eve. Super traditional families like mine home-cook this feast, featuring auspicious seafood and dishes.
|Ingredients for a traditional reunion dinner||Symbolism||Price|
|Broccoli||Symbolises jade for good health||$3.90|
|Fatt Choy (chinese black moss)||Prosperity (发财)||$5 per pack|
|Yu Sheng||Abundance (余 + 生, which sounds like剩)||$15 to $25|
|Ang kar prawns||Happiness (哈哈大笑)||$30 per 400g|
|Abalone||Abundance||$40 per can|
|Soon Hock (whole fish)||Abundance ( 年年有鱼/余)||$50+ per kg|
The prices indicated are a rough gauge, and in fact, quite conservative estimates. Prices are likely to go up nearer to CNY, especially at wet markets (where everything is "seasonal price").
It's quite expensive but not uncommon to spend $50+ on fish and almost $40 on prawns. Thankfully, like the above preparations, this is quite flexible and you can tweak your menu to feature more affordable options.
You can keep the yu sheng and various vegetable dishes - those are cheap. But instead of full, large abalones, consider baby abalones. Those are about the same price, but there are more pieces so if you are a big family, you can save cost.
Also, you don't need fancy prawns if it's just for superstition's sake. Grey and tiger prawns are way cheaper, and you can get those for $20+ per kg. Unless your tastebuds really so discerning and you can tell the difference in taste… Then I cannot help you.
Lastly, Soon Hock (marble goby) is a super premium fish, so if your budget doesn't allow you that luxury, opt for cheaper fish like snappers - just make sure they're whole (not fillet cuts).
You can get a whole white snapper at the supermarket for under $10. Add that up, and your meal should cost about 30 per cent less ($99 vs $149).
Alternatively, you can pull a Clara and have Pizza Hut and Ben & Jerry's. Make your own (ahem, cheaper) traditions!
Conclusion: CNY doesn't need to be expensive
At the end of the day, if you go all out and splurge, then yes, retailers are more than happy to "chop" you. But just because you're not willing to go broke just to maintain your "face" doesn't mean you can't enjoy the traditions and festivities.
In fact, it may even be more fun looking out for good deals and cheap bargains!
Here's a comparison of the expected damage if you have a super traditional celebration and go all out like my folks, versus if you do the bare minimum like many contemporary couples.
|CNY goodies||$211||$104||50 per cent|
|CNY eve reunion dinner||$146||$99||30 per cent|
|Other CNY preparations at home||$586.50||$76.50||85 per cent|
|Total||$943.50||$279.50||70 per cent|
So it’s totally possible to plan your Chinese New Year 2022 wisely and don’t go too overboard. Don’t forget, this estimate excludes a huge CNY expense – angbaos! Depending on who you’re “blessing”, the sum can range from $8 for kids to $288 for parents/in-laws
Good luck and huat ah!
This article was first published in MoneySmart.