From Korea with Love

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Money as Gift in South Korea

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Is money an appropriate gift?

Last week, I celebrated my birthday in South Korea for the third time. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law gave me money as gift. Last year, besides my in-laws, some of my husband’s male friends also gave me cash. If it had been in the Philippines, I would be reluctant to accept the money, especially from friends, as it is not very common in my country to give cash as present on someone’s birthday.

It is not a taboo, but if you give someone money instead of a gift, the person you are giving the money to may feel that you lack effort or have not given any thought to choosing and buying the right present for him. (Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the money I received on my birthday, but even after 3 years of getting cash instead of a “real gift”, I haven’t gotten used to Korea’s idea of what “the most appropriate gift” is.)

Money is the easiest gift to give. You don’t have to spend hours looking for what item the person you are giving a gift to needs or wants. Although it is not rude to give money, (Some people may actually prefer it.^^) it is an obvious lack of interest and thoughtfulness on the giver’s part. It’s just like saying, “Okay, I don’t have the time to shop for  a gift for you, so I’m giving you cash. Buy whatever you please with it.”

We Filipinos give a great deal to the quote: It’s the thought that counts. We appreciate it more when a person, especially a friend or a family member who knows us well, gives us a present that most likely took a great deal of thought. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple or inexpensive thing. A sincere and carefully chosen gift will surely make us smile.

However, in some occasions, like weddings and Christening Parties, some guests may give cash instead of presents. On Christmas and New Year, adults usually give children money. It is Filipino tradition for godparents to give their godchildren aguinaldo (gift or money), especially during the Christmas season.

When my husband and I had our second wedding ceremony in the Philippines, most of my friends and relatives gave us cash in envelopes, instead of the usual wedding gifts like appliances, bathroom items or toiletries and arinola (chamber pot). (Thank goodness, nobody gave us a chamber pot. They say it brings good fortune to a newlywed couple… but puh-lease… a chamber pot???) Because my husband and I were going abroad and we would not be able to bring “bigger gifts” with us, money was more useful.

Nowadays, Filipino wedding gifts include significant amounts of money the couple could use to begin a new life together, honeymoon packages, and jewelry from wealthy guests. (Why didn’t we get a honeymoon package? T.T)

In South Korea, money is the most preferred gift. In fact, it is MANDATORY to give money when you attend a Korean wedding. As a guest, you should register at the front of the wedding hall and hand in your gift of cash in an envelope (with your name written on it) to the family member or friend in charge of the registration. There is one guest book for the groom, and another for the bride. If you are the groom’s guest, you should give the money to the one in charge of his guest book; if you are the bride’s guest, you should give the cash to the one in charge of her guest book. The amount given is recorded in the 방명록 (guest book), along with your name.

On a baby’s first birthday, 돌 or 돌잔치, (dol or doljanchi), money is also the most favored gift. If you want to be more generous, you can give  a 24-karat gold ring instead of money. Tiny rings as gifts for dol are available in any jewelry shop in Korea.

If you will be attending a Korean wedding or dol ALONE, and you are not a close friend of the family, you can give 30, 000 to 50, 000 KRW (25.70 to 42.84 USD) (1111.51 to 1852.52 PHP). Never give 40, 000 KRW, as “4” is considered a bad number. My husband and I always give 100, 000 KRW (85.68 USD) (3705.03 PHP) to an acquaintance, and 150, 000 KRW (128.52 USD) (5557.55) to a not-so-close friend. To a close friend or a family member, we give more… not because we want to, but because that’s what we are “expected” to do. The truth is, I don’t like attending Korean weddings and dol anymore, unless the family who invited us is a very close friend or one of my husband’s family members. The only time I was ever happy in giving cash as gift here in Korea was on my brother-in-law’s wedding. Of course we gave more than what we usually give to friends, but it felt right, because my brother-in-law and his wife are very important to me and my husband… they’re more like best friends. (If I had more money, I would have given them more. ^^)

In the Philippines, I enjoy attending weddings and first birthdays because I am not burdened by the amount of money I have to give as a gift. Of course, I will still spend money for a present. (I love shopping for and giving presents.) The thing is, whatever present I give will surely be appreciated… and the value of my thoughtfulness is what will count the most… not the cost of the present nor the amount of money I put in an envelope that bears my name.

I have spent too much on some gifts for people I truly care about, and it feels good when I know that they like the gift I bought, but here in SK, I have never felt my gift “appreciated” that way, because it’s always the same thing.  There’s no element of surprise on the receivers’ part because they know it’s “cash”, and it’s most probably as much as what the other guests give.

It’s definitely “NOT the thought that counts” here.

Every time my husband and I attend a wedding or dol in Korea, we always discuss “money”. The amount of money you give as a gift actually depends on how close you are to the couple getting married or the parents of the child having his first birthday, but my husband is too generous that he wants to give more even to a mere acquaintance. He says that in Korean tradition, the amount you give will be returned to you when you’re the one having the wedding or it’s your child who’s having the dol. This is what guest books are for. Koreans keep their guest books, so that they can check the amount each person has given them, and when they are invited to a special occasion wherein they have to give money, they make it a point to give the same amount the inviter has given them. As one of my Korean colleagues in the 학원 (academy) puts it: “It’s more like investment.”

I get the whole idea. I understand why money is such an essential gift in Korean weddings and other big occasions. Korean weddings and dol are very costly, and the money that the guests give help pay for all the expenses. Giving cash as gift is actually practical, but putting so much value on the amount of money instead of the giver’s sincerity and thoughtfulness in giving what he has or can give is not the real purpose of gift-giving.

Sometimes I tell my husband: “Every time we attend a wedding or dol, why does it feel as if we ‘pay’ for the food we eat… and sometimes we pay even more?”

He just smiles and says: “They also ‘paid’ on our wedding day.”

Yup, our guests did… but the money never touched my hands nor my husband’s. They were given to the parents-in-law to help pay for wedding expenses. Oops! Don’t fret, if you are going to have a Korean wedding soon. This is perfectly normal in South Korea. You can keep the money from pyebaek (Korean traditional wedding custom), though, but it’s not going to be much.

10 thoughts on “Money as Gift in South Korea

  1. Hi, Jun. ^^ Well, not all women enjoy “roaming around” the mall to shop… and not all men detest shopping. =)

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  2. Because you are a lady. A lady spending a day roaming around the mall isnt enough. Actually buying a gift is a good alibi for you to roam around. Exact opposite to a man who just preferred to give money.

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  3. You mean the groom? The groom wears either a tux or a suit. In Paebak (traditional Korean wedding ceremony), he wears a hanbok.

    If you are a guest, you can wear a suit, too, or something that is either formal/semi-formal.

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  4. hi what do men usually wear in korean weddings?

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  5. Yup, they also do that here. ^^ Koreans give their friend a birthday bash: simple dinner, cake party or drinking party. ^^

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  6. I would feel weird if my friends gave me cash for my birthday – more weird if without an envelope! Buying lunch will be a lot better idea. In fact, now I remember, that’s what some (or many?) Japanese do – buy lunch or dinner for the birthday person. Don’t Koreans do it?

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  7. I agree with you, WithLoveShmon. ^^ Some prefer money, some prefer “real gifts”. Here in SK, I like receiving cash instead of a present because Koreans can be really generous in giving money as gift. In my country, I prefer getting a “real gift”, because most of those who will give me a gift there are friends and family who know what gift I fancy.

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  8. Hi, Tukusigal! Thanks for sharing that info with me. ^^

    Actually, I was told by a Korean friend who has lived in Japan for years that the Japanese are also very generous in giving money as gift. I like receiving money from my husband and his family, but when his friends gave me cash as birthday present, I was kind of reluctant. I didn’t want to accept the gifts, at first, especially because they were given to me without an envelope… (but that’s not mainly the point)

    My husband told me it was all right to get the cash, though it is not that common. Friends give cakes or “little items” on a birthday, not really money. I guess I was just luckier last year. ^^

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  9. Thanks for the interesting report. It’s very very similar to Japan. Your way of thinking, thoughtfulness counts, is the same as the Americans’ way of thinking, That’s what my American husband always says. Maybe cash gifting is coming from Confucianism? I personally am not a big fan of receiving non-cash gift because most of the time I don’t like or don’t need the gift. And if I don’t like the gift, the giver gets disappointed or offended…maybe this is just my relatives. But giving/receiving cash all the time sounds too cold-hearted. In Japan, they don’t give cash for their friends’ birthdays (!!). I did not know Koreans do that.

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  10. nice post – I feel like it is very costly for weddings especially because TRANDITIONAL koreans have costly weddings but Im’ sure you can’t generalize everyone and say they prefer money. I love getting gifts for my friends but I know for some of my friends they would prefer a gift card or cash because they don’t know what they want, which I don’t think is wrong. It’s still thoughtful to give someone what they want and if it’s giftcard or cash thats what they’ll get.

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