Thirty-year-old web designer Kim Jung-wan recently gave 300,000 won ($290) to her close friend for her wedding.
“I would normally give about 50,000 won at most weddings, but she is a dear childhood friend of mine, which is why I decided to shell out some more,” said Kim.
Giving gifts for special occasions is a universal practice. In Korea, giving money is not considered any more unusual than buying someone household items or a nice bottle of wine. It is perceived that the fatter the envelope is, the bigger the appreciation.
It is especially common to give monetary gifts to parents, parents-in-law and other elders on birthdays or Parents’ Day, but even more so for the Chuseok or Seollal holidays.
On certain occasions, while money is not only the preferred gift, it would be socially unacceptable to offer anything else.
One example is the bereavement pay that is extended at funerals. The chief purpose is to help cover expenses, and it is directly in line with the custom of “poomasi,” referring to the helping hand people would offer to their neighbors in the busier farming seasons.
There are some cases where people have come to prefer money over presents, such as babies’ first birthdays, known as “dol” celebrations.
In the past, a gold ring for the baby was the right gift to send, but that tradition appeared to fade when gold prices skyrocketed a few years ago.
Since then, guests have opted to give cash.
“It’s different from baby showers in the West where they bring clothes and books or anything else they feel the baby would enjoy. It’s more practical, I think, to send money because then the parents can buy whatever they wish for their kids and not have to return anything,” said Lim Yoo-sun, a 38-year-old mother of two young boys.
Wedding gifts are also given in similar mindsets.
At almost any wedding ceremony in Korea, there are, more often than not, tables placed at the entrance where guests can give envelopes of money and write down their names in the guest book in exchange for a meal ticket.
The record, though meant partly to keep track of the visitors who attended the wedding, can also more or less be used to log those who have contributed.
The amount collected is at times considered a measurement of social status, which is why the government has banned huge weddings for public servants.
This may appear odd at first, but because Koreans do not use wedding gift registers, money is considered the most practical present.
Yet another possible explanation for money as gifts is that Koreans are quite mindful of scratching each other’s backs. For each dime they give, they usually expect to be paid back when they host similar events, although this does differ depending on the individual.