While it cost the exactly same price as the box of fresh abalone and fruit she sent her parents as a New Year’s gift, housewife Seo Jae-hee feels somewhat ashamed about the thin envelope she plans to give them for Chuseok.
“It’s a gift voucher,” she says with a sigh. “But don’t consider me stingy. It wasn’t the easiest choice I made over a present ― far from it.”
Considered one of the two major national holidays in Korea, families scattered all over the country brave hours-long traffic jams to visit their parents and hometowns for Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving. This year’s Chuseok falls on Sept. 11-13.
It is somewhat of an unsaid promise that the visiting sons and daughters will bring home presents ― usually things to eat ― while the parents prepare food for the whole family and the ancestral rites table.
But squeezed by rising prices and heavy debts, many are finding shopping ahead of the country’s largest national holiday burdensome.
“Although it feels somewhat bad to visit home empty-handed, my husband and I agreed it is more practical to give our parents money or gift vouchers rather than buying something that is not good enough,” Seo, 31, said.
Even those who are bringing something home are looking at different items for this Chuseok, according to major food retailers.
Turning their eyes away from expensive meat, fruit, fish and other fresh food ― once viewed as typical Chuseok gifts ― a growing number of people have chosen coffee, cookies, vitamins and instant foods have not been so badly affected by inflation.
“The scope of holiday season gifts has become wider as people seek practical presents amid inflation,” an official at a local takeout coffee chain, which has released five different Chuseok gift sets this year, said.
Inflation is not only a concern for those coming home.
Lee Ji-sun, a 53-year-old housewife who will be greeting six children and grandchildren for Chuseok, is running unusually late in completing her grocery shopping.
“I’m checking out different markets to see where I can get stuff for the cheapest price,” said Lee. “Most things seem to cost twice the price during the Lunar New Year holidays.”
“I want to feed my family good food, especially as they are usually too busy to eat homemade food on regular workdays,” Lee, who lives in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, said. “But frankly, I feel financially burdened to buy everything I want.”
Im Mi-young, another housewife who lives in the central Seoul region and is only expecting her daughter to come home for the upcoming holiday, plans to buy readymade food for the ancestral rites on Chuseok.
“I gather this will not only be more convenient, but also cheaper than buying beef, fruit, seafood and vegetables separately,” she said.
The Korea Price Research Center has estimated that it will cost around 220,000 won (about $220) for a family of four to buy 28 types of food, including Korean beef, apples and pears, to prepare for ancestral rites on Chuseok.
The prices have risen 5.2 percent compared with last year and 2 percent compared to just 15 days ago, the organization announced on Sept. 5.
“Prices of fruits and vegetables are expected to continue rising up until the day before Chuseok due to the recent heavy downpours, which have adversely affected the crops,” an analyst at the center said.
The cost of fresh food surged by 9.9 percent in August from a year earlier, pushing the annualized rate of inflation to a three-year high of 5.3 percent last month and putting the Bank of Korea, which has been tardy in raising rates, in a bind.
A separate online survey of 2,431 office workers last month showed an average of 328,000 won will be spent per adult during the Chuseok season. A married person expects to spend up to 420,000 won on buying presents and preparing food.
Up to 45 percent of those surveyed said they were “expecting to spend more money this year” due to inflation, according to the poll taken by Internet community Saramin.
By Shin Hae-in (firstname.lastname@example.org)