Consumer still king but must spend wisely

It now costs $1 for a cup of kopi-o in this coffee shop I frequent. The operator attributes the 10-cent mark-up to factors ranging from the rising cost of sugar to higher manpower bills.

Since I retain the power to go elsewhere, I am not crying "Unfair!" Besides, I cannot resist the food sold by some of the stalls here.

While Singapore has been described as the world's most expensive city to live in by the Economist Intelligence Unit, my friends and I also believe that there are many costs - apart from fairly inflexible ones such as housing, medical and transport - that can be managed to some extent.

That is why we feel that the Consumers Association of Singapore - which has done good work in shaming errant travel agents and IT shops, among others - should not have bothered to survey coffee shops recently to find out what they were charging for beer, after the Government raised taxes.

Some kopitiam jacked up prices well beyond the amount resulting from the tax hike, and Case declared that profiteering.

It may have a case but unless the item in question is a controlled product or sold only by a certain number of retailers with no substitutes in sight, the issue of profiteering will be resolved by who blinks first - retailer or customer.

I will bet that most retailers hiking up prices too much will soon lose customers, and will have to do a swift U-turn. But if their customers are prepared to pay more, well, that is the free market at work, isn't it?

The point is that, amid rising prices and inflation, the consumer can be king too but everyone also has to manage his budget well and keep an eye out for affordable options and alternatives.

One interesting development in the heartland - especially in smaller neighbourhood shops - is that the variety of offerings is growing by the day and available for less than you pay in the malls.

My pals and I now happily extract our money's worth for everything from 24-hour launderettes to foot reflexology joints, beauty and wellness establishments, and pet shops in these smaller neighbourhoods.

More savvy consumers have learnt that they can also pay less by shopping online, and the emergence of e-commerce portals in China has widened the savings.

One of my relatives furnished his new Housing Board flat with light fixtures and toilet accessories bought from the Chinese site Taobao, scoring hefty savings of up to 50 per cent compared with retail prices here.

But for big-expense items like health care, Singaporeans should rightly expect help and the Government has admirably stepped in, rolling out MediShield Life and paying premiums for the pioneer generation.

As the country ages, the Health Ministry is also spending millions on new hospitals.

But while my friends and I agree that an ageing population will see more people falling ill and requiring hospitalisation, we also think that measures to keep folks healthy should not be forgotten.

For example, why can't exercise corners be put up in the void decks of HDB blocks? Should gyms - even 24-hour ones - be made a standard feature in community centres?

Can the Health Ministry subsidise, or even absorb, the cost of an annual check-up for everyone above a certain age, to detect problems earlier before they cost a lot to treat?

Whether it is the individual or the Government, doing smart financial planning must be a constant exercise - a point I learnt from a course I took recently.

It is imperative to get the greatest bang for your buck, and trade-offs are unavoidable if one is to balance the budget.

I like one exercise given to the course participants - what would they give up if they had to cut expenses?

Some said they would drop the maid, rent out a room in their home and continue to work post-retirement.

Each of us must decide on his own. I guess I could sacrifice the beer.


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