Personal Finance

Is Hawker Food Really The Cheapest Option In Singapore?

When it comes to affordable meal options, Singaporeans flock to hawker centres – where no dish costs over S$10. However, does the perception of hawker food being the most affordable option available of all hold ground?

Key Highlights

  • Hawker meals typically cost under S$5, with their prices seemingly affected by the number of ingredients it contains (e.g. nasi lemak is more expensive than fishball noodles).
  • The ‘same meal’ at a restaurant can cost anywhere between 50% to 141% more than their hawker counterparts.
  • Cooking the ‘same meal’ will always end up cheaper than if you ate at a hawker centre or restaurant.

With Singaporean households spending an average of S$9,722, eating out in the city is an undeniably expensive affair. That’s why, for budget-conscious individuals, hawker centres – where comfortable, hearty meals can be had for under S$10 – is such a god-sent. However, it’s worth questioning the perception that hawker food is always the most affordable dining option, that it could even be cheaper than cooking at home. Below, we pit hawker food against other food options (i.e. restaurants, food courts, and home-cooked meals) to find the ultimate winner in terms of affordability.

How Much Do Hawker Meals Typically Cost?

DishStall NamePrice
Chicken RiceTian Tian Chicken Rice, Clementi Food CentreS$3.5
Chicken RiceMing Kee Chicken Rice, Bishan MarketS$3.5
Chicken RiceAh Tai Chicken Rice, Maxwell Food CentreS$3.5
Fishball NoodlesMing Fa Fishball, Upper ThomsonS$4.5
Fishball NoodlesYong Seng Teochew Fishball Noodle, Hainanese Village CentreS$3.5
Fishball NoodlesJoo Chiat Chiap Kee, Bedok North StreetS$3
Nasi LemakChangi Nasi Lemak, 323 Bukit Batok Street 33S$3.9
Nasi LemakBoon Lay Power Nasi Lemak, Boon Lay PlaceS$3.5
Nasi LemakSelera Rasa Nasi Lemak, Adam Road Food CentreS$5.4
Prices obtained from stalls listed above, accurate as of 10 Feb 2020. Subject to changes.

Given how price-sensitive Singapore consumers can be (especially when it comes to hawker food), hawkers are unwilling to increase prices despite their increasingly thin profit margins due to a combination of rising food cost and salaries for workers. Thus, resulting in affordable – some might even say ‘cheap’ – meal options typically ranging between S$3 to S$7. Of course, these costs vary based on food items. For instance, chicken rice will typically be pricier than a meatless meal, like chwee kueh (water rice cakes).

Thus, for fair comparison’s sake, the cost of 3 everyday hawker dishes that can also be found in restaurants or prepared at home have been averaged. Of the 3 meals, nasi lemak turned out the most expensive, presumably because of the number of ingredients it contains.

Restaurants Always Charge More For The Same Meal

DishRestaurantPricePrice After GST & Service Charge
Chicken RiceBoon Tong Kee ChickenS$5S$5.89
Chicken RiceWee Nam KeeS$4.8S$5.65
Chicken RiceLoy Kee Best ChickenS$7S$8.24
Fishball NoodlesKL Traditional Chilli Ban MeeS$5S$5.89
Fishball Noodles2 Wheels CaféS$4.5S$5.30
Fishball NoodlesFinest Song KeeS$4.5S$5.30
Nasi LemakThe Coconut ClubS$12.8S$15.07
Nasi LemakSimple.簡S$6.5S$7.65
Nasi LemakRevolution CaféS$6.9S$8.12
Prices obtained from restaurants listed above, accurate as of 10 Feb 2020. Subject to changes.

As restaurants are located in malls where operational costs are high, dining at restaurants –even for the ‘same’ dish as you’d find in a hawker centre – is more expensive. Other than the higher base price point on the menu, one shouldn't forget about the additional GST and service charge levied on the total bill. This can significantly drive up the cost of a meal (e.g. what is S$12 on the menu can come up to S$14.12). There's also no discounting that consumers are generally willing to spend more in a restaurant than in a hawker centre, a psychological factor restaurants undoubtedly leverage to drive up prices. Thus, explaining why the average cost of nasi lemak can come up to S$10+, compared to S$4.20+ in a hawker centre.

It’s Always Cheaper If You Cook The Meal Yourself

All that said, there’s no doubt that the most affordable option is to cook the meal yourself – even with more generous ingredient portions compared to what you’d typically get from a serving in the hawker centre/restaurant. Instead of getting just a few meagre slices of meat in chicken rice, for example, you could indulge in 200 grams of chicken breast when you cook it yourself. To illustrate just how much you could save: 200 grams of chicken breast costs S$1.90 at NTUC; 60 grams of rice comes up to S$0.15, and a spoonful of chicken stock is just S$0.05. Add a little bit of oil and seasoning, and your meal totals up to below S$3! Plus, there’s the added benefit of knowing exactly what you’re putting into your body when you cook your meals.

It’s Not Always About Choosing The Cheapest Option Around

Of course, the decision on what to eat doesn’t always hinge on a meal’s cost. Even though cooking your own meal ends up cheaper, the truth is that not everyone has the capacity or time to cook. Also, even though restaurants are typically seen as ‘overcharging’ on certain foods, they provide a level of comfort you wouldn’t get in a hawker centre. Ultimately, these dining options come with their own set of pros and cons, and you have the power to decide which you want to spend your hard-earned money on. Just don’t forget to budget and save – so you always live within your means.

Pooja Khandelwal

Pooja is a Content Marketing Lead at ValueChampion Singapore. She is responsible for planning and executing sponsored content projects and building relationships with media partners. In addition, she evaluates financial products for consumers based on quantitative and qualitative analysis. Pooja holds degrees in Economics and Psychology from Rutgers University. Her prior work experience includes founding and leading a content marketing consultancy and working at eCommerce, AI, and B2B SaaS startups in Singapore. Pooja has contributed insights to Tech in Asia, Yahoo!, and many other publications. Connect with her on LinkedIn to collaborate on content.