Do you love birthdays? I do. Party hats, birthday cake and celebrating life are guaranteed to make me grin ear to ear. I love every rendition of Happy Birthday no matter how out of tune it may be, I think balloons are the best décor and I truly think birthday card puns are funny.

But there can be a lot of pressure that comes with birthdays… finding the perfect gift, arranging a party, choosing a theme, inviting more people, including more thrills and more money spent. At the heart of it, even those of us who love a good slice of cake and a fun birthday bash can feel the fatigue of what birthdays have become.

So, let’s get back to the birthday basics. Inspired by Merary’s 6th birthday celebration in El Salvador, we have six tips to make celebrating birthdays fun, intentional and budget-friendly—no matter what age you are celebrating!

A girl in a colourful dress holds a cake with candles and wears a birthday hat

#1 Acknowledgement

This seems obvious because we usually acknowledge birthdays in some shape or form, but what we are talking about is more than just saying ‘Happy Birthday’ or even throwing a party. It means being fully present with them, remembering things about them, not rushing through the day or being too busy running errands for the birthday party that you miss the important moments that make someone feel seen.

“I have someone who remembers the day I was born and sends me a birthday gift every year,” says Merary, with a delighted smile.

Many children who are part of Compassion programs in their different communities have similar stories to tell. Each child feels special and recognizes when a sponsor sends them a birthday gift, whether it’s big or small.

A girl in a colourful dress holds a balloon six

“It’s beautiful to look at a child’s happiness when receiving the announcement of having a birthday gift from their sponsors,” says Candida, the director of the Compassion centre that Merary attends.

“Some of them live in a difficult family situation where even their parents may not remember the day their children were born. That’s why the child reacts with surprise because their sponsor has not forgotten the day they were born. This generates a great impact in their lives.

Every year, thanks to her sponsor’s birthday gift, she has a great time choosing a gift—accompanied by her centre director—and celebrating at home with her family.

This year, she’s turning 6 years old—and she’s hardly been able to sleep as she waits for her big day.


  • Carve out time for a conversation with your birthday greeting—don’t rush!

  • Ask 3 questions! One about the past year, one about the present day and one about the year ahead.

  • Remember something about their past year or share a favourite memory with them.

A girl and her mother stand holding shopping bags

#2 Determine your budget and what special things fit inside your budget

It can be easy to lose track of all that goes into a birthday celebration. We can get carried away with all the pizazz of party stores and snazzy themes. But birthday fun can be had at any budget and bringing awareness to your budget helps you to be more intentional about what matters most in the celebration.

Vilma, the sponsorship tutor, looks in the centre’s monthly report notifications to see which children have received birthday gifts from their sponsors. Then, she contacts each of the families to share the news. She lets them know the gift amount and encourages the child to start thinking about something they need or have always wanted.

With a phone call—or sometimes a visit—Vilma checks what Merary has decided to buy according to the received amount of the sponsor gift. Then they agree on a day where they can meet with Candida, the centre director, to buy the presents. This year Merary has asked for a new pair of shoes, ice cream, a birthday cake and food for her family.

A girl in a colourful dress stands for a picture with birthday gifts

Candida, Merary and her mother Antonia travel to the nearest street market, which is one hour from the community of Arambala, where Merary lives. In Arambala, there’s no place to buy brand new clothes and neither a bakery nor an ice cream shop. Many department stores surround the street market, and they visit some of them on Merary’s special day.

Merary and her mother enjoy the experience of shopping, surrounded by many pairs of colorful shoes. Antonia loves to see the joy on her daughter’s face as the girl has fun trying on different types of shoes.

“These gifts came as a blessing when I don’t have money to buy her something that she needs. With the gift, I have been able to provide for her needs. We purchased a pair of shoes for the last birthday because the oldest ones were worn-out,” says Antonia.


  • Remember to budget for something special to eat, something they need and any costs for travel or experiences.

  • Write a list of their favourite things to help guide your planning.

  • Ask what they remember most from last year’s birthday for some guidance on what matters most to them.

A girl in a colourful dress tries on shoes with her mother who is helping

#3 Prioritize sharing new experiences

Birthday gifts are great, but do you know what’s even better? Memories! Many of us won’t remember the specific birthday gifts we received over the years, but we do remember the experiences we had. Making memories is a precious priority that invests deeply in the life of the person you are celebrating. Think about how you can share a new experience together and plan for that to be a part of your celebration.

For a child who lives in a remote area, the experience of travelling out of their community is uncommon. Receiving a birthday gift gives them the experience of living a unique journey full of emotions and great memories.

“I like when I travel to buy my birthday gift because I can select the clothes I want. I love the pink ribbon on this shirt,” says Merary.

A girl stands holding a pink shirt on a hanger

With part of the amount of the birthday gift, Antonia and Merary visited a supermarket and bought food for the family.

“I enjoyed when she came to buy her gift in the supermarket—she took advantage to buy special food or whims that I cannot afford, such as cookies, yogurt, cereal, milk and instant coffee. At home I only have coffee beans, but she prefers the instant coffee,” says Antonia.


  • Make getting the birthday gift an experience, either by making a special trip to pick it out or purchasing a gift that creates an experience to do together like a game or a movie.

  • Alternatively, in lieu of a gift, choose a fun activity to do instead.

  • Utilize the power of a surprise—stop in at school or work with a treat, invite friends over to surprise them, leave thoughtful notes for them to find.

A girl holds up a tub of ice cream and a cake box

#4 Plan a special meal or treat to share together

Food is a special part of celebrating! Sure, you can head out to a restaurant (maybe that is part of the experience of the day) but there are lots of other ways to plan a special meal or treat throughout the day. There are lots of small ways to utilize the joy of food and cooking to create a sense of celebration… maybe it’s waking up to their favourite breakfast, packing a sweet treat for lunch or making a fun dinner together.

For Merary, buying ice cream is a luxury because there’s no ice cream shop in her community. That’s why a bucket of cotton candy flavour ice cream is on the menu for her special day.

“I like the taste of the strawberry ice cream, too. When I buy the ice cream as my birthday gift, I feel happy because I can share it at home with my brother,” says Merary.

The final step of this journey was at the bakery where Merary could buy a strawberry birthday cake to share with her whole family.


  • Think of how you can make your meals special—setting the table with a fun theme, making a new dish, eating in front of the T.V. during a movie, tucking a surprise in a lunchbox.

  • Go to pick out a birthday cake or bake together to create an experience.

  • Create a birthday countdown with a small treat for every year of their life.

A little girl holding a bowl of ice cream sits with a boy holding a bowl of ice cream

#5 Sharing multiplies joy

Think of who would find great joy in your plans and invite them to share in the festivities. When you invite the person who needs the most joy, their joy will be contagious making the birthday celebration even better! Making other people happy is a guaranteed way to increase your own happiness.

“When I receive a birthday gift, I feel joyful. Before receiving the notification, I had to think about what I would want. It’s something that I always look forward to, and I like to share my gifts with my family,” says Merary.

After they’ve bought all the gifts, Candida, Merary and Antonia head back to the Compassion centre. There, Antonia must sign the centre’s birthday gifts monthly report, confirming that she has received the full amount sent by the sponsor, and that she has received and accepted all her daughter’s birthday gifts. This signature helps the centre to do their project reports and maintain their financial transparency.

A family celebrates a birthday and stands around a birthday cake with a balloon six

Sharing the news with the sponsor is an important final step. Vilma takes a picture of Merary, showing
all the gifts bought with the birthday gift amount. This picture will be kept in Merary’s file until Merary
can visit the centre to write a thank you letter for her sponsor—and send the photo with it.

Merary’s smile says it all as she and her mother return home. They happily display all the purchased
birthday gifts, cheerful because they can celebrate at home with the whole family.

“As a family, we enjoy having a cake together,” says Antonia. “We both celebrate with her birthday cake
because we were born in the same month, so we celebrate for two.”


  • Invite someone who has had a hard season or has gone through a challenging time.

  • Include the people who have supported you the most in the past year and tell them how much they have helped you.

  • Maybe your way of sharing is to make a donation or give to someone in need.

A girl sits in a hammock in a birthday hat

#6 End with gratitude

Intentionally sit down at the end of the day and recount all the ways the day was special. Remember all the good things the past year has brought your way. Send a thank you message to each person who helped make the day great.

Every year, as she blows out the candles, Merary has a special wish for her sponsor: “May God bless my
sponsor who makes me feel joyful.”

The family enjoys a unique and special day that allows them forget all the struggles of their daily
circumstances. Merary shares some ice cream with her brother Jaime. The children’s smiles and laughter
fill her mother’s heart with joy and peace.

“I want to thank my sponsor for letting me celebrate my birthday—for never forgetting me and for
having a kind heart,” Merary says with a big smile on her face.


  • For every year of life, write out that number of things you are grateful for.

  • Have thank you cards picked out to send an extra special note.

  • Pray a prayer of gratitude and jot down all the good things God has done in a journal.

A girl sits with a birthday cake and a balloon six and smiles

Birthdays are a big deal! They are an opportunity to love and care for one another and so we want to do it well. We hope these 6 tips help you get back to the birthday basics and celebrate from the heart.

You can help a Compassion child celebrate their birthday.

Send a birthday gift or write a birthday greeting to your sponsor child on My Compassion.

Celebrate a child’s birthday!


Want more birthday fun?

Consider sponsoring a child with the same birthday as you! That way you will always have someone to celebrate with.

Rebekah Malbrecht

Rebekah Malbrecht

Rebekah Malbrecht is a Content Specialist at Compassion Canada. She loves to wrestle with words, shape stories and document happiness. You're bound to find her where there are books, people and birthday cake.