tree made out of money(Photo: Courtesy of Redbook)

Grinch-time came early last year: By early December, more than a quarter of American shoppers had already outspent their gift budget, according to a survey from America's Research Group. Nothing saps joy like credit card dread, so this year things have to be different--and they can be. We calculated that if you use all the rebates, tools, and strategies below, you could save over $500 on your season's celebration. Ho, ho, ho! Consider that our little gift to you.

Stalk a lower price.

Know exactly what you want to buy but aren't finding it at a cost you can live with? Visit google.com/alerts and, in quotes, enter the product's name followed by the minimum price and the maximum price you'll pay, separated by two periods. (It looks like this: "Sony Handycam HDR-CX190 $1..$250.") Hit "Create Alert." Now, if a price pops up on that item that's under $250, you'll get an email.

Fill your pantry in advance.

Beginning in late fall, bargains start appearing on guest-worthy food and drink such as chips, rolls, soda, mixers, and wine by the case. "We bake a lot during the holidays," says Kelly Hancock, author of Saving Savvy, "so when supplies go on sale--flour, sugar, chocolate-chip morsels, canned pumpkin--I stock up." She also watches the meat aisle for pork or beef tenderloin, her traditional Christmas main dish. If there's a great deal in November, she just throws the meat in the freezer.

Shop with a list.

Without a game plan, it's easy to be tempted by cute stocking stuffers or that perfect thing for a random someone. "Research has shown that on average, people spend more when they're shopping without a list," says Deborah Mitchell, a clinical professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University in Columbus. "You don't want to be out there reacting to sales like a Ping-Pong ball." So make a list of everyone you'll gift this season, including neighbors, teachers, and family friends, and set a spending limit for each one.