Each year, when the holiday season nears, my husband and I write out a long list of all the gift-receiving relatives who will make this year's cut. The list is always longer than we remember (55 people, to be exact), and it seems to get longer every year…yet our budget stays the same. While we like to put some serious thought into the gifts for the most important people in our lives (I'm looking at you, Ma!), we try to find ways to cut back wherever possible. Here are a few sneaky ways to fit a few more packages into Santa's big red bag:

1. Take gift cards to a whole new level

Deciding on what to buy relatives like cousins, college-age nieces or nephews, teachers, mailmen, or bosses can be tough—how about an evening on the town? You may have already heard of websites like CardPool.com, where you can buy discounted gift cards to major retailers across the country. But some businesses, restaurants in particular, offer additional in-store sales at Christmastime. Combining the two deals will really get you rockin' 'round the Christmas tree. Here's a great example of getting $60 worth of Applebee's gift cards for as little as $36.50, a 40% savings:

Cardpool.com is selling $25 Applebee's Gift Cards for just $20.62. Purchase two, and you'll have $50 worth of gift cards for just $41.24 out of pocket. Refer a friend via the link on the CardPool website, and you'll get another $5.00 off your purchase, taking your total down to $36.24.

When your discounted gift cards arrive in the mail, take them to your nearest Applebee's restaurant, and use them to purchase $50 worth of gift cards (yes, you read that correctly!). Why? Because, during the holidays, Applebee's offers a $10 bonus gift card when you buy $50 worth of gift cards in-store. (They'll look at you funny when you use $50 in gift cards to buy $50 in gift cards, but we know better, don't we?).  You'll walk out with $60 in gift cards, but you'll only have paid $36.24! Cha-ching!

2. Stock up on samples

Many websites offer free samples for a wide variety of products all throughout the year. Instead of ripping them open as soon as they arrive, put them into a small designated container on a shelf or in a closet until it's stocking-stuffing time. Rest assured, with a little searching, your free goodies can range far beyond lotions, face creams and feminine products. Sites like Spax will send you a free sample of their heavy-duty screws and bolts. Atkins will send you a free 3-bar snack pack if requested, too (a word to the wise: save the chocolate bar for yourself).

3. Donate your time

Last year, I was on a tighter-than-normal budget. For Christmas, I was on a mission to find something for my husband for less than $20.00. As much as I tried to stretch it, it was hard to find meaningful gifts that I truly wanted to give him. Instead, I made "coupons" for things like "Redeem this card and we will stop arguing immediately," or "Redeem this card for a free back rub." He loved the creativity behind some of the cards, and I filled his stocking chock full of them—for free.

4. Donate something more

Consider donating plasma—a part of your blood that contains water, enzymes, proteins and antibodies. Many patients across the world rely on plasma therapies as medical treatments, and the holiday season is a great time to donate. In contrast to donating blood, many plasma donation centers will actually pay you for your donation. In many locations, first-time plasma donors can earn $75 for each of their first two visits and can continue to earn money for each visit thereafter. If you and your significant other donate plasma just twice, you're not only helping those who depend on your donations, you're also earning $300 cash. To find and get information on a licensed and certified plasma donation center near you, visit www.donatingplasma.org.

With a little preparation and a little ingenuity, your budget can finally stretch to fit of all the names on Santa's list.

This is a guest post by Heather from Mundelein, IL.

Spread Your Christmas Cheer (Without Spreading It Too Thin!)