Black Friday seems to come earlier every year, and all that gift-buying can sneak up on you before you know it. Most people still use the pen-and-paper approach to making shopping lists and keeping track of things. But did you know that your iPhone can take all the hard work out of shopping?

Sure, everyone knows that all the major retailers in the world have their own app from which you can buy things, just like they have websites. But what about that one person you can never come up with a good gift for? Or finding the best deal on a pricier gift? There are apps for that, and for other gift-giving functions as well.

The holidays are stressful enough. These apps (most of which are free) will make Christmas shopping — be it the Black Friday variety or any other time during the holiday season — easier than ever.

Find the Perfect Gift

Never find yourself at a loss as to what present to buy ever again. This brilliant app makes it easy and quick to find the perfect gift for anyone in your life. Gift Suggester is arranged in a basic tree structure, where you start with "Recipient" or "Personality" or "Occasion" and then from there, you narrow it down further. Under Recipient you might pick "Female Senior Citizen" or "Male College Student," and it will instantly give you a list of gifts at a wide variety of prices. Best of all, under the Search tab, you can combine the various criteria to get ultra-specific results. For example, you can select a "Teen Girl" with a "Hipster" personality for a "Christmas" occasion.

What's more, the gifts it recommends are unusual ones. You won't find a ton of recognizable brand names (though there are some) in their suggestions, but every gift is unique and interesting. It's not the fanciest-looking app, but it's a total life-saver.

Make (and Maintain) Your Shopping List

There are hundreds of list-making apps available in the App Store, and most of them offer the same feature sets. Some of them have more specialized functions or unique organizational structures, but for the most part what sets each one apart is its appearance.

Our favorite is Clear, a list/reminder app with a gloriously minimalist design. Instead of numbered lists or bullet points, each item on a list gets its own color on a graded scale. The top item on the list might be red, for example, to emphasize its urgency or importance, while the bottom item could be yellow. All the items in between are transitional shades between yellow and red. Clear comes with several color schemes if you don't like the default, and everything about it is controlled via gestures like swipes and pinches. Nerds love making lists; Clear makes it fun for the rest of us.

Never Miss a Sale

The world of retail sales is a very fluid place where prices can fluctuate daily, growing or shrinking like the tides. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article. The issue at hand is this: How do you know when to buy that one special gift, and where do you get it from to get the best price? This can be particularly important when it comes to expensive gifts, like electronics.

It turns out, there are several sources you can turn to for help.

RetailMeNot is a tried-and-true website for finding coupon and discount codes, and it offers an excellent app for iPhone. Say your favorite clothing retailer is Old Navy. Before you take a trip to the store or go shopping online, check RetailMeNot first. Old Navy tends to run a lot of promotions via email campaigns, where customers can input special codes at checkout to get a discount. RetailMeNot finds those codes and publishes them for everyone to find and take advantage of. It's easy to search and every deal has a reliability rating that's voted on by users, so you know which deals are the most legit.

If you don't want to do the legwork, try an app that monitors specific products for you and alerts you when prices drop. ShopSavvy is an app primarily dedicated to bringing you ad flyers from numerous retailers, but it also comes with a "SmartAlert" feature that will track product categories for you across 1,500 online stores. You could tell it to keep an eye on "running shoes," for example, or "pearl necklaces," and it will let you know when a good deal pops up on one.

But what if you want to track a specific product, like a PlayStation 4 console or a burgundy, leather reclining chair from La-Z-Boy? TrackIf lets you pick the individual product(s) you want to keep tabs on, and compares prices from all over the Internet. It will alert you as soon as it finds a sale price on one of your desired items.

Wrangle Wishlists Out of Your Loved Ones

Friends and family don't always make it easy to shop for them. To be sure you're getting someone you care about something they truly want, ask them to make a wishlist for you to work with. Amazon has been offering the ability to easily create wishlists for years, but the retail giant's app doesn't provide this function. (We can't believe Amazon has never created a special "Wishlist" app. Opportunity = missed.)

Addwish makes it easy to get wishlists from others, and even easier to coordinate them. You can share your wishlist online, follow the lists of others, and even work together (privately) to decide who's getting dear old dad that snappy tie he asked for.

Digital Gift Cards

Go ahead and gripe all you want, traditionalists. But for the gift-giving-challenged among us, sometimes gift cards are the only option. But who needs actual plastic in this day and age?

You know those kiosks you can find at department stores and drug stores that have rows and rows of gift cards from all sorts of stores, restaurants, and online services? Gyft is like one of those that you can peruse and purchase from right on your iPhone. The app offers digital gift cards from more than 200 retailers, and it comes with a slick digital wallet that keeps them for you. It's also just as easy to buy a digital gift card for someone else and send it to them.

Did we leave out any great apps that can simplify Christmas shopping? Let us know in the Comments area.

Photo: Jonas Nordlund

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