After clamping down last year, U.S. holiday shoppers are more willing to crack open their wallets in 2009, but still intend to hunt for discounts, a survey released on Tuesday found.

About 77 percent of respondents said they were willing to splurge on a gift for the 2009 holidays even if times are tough, according to the survey by Information Resources Inc (IRI), a market research firm.

We are seeing for this holiday season a ray of conservative optimism, said IRI Consulting & Innovation President Thom Blischok. Last year was simply a complete retrenchment, holding back (and) being very, very restrictive on what they spent.

For retailers, the 2008 holiday season was the toughest in nearly four decades, as consumers faced a financial market crisis and housing downturn.

But as shoppers move toward this year's holidays, employment fears remain top of mind, with 78 percent of respondents expressing worry over job stability, just 1 percent less than a year earlier, the survey found.

And consumers are using lessons in thrift to allot holiday gift budgets.

Just over 52 percent of consumers said they would spend up to $499 on holiday gifts, about 9.2 percent more people than last year.

This will be a bargain-rich Christmas driven by this lens of affordability the shopper has, Blischok said.

To that end, 59 percent of respondents said they would seek out bargains online this year, up from 41.7 percent in 2008.

Functional gifts such as iPods, Blu-ray players for less than $99, smartphones and clothes such as sweaters and jackets will likely top gift lists, Blischok said.

Cooking utensils and ingredients for home-made meals will also be in demand as more families eat at home to save money, he added.

IRI polled about 1,000 U.S. households online in the last two weeks of August.

A separate study by Global Hunter Securities LLC from late August showed that U.S. retailers could see sales in the 2009 holiday season decline from last year's dismal results, or show only a slight uptick even in the best scenario.

(Reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman, editing by Matthew Lewis)