Don’t shop, swap!

The concept is simple — trade something you don’t want for something you’ll actually use. Not only will you be getting rid of excess clutter, you’ll be helping the environment by reducing consumption. But best of all: you’ll get new things without your budget taking a hit.

It’s no surprise then that ‘swaps’ in all their many forms are becoming popular again thanks to the economic slump. According to recent articles in the Toronto Star and San Francisco Chronicle an increasing number of people are on the lookout for free items to help them get through these tough times, and they’re willing to part with some of their old stuff in exchange.

It isn’t just clothes and accessories that are being traded. Movies, books, household items, furniture, toys, decorating items, plants, services and even vacation rentals and vehicles are up for grabs. What used to be private, in-home parties have turned into community events, and websites such as Cambridge, Ontario based are seeing a dramatic increase in users.

It’s a win-win situation — more people looking to trade means there are more goods and services to be traded. Businesses as well as individuals are taking advantage of this new economy of bartering.

Want in on the action? Here’s how:

Host a party

Why you’ll love it: It’s an inexpensive way to host a gathering, and it has many of the social aspects of shopping — like trying on clothes (or trying out items), sharing stories and offering opinions. What’s missing? The guilt of spending money or worrying about your budget.

How to do it: Swap parties got their start with women exchanging clothes and accessories they no longer wore, but they’ve expanded to reach new items and audiences, like kids’ clothing, furniture, household items and collectibles. (Parties can even be co-ed). Here are some tips to get you started:

Pick a theme. Do you want to trade clothes and accessories? Books and movies? Games? You can organize a party to trade just about anything — but keep the choices limited to avoid chaos and clutter.

Keep it simple. Set the mood with your favourite tunes and keep the fare simple: no messy, sticky, drippy or crumbly foods that could stain or damage items (or your home). Try easy options you can prepare well ahead of time like fruit and vegetable platters so you won’t be stuck in the kitchen the whole night. Let a decadent dessert or signature drink bring the “wow” factor.

Make expectations clear. Make sure everyone knows that items should be “gently used” — that is, they’re clean and in good condition. You might also want to set a time limit, such as “no clothing over three years old” if you want current fashions.

And above all else: inform your guests know that there’s no room for second thoughts. Make it a rule that items can’t go home with their original owners.

Have the right equipment available. What items do you need — or need people to bring — to facilitate the party? Items like a full-length mirror and areas to use as change rooms are necessary if you’re trading clothes. You may also need to think about how to best display the items you’re trading with book shelves, card tables, clothing racks and hangers.

Keep it fair while making it fun. It won’t be much of a party if one or two people get all of the good stuff. Set up a system for displaying and exchanging items — like drawing names from a hat and taking turns — to make sure the event doesn’t turn into a literal free-for-all.

Have a plan for leftover items. Decide ahead of time what will happen to items that no one chooses — like donating them to a local women’s shelter or the Salvation Army. Designate a person to make sure they get to their next destination.

If you try it: Think outside the box. You can make these events as simple or as lavish as you choose, but adding a creative flare to the party will make it memorable. For example, choose a colour or style as your focus for a clothing party, or host a mystery-themed evening to trade paperbacks in that genre.

You can even make swaps a regular event each month or season, and take turns with friends playing host. Alternatively, you can also go “pot luck” and invite guests to bring a favourite snack. These regular meets give you the opportunity to catch up with friends, clean house and get free items to indulge your craving for something new.

Look for swap meets in your community

Why you’ll love it: Sometimes you have to get beyond your social circle for a little variety. That’s why community events are becoming more popular — there’s more to choose from and you don’t have to worry about your friends not having the same tastes or being the same size. Some people are more comfortable selecting items they haven’t seen their friends wearing or using, and it’s easier to reject items if they came from a total stranger.

How to do it: The good news is you don’t have to plan anything. However, the challenge is finding an event, especially if you don’t live in a major city centre. They might be happening at a church, local service organization, through a commercially-organized meet, through a hobby organization or club or as a fund-raising effort for a charity. They might also be part of a larger event — like a swap meet as part of a car show or comic book convention. Some are seasonal, like plant and seed swaps, or commercial events put on by a media or public relations company.

In other words, they may be tricky to find. If you’re on the hunt, here are some places to look other than your favourite search engine:

– Your community’s event calendar.

– Classified ads or community listings in the local paper or online.

– Events listings for charities, women’s centres and churches.

– Events offered through any “green” initiatives in your community.

– Social networking website groups based on location or hobby.

If you try it: Find out any procedures and costs before you go. Many meets only allow you to take home the same number (or less) of items you brought. For instance, if you brought five items, you can take home five items or less — and sometimes you might not find anything at all. Some meets do let you take extra for a cash fee, but that’s not a universal rule. At any rate, don’t take anything you aren’t willing to donate because unlike an in-home swap you won’t have the option of taking it back.

Be sure to take a little cash with you as the event likely won’t be free. While most meets are not-for-profit, there’s often a modest charge that helps pay for the costs of organizing the event (like advertising and facility costs). The event may be held on behalf of a fundraising group, in which case any proceeds will go to a good cause and there may be food or other items for sale as well.

The same rules about items being current, clean and in good repair still applies, but “as is” items may be welcome too.

Swap online

Why you’ll love it: You can reach the widest possible audience and have the best hunting options. Whatever you’re searching for or trying to get give away, you can usually find a place to do it online. The internet makes it easy to connect with people in your own community as well as those who aren’t in the same area (or even the same country).

How to do it: There are countless websites out there, but here’s a selection of some of the better-known ones: (for children’s items)

Online classifieds websites like Craigslist and Kijiji also have sections for free items and trading.

Swapping isn’t limited to just goods — you can also barter for services and rentals as well. For example, you could trade your marketing expertise for some translation help for your web business. Trade your unused patio stones for a few hours of tutoring.

If you try it: Think protection first. Unfortunately, there are many scams surrounding used goods so you’ll want to take steps to protect yourself, such as using a separate email address for posting items and keeping your personal information secret. Use PayPal or a secured method of payment for shipping or membership costs rather than giving out your credit card information.

If payment is the problem, try a website that has its own currency system. For example, some websites use a credit system where you earn points for posting items, and then redeem those points for items that others offer. There doesn’t need to be a one-on-one trade — any user can “buy” or “sell” to any other user.

A final word of advice: Regardless of what method you use to swap, remember that the whole idea is to share goods with others who can use them, not make a profit. Amassing “more stuff” you don’t need and selling items you get for nothing goes against the “share-and-share-alike” philosophy of the swap trend.

If you’re looking to earn some cash, there’s nothing wrong with selling your own items and hiring out your services. Or you may decide to simply donate them to a good cause instead. Swapping isn’t for everyone, but it’s another option worth consideration — especially with today’s tight budgets.

Sources:, Toronto Star

Photo © Jay Lazarin

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