How $10 or less can help you turn your old clothes into a new wardrobe

Women at a Clothing Swap Inc. event
Gene Kosoy

Instead of heading to the mall and impulsively buying something you may never wear, consider this: You could swap clothes with friends — or even strangers.

Clothing swaps can be a great way to save money. Americans spent an average of $1,833 on apparel in 2017, about $152 a month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Marie Kondo's KonMari Method, which suggests getting rid of items that no longer spark joy, has inspired many people to take a closer look at their closets. Swaps offer the opportunity to clean out and, at the same time, refresh your wardrobe, or your family's, on the cheap, or sometimes even for free.

To participate, you bring clothes, shoes, and accessories you no longer want to wherever the swap is happening, drop them off, and then choose new items from those brought by other attendees, which you can take home at no cost.

Many people are introduced to clothing swaps by word of mouth, though you can also search for ones in your area that are open to the public on social media or using meetup boards. A friend introduced me to them about five years ago, and I've attended about 10 since. When I left my first swap with a bag of new-to-me clothes, I was hooked. My first pair of Prada shoes? A swap score. Same for clothes still with tags on them that I probably wouldn't have tried on at a store but ended up loving.

The biggest difference swaps have made in my life is that I've cut back on impulse purchases. I'm less likely to buy something just because it's on sale and have reduced the amount of money I spend on clothing each year since about 20% of my wardrobe comes from swaps.

I'm a relative newcomer to clothing swaps, though, so I spoke to two women who have been hosting and attending clothing swaps for decades to get their tips for first-timers. One, Suzanne Agasi, hosts public swaps around the country that are ticketed, generally with admission ranging from about $10 to $25. The other, Barb Hughes, focuses on size-specific swaps in the Portland, Oregon, vicinity, all of which are free to attend.

Suzanne Agasi
Gene Kosoy

'Be good, be green, be glam'

Growing up, Agasi, founder of Clothing Swap, says her clothes were mostly hand-me-downs, so the concept of trading items with friends came naturally to her. Since she hosted her first informal swap in 1994, Agasi has organized more than 300 public swaps around the country.

"There's a real magic about being at a clothing swap with a lot of people," Agasi says. "The fun for me is the group of people who show up because there's always a story behind the clothes."

Swapping has become "a total obsession" for Agasi — and in her peak swapping days, she estimates up to 80% of her wardrobe was swap-sourced. In addition to saving money, she says these events make people more conscious about what clothing they buy and how they dispose of it: "My motto is: Be good, be green, be glam."

'I have a nicer wardrobe in general now'

Hughes, founder of Swap Positive, attended her first clothing swap in 2005 to hunt for hard-to-find petite sizes for her daughter. The experience spurred her to start a swapping network.

"I'm a real tightwad; I love getting free stuff and I love decluttering," Hughes says, adding that, because about 25% of her wardrobe is from swaps, she has more money to spend on the clothing she does buy from stores: "I have a nicer wardrobe in general now."

How to make the most of a swap

Clothing swaps can vary in format — some take place among small groups of friends gathered at someone's home, while others have 100-plus women mixing at a public venue — but you'll have more success finding items if you're open-minded, both about styles and sizing.

Some swap hosts require each attendee bring something to participate. And quality matters, Hughes says. "If you bring a lot of good stuff, you'll get a lot of great stuff."

If you bring a lot of good stuff, you'll get a lot of great stuff.
Barb Hughes
founder of Swap Positive

On average, Agasi says, attendees leave swaps with an Ikea bag's worth of clothes.

If you're hosting a swap, get the word out, decide whether you want the swap to have a focus, such as a particular size of clothing or accessory, the ideal number of attendees, and the best location for it, Hughes says. In addition, consider the rules she outlines on her website for free swaps:

  1. Bring clean items that are in good condition.
  2. Don't take any items before the swap begins.
  3. Be kind and generous to other swappers — and don't take things you won't use personally or give as a gift.
  4. Don't sell anything you received at a swap.
  5. Agree to any other rules set forth by the swap host.

Above all, remember why you're doing a swap in the first place, Agasi says. "This should be really fun for everyone."

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