Dress yourself for free: How to host a clothing swap

I spend almost nothing on clothes. According to Mint, I've spent $199.50 to clothe my family of five this year. They say the average U.S. household has spent $1258.62. That's more than six times my spending.

It's been years since I walked into a clothing store, tried on styles I liked and bought myself a new pair of jeans. That doesn't mean I'm content to dress like a slob, or wear the same tried-and-true favorites season after season. I change up my wardrobe every few months with a huge shopping spree — from my friends' closets.

The Clothing Swap

My friends and I hold clothing swaps at least once a season. We all clean out our closets of anything we don't love that's still in good condition. We get together and swap our cast-offs around. I'm a walking advertisement for the aphorism, “One person's trash is another person's treasure.”

A clothing swap is a win on several fronts, For example, it decreases clutter in your closet, and gives you a chance to freshen up your wardrobe for free.

I find the selection at a clothing swap is better than I get in most thrift stores. My friends' tastes in clothes are fairly similar to mine, so I don't have to wade through rack after rack of 1970s polyester blouses to get to the good stuff. The last swap I was at had an entire business wardrobe of designer-label stuff in my size, a lot of it still with the tags on. I also picked up half a dozen cozy, long-sleeved t-shirts and a pair of great jeans.

I feel free to experiment with my wardrobe. If something fits well but is wildly different from my usual style, I can take it home and see if I like it. If it sits at the back of my closet for six months untouched, I can just return it next time I go to a swap. No harm, no foul. With clothing swap finds, I've expanded my staple wardrobe from simple jeans and t-shirts to include a lot more adventurous skirts and dresses.

Clothing swaps are great fun. I'd much rather spend a morning hanging out with a group of friends chatting and laughing while we play dress-up than spend hours trolling a mall for the right ensemble.

I've heard these events called “naked lady parties”, but men can play this game, too. I've hosted swaps that were just for the ladies and swaps that were co-ed. Do what works for you.

Swapping is simple

Here's how to host a clothing swap:

  • Find a space. If you're hosting a small event for your friends, your living room is probably ample. If you want to make it bigger, church basements and community centers are often open to this type of thing.
  • Decide who to invite. Do you want it to be all women, or co-ed? Just your close friends, or a big group? Will your swap have a theme, like a fancy dress swap or a mother-daughter swap?
  • Make your announcement. Giving people a few weeks notice before a clothing swap is a good idea. You want to give your guests time to gather up their unwanted duds, and make sure they have open space on their calendars.
  • Set rules for what can be swapped. Decide what you want people to bring, and what should go straight in the Goodwill bin. A good first rule is that everything be clean and in good condition. You may want to prohibit donations of used underthings. Some swaps also exclude kids' clothing, athletic wear or winter gear, just because there's so much of it and the appeal is so limited.
  • Gather your supplies. You'll want a ready supply of trash bags for people to take clothes home in. Also handy: sharpie markers and masking tape for making labels. Full length mirrors are a huge bonus. You may also want to put out some light snacks and beverages, in a separate room from where the swap is happening.
  • Collect clothing. Encourage people to drop off their donations a few days in advance, so that you have time to set up and sort the loot before the event starts. This helps cut down on chaos. People will bring clothes as they arrive on the day of the swap; it's human nature to do these things at the last minute. But you can get a head start by taking things early and having piles already going when your first guests arrive.
  • Set up the swap. To help people find what they want, sort clothes into based on type. You'll want a separate heap for shirts, t-shirts, pants, sweaters, jackets, etc.
  • Donate the leftovers. When the swap is over, take the leftovers to Goodwill, Planet Aid, or the charity of your choice. It's best to have a couple of dedicated volunteers on hand to help with this. The job can be overwhelming for one person.

The best reward to hosting a clothing swap? You get first dibs on everything that comes in as you sort through the donations.

Final Thoughts

The biggest risk is bedbugs. Bedbugs are a nightmare to live with and nearly impossible to get rid of. They love to travel in clothes, but can't survive the heat of a dryer. If you're hosting a clothing swap, make a very firm rule that everything brought into the house be freshly cleaned.

Hosting a clothing swap is a great way to slash your clothing budget to almost nothing, and it's a fun way to spend time with your friends. It's also a way to live green. We don't usually think of clothes as recyclable in the same way a soda can is, but clothing makes up 5% of the municipal waste in New York City. That's a lot of clothes going into landfills.

Swapping your unwanted stuff decreases your demand for new manufactured textiles, which can be a drain on natural resources. It also helps keep more clothes out of landfills.

Got any more tips on how to host a clothing swap? Leave 'em in the comments!

For more clothing tips, also see How to Stop Buying Clothes You Never Wear and Embracing the Thrift Store Ethic: 18 Top Tips for Buying Used Clothes. Also welcome Lifehacker readers! Photo by iwona_kellie.

More about...Clothing, Frugality

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
73 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Shara
Shara
10 years ago

Uh, your math is a little off, that’s only just over six times.

I like swapping for kids but at 6′, and my husband at 6’8″, there aren’t too many people around to swap WITH. I always turn green [with sour grapes envy] when these ‘save money on clothes with second hand’ posts float through because I can never find anything. I can’t even shop most SALES. Woe is me.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

Blarg! And I should have caught that math error on editing. Thanks, Shara.

I also should have noticed last night that I had this scheduled to publish Saturday instead of Friday. Oops. Oh well. Mixing up my post times once in a while makes things interesting, right? 🙂

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

You might want to check with her. It could be a typo and the 1 and 2 are backward.

Wimsey
Wimsey
10 years ago

I’m 6’7″ and I get most of my clothes made to measure from all over the Internet. I guess I’m left out as well.

April
April
10 years ago

@Shara: Sadly, I’m the same. I literally have not one friend who is my Salma Hayek-esque size/build. I don’t buy clothes, I HUNT for them. 🙂

It’s also super frustrating for me to spend hours in a thrift store, only to find a few things I like that don’t end up fitting. But I don’t want to hijack this post, just want to say I feel your sour grapes envy!!

I do give away clothing, though, usually to Goodwill or younger cousins without much cash.

Emma
Emma
10 years ago

I’m in the same boat as commenter #1 (Shara). I’m only 5’11”, but when all of your friends are 5’8″ or under, you can’t swap anything. Dresses are an awkward length, shirt sleeves aren’t long enough, shirt lengths (midriff) are too short, etc. There’s no way I’d be able to swap with anyone on pants or shoes, either. I’ve only recently been able to find women’s pants with a 34 or 36 inseam, and most of my jeans come from Western Wear stores because they size theirs like guys pants – waist and inseam sizes. As for shoes…if any of… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

Wow, that sounds like a great idea, especially for toddlers. We often get hand-me-downs from friends because my kids are all generally smaller than all my friend’s kids.

I would much rather if our clothes went to my friends than Salvation Army. The SA by our house is ridiculously over-priced. It is sad because I thought they were supposed to be helping people.

Victoria
Victoria
10 years ago

I have been on a mission to de-clutter for almost a year now. Every couple of months, I go into my closet and fill a bag of clothing. In the beginning, I had so much to get rid of! Nowadays, I can usually round half a dozen items that I had trouble parting with previously. But instead of swapping them, I just wait for a hang out session with my girlfriends and I plop down the bag of clothes. My friends pounce on it and next thing I know that gorgeous vintage dress that never fit me right has a… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

My MIL’s gazingus pin is buying clothing for her grandkids. We’ve also benefited from hand-me-downs from colleagues’ kids. We’ve spent money on shoes and a couple of uniforms for them. But if we needed kid’s clothing, I understand there’s a great monthly clothing swap in our area.

@6 Most goodwill-like stores use the profits for their programs. Lower-cost Stuff is not their main mission.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

@Emma

http://www.tallwomensclothes.com/ They are pricey, but great for suits and stuff that you just can’t get from Wrangler.

I’m size 11 shoes. I get sneakers from eastbay.com (11 is an odd size and therefore goes on clearance after the regular sizes are gone) and dress shoes from Naturalizer.com.

Harder is my husband. He’s a size 16 shoe. Finding anything but sneakers is very difficult. Luckily basket ball players are big guys so sneakers go up very large, but we usually have to special order anything like slippers or dress shoes.

Maharani
Maharani
10 years ago

Might be useful for some but would never work for me: the only clothing swap I have participated in is claiming my mother’s silk sari collection. Great quality, one size fits all.

questioner
questioner
10 years ago

same problem as many people quoted here…I am (very) tall and thin. I know very few other women with my proportions, and all of my clothes are hard-won prizes found by diligent hunting and, more often than not, alterations by a good tailor. I will often pay above the odds for a pair of slacks that actually fit!

Perhaps there’s a market here – one of us could start a clothing thrift specializing in unusual sizes, have an online website with exact measurements etc.

Tami
Tami
10 years ago

How do you ensure fairness? I went to a clothing swap once where one woman brought a ton of really nice, high quality clothing. She had had weight loss surgery, and had dropped several sizes. Unfortunately, other people hadn’t brought nearly as many items, or as nice, and she basically ended up giving away her clothes, and came home with nothing new.

Melanie
Melanie
10 years ago

Thanks for the suggestions. I am actually just getting ready to host my first uniform swap. In the city where we live all the schools, public and private, have the same dress code. It’s solid polo shirts with khaki or denim bottoms, so I thought why not host a swap so we don’t all have to buy new uniforms for the school year. (We start school first week of Aug. so it’s not that far off.) Hopefully everyone will go home with at least enough things to cut their spending in half and after we’ve done it once more people… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

Just checking in to see if any men had commented on this article. Based on the commenters names, none so far (except J.D, who wasn’t actually talking about the content of the article).

ice bear
ice bear
10 years ago

On a related swap idea, I hosted a plant exchange at work. Thirty five employees thinned out their yards and brought perennials such as hosta, astilbe, hydrangea, coneflower, daisies, bee balm, small trees and even raspberries! For each plant donated, a ticket was given. As numbers were called out, participants went around the room to pick out a plant. Nice way to meet people who enjoy gardening, save money and learn about new plants! Any left over plants were donated to local community gardens. By the way our hometown, Buffalo, NY is celebrating National Garden Festival. See attached website.

Jane
Jane
10 years ago

Good idea, but this assumes that your friends and acquaintances are the same size as you. I’m not tall like some of the other women who have commented. Rather, I am short and much more curvy than most of the women I know who I would feel comfortable doing this with. There’s no way we could share clothes. I think it makes more sense to do this with children. This also wouldn’t work with my husband, since our friends are all different shapes and have very different wardrobes. In essence, you need carbon copies of yourself both in shape, taste,… Read more »

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

I love the idea, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully had one of these. Everyone I know is different ages, styles and sizes. We usually just pass clothes along if they’ll work.

There are some community-wide swaps in major cities here in Canada, I wonder if that might work for those of us who are hard to shop for?

KarenJ
KarenJ
10 years ago

Unfortunately, after hitting a certain time in my life, I put on weight and grew “out of” all my clothes. A great consignment shop opened up in my neighborhood. I’ve been bringing in all my clothes, selling them and using the proceeds to purchase new consigned clothes in my bigger (sigh) size. My daughter, age 23, who grew up wearing clothes I picked up at yard sales, loves this store, as she has been able to get designer jeans and tops, things she never would be able to afford on her income. I’m also realizing that I can live with… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha
10 years ago

I went to a very very large version of this a few years ago in Brooklyn. I can’t remember what the name of the group was that organized it, but I know there are several in the US that organize these events in major cities. It’s probably very easy to find via Google. The deal is: Bring a bag of clothing and $10. Drop off the clothing which is then sorted for you in categories (pants, t-shirts, bags, etc). You can then take anything you want that’s already been donated by others and sorted out. The best part about this… Read more »

Jolie
Jolie
10 years ago

In Portland, there’s a community swap that offers options for a variety of sizes. They also have a housewares swap twice a year.

http://pdxswap.com/

I know of similar projects in Seattle and San Francisco, but the Portland Swap is the most organized, I think.

Maharani
Maharani
10 years ago

I think this approach might work best for kids’ clothes, but not for many adults. I admire the recycling ethic as I try to do that with other things. However, for me the best solution seems to be buying classic styles very carefully, getting things altered, and keeping them a long time. My closet is not cluttered at all, and I have a “dressy” professional job. I have to get everything store bought altered anyway as nothing fits properly, and if you sew your own clothes, as I once did, or are used to Indian tailors, the ill fitting nature… Read more »

C.R.
C.R.
10 years ago

My friends and I host clothing swaps 1-2 times a year, and they are always fun. Most of my friends are similar heights (5’2″ to 5’7″ maybe) but sizes range from 0-14. Somehow it works out, partly because a) try to make sure at least 2 invitees are about the same size because they may end up swapping with each other, b) some people bring things that are too big/too small for their current size so work for others, and c) sometimes the same piece can still work well with different proportioned bodies. Be prepared both for your friends to… Read more »

Isa
Isa
5 years ago
Reply to  C.R.

I have been thinking about hosting a small swap amongst friends (all about the same size, same build), but I am trying to figure out how it would work. For example If there are 6 ladies and two of them wanted the same thing from one person, how does that person decide who to give it to? I think that is what has been holding me back from hosting. I am still trying to figure it out. Eventually I would like to make it a bigger event, a community swap but I thought to try it with friends first. The… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

I was in a Mothers of Twins Club and we had clothing/toy/equipment exchanges twice a year. Made friends with a mom of triplets and for years she just brought her clothes to me to buy cheap! It was great, she bought top brands and never let her kids get dirty!!!

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I would hazard a guess that this type of thing works best for women, and specifically for women with a need for leisure or business-casual clothes. It seems like it ought to work for men as well, but just based on past comments re: thrift shopping, it seems that men who need business wear tend to be skeeved out by used clothing.

I’ve many times considered hosting a costume swap for the ballroom dancers in our community. Fit is less of an issue when the garment is made of spandex. 🙂

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

As a man, I would have no interest in this type of activity. First off, my fashions are pretty static. The suit I wore in 1996 to my first job interview still fits me, still looks fine, and was purchased in a neutral charcoal color so it’s acceptable formal business occasions, weddings and funerals. Most of the other clothes that have come through my closet in the time period have been pretty boring, too. For a couple of years I spent nothing on clothes, since I knew I would get gifts at Christmas that would last me another year. So… Read more »

Melanie
Melanie
10 years ago

We did this as a fundraiser at my place of work…had all the ladies bring in their gently used, clean stuff…charged people $1 per item to take what they wanted, and then donated the rest to the local Goodwill-equivalent. The funds raised went to one of the cancer research charities in our office. Oh, and I got 10 new items of clothing 🙂

James
James
10 years ago

i think this is a great idea. if you can find people with styles you like and are your similar size this can work really well.

i have given tons and tons of clothes away to friends over the years and only a few times got stuff in return.

this just might be the gathering i have been looking for.

Rachel211
Rachel211
10 years ago

@ Emma

I wear 11 or 12 too! Payless is the worlds best shoe store in my opinion! 🙂 If you live in FL let me know! haha

Rachel211
Rachel211
10 years ago

Also – my mom, sister, and I will do a jewelry/accessory swap every few years. Most jewlery usually fits everyone and accessories always do. You can do purses, hats, scarves, jewelry, bags, hair ribbons, and anything else you can dig up. Just be sure that you are REALLY okay with parting with it if you come away with nothing. It’s a good way to try out some new styles and find a good home for those awesome earrings that you never actually wore for some reason. As far as all these being fair – I think that people have to… Read more »

jackie
jackie
10 years ago

I’ve hosted two of these parties before and they were great fun. I don’t think I could attend more than 1 per year though, as I don’t go through clothes fast enough to have stuff to contribute more often than that. To the tall ladies: One of the most interesting thing for me was how many different body types fit in the same size. It’s not true for jeans of course, but it was fascinating to see how the same dress looked good on a friend who is tall and thin, and a friend who is tall and curvy and… Read more »

Sheila
Sheila
10 years ago

I loved the idea so much that I and a few women tried this as a churchwide event. It didn’t work out well at all unfortunately. Lots of donators, but only a few takers. I don’t know why. Maybe our church folk just aren’t frugal. Donated a lot of stuff to a thrift store, though, which was nice.

Moxiequz
Moxiequz
10 years ago

For myself – like others here – this is more of a “great in theory, not so workable in practice” type of deal. Almost none of my friends are my size. I agree with the poster who said that this type of idea would work better with kids clothes.

KB
KB
10 years ago

I’m with most of the other posters. Great idea but I don’t see it working for me as I am taller and thinner than most of my close friends. I keep an eye out for sales, but if I really like and can justify getting something I just buy it new.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I can just picture a bunch of men stripping down to their underwear and trying on each other’s clothes…yeah I think it will probably remain a women’s activity.

Though the women may swap men’s clothes.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

This sounds awesome, but I’m going to have to stick to Kohl’s and Goodwill…at 5’2″ and chubby, I’m a much different shape than my friends that range from petite princesses to DAMN darlings (5’4″ – 5’9″ 105-375 pound women). Oh well, good idea anyway! Find a nice sweater with me in mind. 🙂

KS
KS
10 years ago

I’m extremely fussy about my clothes and hard to fit, and many of my friends are much younger or much older. Their styles/coloring wouldn’t work for me. As for used clothes in general, I have to scour thrift stores and it’s too exhausting to do. Accessories work much better for swapping in my world.

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Please remember… Goodwill doesn’t want clothes with stains either. Clothes which are donated should be in good condition, too.

Austin
Austin
10 years ago

I agree with Jason (#26). Asking other men to participate in an “outfit swap” would probably also create the wrong impression. 0_o

CB in SC
CB in SC
10 years ago

I have a female friend that does this all the time but she won’t let me come because 1) my selection of woman’s clothing is rather limited.
2) Women seem to have a hard time undressing in front of me.
Its probably a great spectator sport.

Sally
Sally
10 years ago

I’m tall too and have problems swapping clothes. I really need to get a suit as I will be graduating soon and could use some advice from the other tall gals out there! I am “only” 5’10”, with measurements 36-28-34. I would really need a size 8 tall or maybe even 6 tall to get tailored, but on all the tall-sized websites I have only found size 10 tall and up for suits. That would be alot of tailoring! Any tips?

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

I love clothing swaps. I have hosted a few, but I’m not very good at networking/getting the word out, so they were small. But I have a friend who hosts great swaps once or twice a year. @Tami – there’s no way to enforce fairness, but it’s pretty much a matter of outlook. If I can trade a whole laundry tub of clothes I don’t wear (because I quit my office job, because I gained weight, because they never quite fit right) and get four things I actually wear, then that feels like a win, just as much as if… Read more »

Kelly
Kelly
10 years ago

Another good option is trendy thrift stores. The store takes the best of the clothes donated and sends the rest on. The clothes are a bit more expensive, but the selection is AMAZING! Some consignment shops operate the same way.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

@Sally What is your inseam? If it is >34″ I would suggest Long Elegant Legs (http://www.tallwomensclothes.com/). It looks like they don’t have anything your size in suits right now, but their slacks go down to size 4 and you could easily pair it with a jacket. They carry mostly 36″ inseam with some available in 38″. If you are comfortable with 34″ inseam I would start trolling through the JCPenny site. It is brand specific and you might have to do some research but a number of brands have extra-tall length of 34″. I seem to remember most tall in… Read more »

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

Couple comments on this: – As a guy who works in an office, most of the clothes I need are office attire. Most men wear their office attire until it wears out – I know I do (most shirts last 1-2 years). Not much reuse there. – Men’s sizes are more specific than women’s sizes (for some irrational reason), so it’s harder to find stuff that fits – even if I go to a big thrift store, I can’t usually find much. HOWEVER, shopping for kids clothes (especially little kids) at yard sales and consignment sales can save you a… Read more »

Shelly
Shelly
10 years ago

I’m glad you mentioned the risk of bedbugs as we have recently had a battle with them and this is the very first thing I thought of. Bedbugs are making a HUGE comeback across the nation and they are really devastating. I definitely agree….make an absolute rule that everything be laundered before coming and then I would even throw the clothes into a hot dryer again when I got home because I’m that paranoid. It’s a great idea if it’s done carefully 🙂

JM
JM
10 years ago

I think we’ve spent about $20 on clothes this year (just the hubby and me). This includes getting new socks, underwear, and undershirts because we actually NEEDED them; we’d used them for years and they were starting to tear and get holes. I honestly can’t remember the last time we bought any “real” clothes; maybe before I started my job in September? We have TONS of clothes built up from over the years and we plan on wearing them out before buying new ones. We just buy classics and basics that don’t go out of style, and we buy stuff… Read more »

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

Another thing that has worked well for our family is buying clothes off of eBay for a fraction of the new price.

This has mostly worked with our younger children, who don’t really care if they try the stuff on first.

Crystal
Crystal
10 years ago

ugh, not for me. I have a ‘thing’ about my cloths fitting just-so, my hems hitting right-there…Nope. No swaps for me. I bet I’ve spend less that $200 this year on clothes also, but the trick is to buy quality pieces and take care of them so that they really last. I spent $300 on boots almost 7 years ago and aside from a re-healing they are still going strong

KZ
KZ
10 years ago

For people raising size issues (or “man” issues) – why not take this idea but use it for something like an accessories swap (purses, scarves, jewelry) or a home decor swap? Tools, sports equipment, etc… I know there are bike swaps in my city. Just because this specific application doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean it can’t provide inspiration for another cool idea. I’ve had great experiences being a part of two swap networks. I go with the attitude of getting rid of stuff, so anything I get is a bonus. Sometimes I get nothing, sometimes score. Trying stuff I… Read more »

shares