The humble swap party: a gathering of friends to trade clothing items and accessories you don’t wear for potential treasures in someone else’s “to be donated” pile. These have gained popularity recently, and I couldn’t be happier. Swap parties combine some of the best things on earth: time with friends, snacks, the chance to give away what doesn’t “spark joy,” exciting treasure-hunting opportunities, and doing it all in an eco- and wallet-friendly way.
Setting expectations is a key part of your swap party going well — it takes the pressure off of you to constantly re-explain what’s going on, and it lets your guests get comfortable about the idea. It might even inspire them to bring some additional cool stuff to the party! For swap newbies (both hosts and guests), this is the step I have always found most crucial: let people know what to expect.
Here are a few of the ground rules I find most helpful when setting up a swap party with friends:
1. It’s a party above all else.
Parties are best when the space they’re in is welcoming, but welcoming doesn’t have to mean spending much money (or really, any money at all). Light a few candles, put on some fun music, and have some beverages (boozy or otherwise) at the ready along with plenty of space for those potluck snacks. While the swap is the activity at the center of the party theme, gatherings are really about the people who attend and helping them feel as comfortable as possible. Arrange ample seating so people can spread out and assess potential new additions to their home while chatting with the other guests.
2. If someone doesn’t have things to swap, suggest bringing refreshments instead.
“I’d love to come, but I don’t really have anything to bring.” This is a pretty common refrain if your guests are new to swapping. Many times newbies feel they ought to have top-of-the-line goodies for everyone else. Asking for them to bring food or drink instead! Folks are used to bringing food and beverages to parties anyway, and you can ask them to help you fill out the snack table with their offering.
Thrifty pro-tip: Up the luxury-factor of your party with a signature mixed drink or break out the classy glass & dishware.
3. Themes are optional but very, very helpful.
Most swaps have a rough theme that helps organize the party. Are you looking to unload/freshen up your wardrobe? A clothes/accessories swap is perfect, because even if you and your friends don’t wear the same size, you can trade cute accessories like bags, hats, or costume jewelry. Looking to start cooking more? Then a kitchen swap sounds about right, where your friends can unload their back-up bakeware and you can find a new-to-you mortar and pestle. You can swap everything from house plants to books, the sky’s the limit! Letting your attendees know what category of items to bring gives them time to go through their stuff and find more things to bring.
4. Attendees can bring any clean, usable item they’d be comfortable donating.
Items don’t have to be brand new, but they do need to be clean and in working order (unless you’re having a fixer-upper swap party, in which case your guests should be prepared for some repair work!).
Thrifty pro-tip: Schedule your party around the time people are looking to clean out their homes already. Times like spring cleaning or a month after the gift-giving holidays tend to be when people are looking at their possessions thinking “I don’t even use this stuff!”
5. Use the Swap-Zone to your advantage.
How will everyone at your party know what items are up for grabs? Because you, savvy party host, laid out an easy-to-identify swap-zone before anyone arrived. Anything laid out in the swap-zone is up for grabs, but once someone takes it out of the zone, it’s theirs to consider and keep if they like. If they don’t want to keep it, back to the zone it goes. The zone can be anything from a blanket laid out in the middle of your floor or a specific table cleared of all other items. So long as it’s easy to tell what’s in the zone and what isn’t, you’re good to go! This way people know that your cousin’s hand-me-down sundress is theirs to take home, but your favorite vase over on the side table is not.
6. Think buffet, not Bartertown.
The first time I went to a swap, I was concerned I’d have to convince people to trade items they’d brought for things in my own bag. I was so wrong! Swap parties are much more comfortable. As people arrive, direct them to the swap-zone where they can leave their swap-ables as well as where they can put any snacks and beverages. Some parties like to set a hard start time when the swapping will begin, but a much more relaxed (and classy) approach is to begin laying out and displaying swap items as they are brought in. Once items are laid out for display, attendees can leisurely browse through them buffet-style, pick them up, examine them, and perhaps even try things on.
Thrifty pro-tip: encourage this kind of dress-up party by moving a full-length mirror from somewhere else in the house to a place where people can see how they look in their new looks.
7. BYOB — Bring Your Own Bag.
Hop on the reusable-bag bandwagon and encourage people to bring some totes and carry-alls to take home their new-found goodies. This is one of those items that seems intuitive… until you show up at a clothing swap in Greenwich Village and realize you don’t have anything to carry away your prizes in. Do I speak from experience? Yes, perhaps I do. Though a Manhattan Portage bag that no one else seemed interested in did save me the indignity of shoving everything in my handbag that night.
Thrifty pro-tip: Have a bunch of reusable tote bags you don’t use? Bring them along to swap! Others will likely be just as grateful as I was for the additional carrying capacity.
8. Leftovers are likely.
After everyone seems content with their new wares, your party will likely shift to regular socializing, which is just as it should be. Enjoying one another’s company while occasionally toying with another new-to-you item is a wonderful way to spend an evening, so be ready for this shift in tone with more snacks (and perhaps consolidate the swap zone now that there are fewer items left). By the time your guests are packed up and heading home, you will likely have a pile of unclaimed left over items, so plan for it in advance! Make sure you know about any charities that accept donations like yours, and check with them about how much you can donate at a time and when would be the best time. Charities often don’t have the bandwidth to process donations all the time, so check for their donation hours.
Thrifty pro-tip: By the way, there’s no rule against taking home your own item if it’s left over and, over the course of the evening, you’ve begun to see it in a different light and now want to try using it again.
9. And the last rule: change these rules as-needed
You know your friends, their interests, and their comfort levels far better than I ever could. If there’s something on this list that you think they wouldn’t be up for, by all means, change it! So long as you are changing the plan in order to make your guests feel respected and welcome, change them to anything you like.
So how will you host your classy, up-scale party?
The number one thing that surprised me about my very first swap party was this: almost every attendee took me aside at some point to say, very earnestly, what a good idea it was. They’d spent the evening watching their old dresses or shoes that never fit right delight their friends. I’d watched as people excitedly thanked each other, complimented their friends’ excellent taste, and with very real gratitude tucked a new-to-them item into their bag. People told stories of when they’d bought this dress while traveling, or the bracelet they’d received as a gift that they were so happy to see on the wrist of someone who wanted to wear it.
The biggest surprise was the overflow of joy and gratitude surrounding a pile of second-hand items that the owners had wanted to give away. I hope your swap party goes just as well!
Margaret Mae is a pun-loving project manager who loves knitting, kung fu, D&D, and financial planning with equal fervor. Come say hi on Twitter or Instagram @MargaretMaenad and she’ll tell you why everyone deserves to try the anime hairstyle of their dreams at least once before they die.
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