Swap 'til you drop
For anyone who grew up in the 1970s, swap shops conjure up images of a gurning Noel Edmonds in a dazzling shirt. They tell of a carefree time before credit cards invaded our lives and when a good deal meant exchanging a bag of pogs for a pound of sherbert flying saucers.
But the joys of swapping are making a comeback and not just for the under-10s. Spurred on by the popularity of recycling, not to mention spiralling living costs, more and more adults are opting for it as an alternative way to refresh their lives, their CD collections and even their wardrobes.
The beauty of swapping is not just that you can shop for free, but you can even clear out some old clutter while you're at it. Websites such as www.gumtree.com include their own swap shop section, where posters exchange everything from cars to festival tickets the perfect way to dispose of unwanted gifts or simply to get rid of possessions that no longer fit your lifestyle.
www.swapz.co.uk and www.swapshop.co.uk are two more dedicated sites where you'll find everything on offer from cast-off camping gear to children's toys and quad bikes. They are easy to navigate, with Amazon and eBay-style search facilities, and most operate using a credit system. Give away something and you'll be allocated points which you can then "spend" on your next swap.
As with any internet trading site, it is advisable to be cautious. But most companies offer some form of trading guarantee and will strike off dishonest users. Remember to read their terms and conditions to find out what protections are on offer.
On the plus side, no money changes hands so you're unlikely to find yourself out of pocket.
Book and CD swapping sites tend to have a cyber-village feel, with users sharing their views on much-loved novels and albums. There is generally a good selection, with thousands of items on offer, but these sites can hit a raw nerve with artists who believe they are being diddled out of royalties (in the words of author Jeanette Winterson: "Great idea, but what am I supposed to live on?") If you're unmoved, try www.cd2swap.co.uk and www.readitswapit.co.uk.
For fashion mavens there is www.whatsmineisyours.com, where you can pick up fabulous vintage and designer wear. At the time of writing, items on offer include a grey wool trilby hat a la Pete Doherty and a neat little Chanel suit worth pound;1,200. Well-known brands such as Missoni, Gucci and Dolce Gabbana make frequent appearances. But be wary of bagging yourself an exclusive item only to find all you have is a kidney or a house to offer in exchange.
If the faffing around with emails and Jiffy bags sounds like too much bother, there's always the do-it-yourself option.
Swap parties are becoming increasingly trendy, with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Naomi Campbell reported to have taken part. The concept is simple: meet in a mate's living room with your old clothes and cut deals (two scarves for a Primark top anyone?). But while wheeling and dealing over white wine and nibbles sounds attractive, tact is of the essence. Remember, it's always better to turn down unwanted swaps with a polite "not my size", rather than by sneering contemptuously and making sick-faces.
And what about house swaps? Sites such as www.homelink.co.uk and www.intervac.co.uk mean that for a yearly registration fee of less than Pounds 150, you can secure free holiday accommodation by exchanging houses with a stranger. Fancy kipping in a six-bedroom house with its own private beach on Rio de Janeiro? What about a park-side apartment in Prague? Again, there are no guarantees you and your swap-partner enjoy similar levels of housekeeping or even sanity, but both companies report they have had no problems with vandalism or theft.