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Second-hand shopping

Shopping for antiques at the famous Portobello Road market in London

Want to know where to get top fashion labels for rock-bottom prices? Want a whole new wardrobe but don’t want to spend too much?

Come to the UK – and go ‘second hand’! Recycling, reusing and reselling old clothes is something of a tradition in the UK, and it’s growing in popularity, too – there are so many great vintage stores and charity shops in most towns and cities.

Forget rooting around in ‘thrift store’ bins, finding mouldy tissues in the pockets of just-bought jumpers and rows of greasy, unwashed rags. Even celebrities are jumping on the fashion for recycled clothes – just ask singer Lily Allen or supermodel Kate Moss, who are self-confessed fans of second hand. And for students, it can be a great way to save money and bag some truly original treasures – or stock up on cutlery and posters for your new home.

On top of all of that, you can feel proud that you’ve done something for the environment and, in many cases, contributed to a good cause. And when you leave the UK – or you feel in need of a spring clean – you can give it all back again and feel double as proud!

Here are just some of the ways you can get into the UK’s second-hand culture...

Charity shops

The world’s very first charity shop was in the UK, when the Wolverhampton Society for the Blind set up a store in 1899 to sell goods to raise money for blind people. Nowadays there are more than 9,000 charity shops across the country.

The idea is simple: people donate old clothes, books, games, DVDs and pretty much anything they no longer use. The charity then sells it, usually at very cheap prices, and uses the proceeds to support their cause. Any item that is not sold is recycled if possible.

Even if you don't buy anything, browsing is a lot of fun in Kingston Antiques Centre (Photo ©VisitEngland)

The international aid charity Oxfam has the largest number of shops in the UK – more than 700 across the country, including 70 specialist Oxfam bookshops (the UK’s many second-hand bookshops are great for browsing!).

At other charity shops across the country, you can buy or donate clothes to help people with cancer (e.g. Marie Curie Cancer Care), animals (e.g. the PDSA or RSPCA), elderly people (such as Age UK), children (such as Save the Children) and hundreds of other causes. Some charity shops now have websites too, so you can shop online if you can’t find a store near you.

Charity shops are entirely staffed by volunteers. Depending on your visa requirements and individual university, school or college rules about working while you study, you might be able to spend a few hours volunteering at your local store. This is a great chance to meet people from the local community, as well as boosting your CV!

For more information, go to the Charity Retail Association website.

Vintage, antique or junk shops

Vintage means old – but old with class. That’s exactly what you’ll find in UK vintage stores.

These are second-hand shops that specialise in fashion labels, ‘period’ clothes (such as flared jeans from the 1970s, or flapper dresses from the '20s) or other highly sought-after clothes. Antique stores are similar to vintage stores, but are more focused on furniture, art, collectors’ items and display pieces.

In some, the money goes to charity; others buy the goods in and sell them on for a profit. Often, the shop owner will be able to tell you something about the history of every one of the pieces.

Thomas Farthing, a vintage men's clothing store in London (Photo ©VisitBritain/RichardAllen)

This means vintage shops tend to be more expensive than charity shops, but they can still be great for a browse, or to pick up a truly exquisite piece for a formal event. Even the smartest antique shops have some cheaper items, which can be great for presents – and you’re guaranteed to find something unique. Why not impress your friends with a vintage world map, or an original copy of The Times newspaper from the Second World War?

The cheaper, lower end is the junk shop. Again, usually the shop owners buy old goods from people who no longer want them and sell them on at a slight profit. But don’t let the word ‘junk’ put you off – gear up your rummaging muscles and you may be surprised to find some beautiful antiques.

Internet swapping

Freecycle, Freegle, Swapz… the free exchange market has hit the UK.

Log in to any of these sites and you’ll find a community trading in a vast array of items that they simply need to get rid of. Typically, you can post either a ‘wanted’ notice or advertise an item you want to give away. You'll then arrange an exchange via online messaging, and either post the item or pick it up in person. It’s that simple – no money involved.

These sites let you give or take items whenever you like, but others, such as Swapit and Swishing, use a system where you earn points by donating and then use those points to ‘buy’ new items.

Many colleges and universities have their own swap sites too, which are good for tracking down textbooks from former students – and passing textbooks on at the end of your course.

As always, it’s very important to be careful when meeting anyone through an online arrangement. It’s best not to go alone, even if it’s just to pick up a biscuit tin for your latest baking experiment.

Many sites have safety measures in place, and as long as you're sensible, they can be a great resource.

Swish, swap, chat, chill

New clothes, new friends – if both those things sound good, then swishing is for you!

Swishing parties (also called swap shops, clothes swaps, frock exchanges or shwopping) are the latest trend to hit the UK’s ethical fashion set – and they’re becoming a big feature of student union events calendars.

Bring all those clothes and goods that you want to get rid of. At some events, you colonise a corner of the ‘swish floor’ to flaunt your stuff, while others ask you to wear everything you have to offer (naturally, most swishing parties provide changing areas).

Keep your eyes peeled for events on campus – or throw your own swishing party! Click here for a guide to setting one up.

Jumble sales, car boot sales and bring-and-buys

Vintage curios and perfect presents, on a market stall in Spitalfields, east London (Photo ©Joanna Henderson)

First things first – what’s a car boot? You might call it the trunk – it’s the back of the car, where you store all your suitcases, bags, things you’ve bought from charity shops…

So why, I hear you cry, would you want to buy a car boot?

You probably don’t. Actually, a car boot sale means people park their cars in a designated field, open up the boot, and display their second-hand items there – transforming the vehicle into a marvellous little shop window!

As a shopper, you don't need a car yourself – anyone is welcome to wander around the sale looking for a bargain or two. Who knows, the old man in the Skoda might turn out to have that original 19th-century carriage clock that you’ve always dreamed of owning.

Alternatively, check out jumble sales or bring-and-buy sales, which are often held at church or community halls, fairs or, occasionally, in local pubs or cafés. The event will usually be advertised in the local area.

Best of all, jumble sales and bring-and-buys often have a number of stalls selling home-made cakes, biscuits and jams. Unlike the non-edible goods, these are certainly not second-hand! Expect freshly baked, mouthwatering treats – the perfect pick-me-up after all that shopping.

Read more:

   •  Packing your bags: What to wear in the UK
   •  Eating on a budget in the UK
   •  The essential guide to scholarships and money

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