The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

Invest with James: How to make money renting your shirts

James has discovered the value of renting stuff he isn't using.
James has discovered the value of renting stuff he isn't using.
Matthew DeBord

My almost-six-year-old son James is very interested in money. But unlike some kids who think about ways that they can do jobs for an allowance or create little businesses (Lemonade stands!) in order to get some cash to spend, James wants to divert wealth from other people without actually providing any real services. 

I think this makes him a member of the 1% that Occupy Wall Street is protesting, if not in assets then in philosophy.

His chief target is his older sister, Lucia, who has decided that she doesn't care about money and wants to live for her art.

James is obsessed with separating her from her money. He doesn't really know anyone else who has money he can get his hands on, so this makes sense. 

Money for both of them comes from the traditional sources of pre-adolescent capital: intermittent allowances, gifts, the Tooth Fairy. But James has more of it because he saves it all.

Initially, we thought James might become a sort of pre-K financier. He had hoarded a nice pile of cash and his sister needed some supplies to make stuff to sell (Art!) for a kids' crafts fair. We figured James could put up the money and take a percentage of whatever Lucia made in profit, once she paid him back for the materials.

We tried to explain it to him. He didn't seem to get it. Then came the Star Wars shirt.

A relative bought James a Star Wars shirt, which Lucia thought was cool. One day, James wasn't wearing it. Lucia wanted to. So they made a deal: James would let Lucia "borrow" the shirt.

For $7.

This is actually pretty far below his usual price. Negotiations with James, for everything from taking a bath with his baby brother to letting somebody else have a slice of his pizza, usually start at $20.

The problem came when Lucia only had $10 bill, so James needed to make $3 change.

He was distraught about giving up $3.

It took me about 15 minutes in the car on the way to school to explain that he hadn't lost any money, but had made $7. But he really lit up when I told him that he had made $7 for letting Lucia borrow a shirt than would otherwise just have spent the day in his drawer. Making nothing. Just sitting there in the dark.

We spent the next 20 minutes talking about other things he could rent to his sister in order to plunge her into penniless indentured servitude. 

This morning, for example, Lucia paid James $5 to do a word search in his Puzzlemania book. This was $5 I had given her the night before when she said I was behind on her allowance.

Easy come, easy go, sweetheart! Lucia is definitely a member of the 99%. And it's always nice when you can re-enact a national protest movement around the dinner table each night.

James is now within about $3 of his new goal of taking $100 and putting it into his bank account so he can access a magical new thing called "compound interest." I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone so captivated by an online calculator.

You can see the beauty of this. He rents stuff he isn't using and may in fact not even care about anymore, then takes the money and gives it to the bank, which then pays him interest.

If he keeps going at this rate, without even adding much to his account each month and essentially just collecting other people's cash, he'll have ten grand by the time college starts. 

So what have we learned from young James? 

Well, it's never a bad idea to look around your life and try to figure out what assets you have that aren't being used and that can either be sold or, better yet, rented. Obviously, if you own property you already know about this. Some companies are beginning to do it with personal cars, however. Your car may be sitting in the garage or driveway most of the day, so why not rent it out? A company called RelayRides has entered this business.

People are also using Internet services to rent out their driveways for parking and their everyday possessions to people who may lack, say, a mountain bike. It's a fascinating sort of post-eBay, post-Craigslist way to ride out some hard times — or just pursue rational economic self-interest.

People who have joined this movement have basically figured out what James did with the Star Wars shirt. We all have stuff just sitting around. Why not rent it to those in need — and get a little bit richer in the process?

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.