One financial lesson they should teach in school is that most of the things we buy have to be paid for twice.
There’s the first price, usually paid in dollars, just to gain possession of the desired thing, whatever it is: a book, a budgeting app, a unicycle, a bundle of kale.
But then, in order to make use of the thing, you must also pay a second price. This is the effort and initiative required to gain its benefits, and it can be much higher than the first price.
A new novel, for example, might require twenty dollars for its first price—and ten hours of dedicated reading time for its second. Only once the second price is being paid do you see any return on the first one. Paying only the first price is about the same as throwing money in the garbage.
Likewise, after buying the budgeting app, you have to set it all up, and learn to use it habitually before it actually improves your financial life. With the unicycle, you have to endure the presumably painful beginner phase before you can cruise down the street. The kale must be de-veined, chopped, steamed, and chewed before it gives you any nourishment.
If you look around your home, you might notice many possessions for which you’ve paid the first price but not the second. Unused memberships, unread books, unplayed games, unknitted yarns.
I can’t know for sure, but I have the sense that in pre-consumer societies, there was less emphasis on paying first prices (i.e. getting things into your possession) and much more on paying second prices—doing the work necessary to use what you have, and becoming someone who always does. Imagine a plow, purchased for its features, but which never gets pulled through the earth.
The miracle of industrialization has reduced many first prices tremendously, but has also given us many more of them to consider paying. With all the wonderful toys on offer, almost nobody feels like they have quite enough money, enough acquisition power. When a person receives a windfall, they immediately think of more first prices they can now pay.
But no matter how many cool things you acquire, you don’t gain any more time or energy with which to pay their second prices—to use the gym membership, to read the unabridged classics, to make the ukulele sound good—and so their rewards remain unredeemed.
I believe this is one reason our modern lifestyles can feel a little self-defeating sometimes. In our search for fulfillment, we keep paying first prices, creating a correspondingly enormous debt of unpaid second prices. Yet the rewards of any purchase – the reason we buy it at all — stay locked up until both prices are paid.
For example, you can pick up Moby-Dick for a dollar at a garage sale, but it’s a wasted dollar if you don’t subsequently pay a significant second price: sixteen hours of attending closely to long Victorian commentaries on whales and the men who hunt them. And you’ve got many more debts competing for those same sixteen hours — the more first prices you’ve paid alongside this garage sale dollar, the less you feel like you’ll ever have time to properly experience the legend of Captain Ahab, or do any other elective activities that require effort and initiative.
This scarcity feeling creates one of the major side-effects of our insurmountable second-price debt: we reflexively overindulge in entertainment and other low-second-price pleasures –- phone apps, streaming services, and processed food — even though their rewards are often only marginally better than doing nothing. This stuff is attractive because it takes little effort (and we’re tired from working to pay for so many first prices) but it can eat up a ton of time, depleting the second-price budget even further.
The only solution I can think of is to consciously throw the switch the other way: avoid paying any more needless first prices, and set your lifestyle around paying certain second prices, so you can finally enjoy the long-promised prizes waiting in your bookshelf, storage room, and hard drive. This was my original intuition behind the Depth Year concept—to designate a whole year in which you stop acquiring more ways to do cool things, and start doing the cool things in earnest.
(If you think you might want to do a Depth Year in 2022, feel free to join the Facebook group.)
Paying a second price, unpleasant as it sounds, is a process you can acquire a taste for, and when you do, it’s exhilarating. It’s like picking your way through unmapped wilderness – the going is slow and there’s lots to trip over, but it’s new territory the whole way, and after the initial discomfort you feel very alive. Then when you come out the other side, this new territory has become part of your usual range, and you’re tougher and more interesting.
Figuring out how to pay the second price isn’t hard. You just have to notice that moment you usually think about packing it in, and stay with it instead of doing something else.
In other words, when you hit the weeds, you go into them instead of away. The awkward B major chord on the guitar – get your fingers in place anyway, and see if you can relax into the position just a bit more. The part where Ishmael goes on at length about historical whale drawings – try to understand why it matters to him. It is in these unfamiliar moments that the rewards appear.
Photo by Claudia Rancourt