Frugal Failure: I Paid $40 For A Pencil

Today I come to your seeking penance and absolution. Oh great personal finance blogger in the sky, forgive me for I have sinned! I spent $40 on a pencil!

No, that is not some trick of math. It’s not some military contract gone awry where toilet seats cost their weight in gold. No, I paid gave someone $40 for a pencil.

And it’s not a special pencil either, made out of rare wood and embossed with gold. No, this is a genuine General’s Semi-Hex Number 2 pencil.

So why did this seemingly conventional pencil cost so much, and why did your boy Norm shell out $40, more than he’ll spend on a pair of shoes, for it?

Well, it came pre-sharpened.


This is David Rees.

You might be aware of David Rees and his passion for pencils from seeing him on CBS Sunday Morning a few years ago. Yes, it was a perfect storm of things Marge and I loved that morning. Sunday Morning was the only reason we were keeping our cable, after all.

Click here to see the story since it won’t let me embed it.

Basically, David had a job working for the 2010 federal census, going door-to-door, writing down numbers. This involved much pencil-sharpening. David discovered that he really enjoyed bringing a dulled pencil back to a perfect point. He loved it so much that he wondered if he could get people to pay him to do it.

I was vaguely aware of David from his odd clip art-based comic Get Your War On. So when I first heard about the pencil-sharpening gig, I was suspicious. How many had he done, like ten? Was he somehow just taking advantage of gullible people? Was this even real?

Well, his appearance on The Best Show on WFMU convinced me, his passion was real.  He had done his homework. Give him any question about pencil history, pencil construction, pencil materials, pencil companies… and he knew the answer. But still, charging people to sharpen a pencil by hand for them? It’s oddly impenetrable.

Then came David’s tv show.


Last year, David produced the most amazing tv show for the National Geographic Channel called Going Deep. Much like the pencil-sharpening business, with each episode of Going Deep, David studied something so simple, you would end up amazed at the depths he plumbs. Marge and I loved this show. It might actually be my favorite thing in years.

I’d recommend the episodes How To Make An Ice Cube and How To Dig A Hole, where David describes his perfect hole, the Party Hole.

And who can forget when a scientist explains to David that drinking ultra-pure water is actually very dangerous, and David drinks it anyway!!!

Which brings me back to the pencil-sharpening. Once I saw the tv show, I got it! I finally understood the pencil sharpening. It’s not even about the pencil! It’s about understanding a simple act and figuring out how to do it perfectly. I’ve seen enough documentaries about craftspeople on NHK World to know that there are people who make a thing, and then there are people who craft a thing. David crafts these pencils.

So I bought one and framed it as an inspirational object. It can serve as a message to you all that maybe we should all take care with our crafts, no matter how small, or whatever.

Rees Pencil (4) Norm

Yeah, it’s framed

Buying the pencil also had a double-sided effect. One of the things I hope to get across on this blog is that you need to Support The Things You Like. If you don’t support the things you like, those things die. I effectively watched Going Deep for free since it was on Hulu, but I like it and David so much, I want him to keep doing what he does.

Rees Pencil (2) Norm

By the way, did you know that season two of Going Deep with David Rees starts tonight? Yes, I did plan to post this entry today, and no, I’m obviously not being paid. If you can watch something called “Esquire Network,” you will be able to see it. Otherwise, hopefully it will show up on Hulu like the first season. David is just an absolute delight on tv, and I don’t see why he isn’t the biggest star in the country right now. This new season even features his female equivalent, Amy Sedaris, teaching him how to pet a bunny.

Would you pay $40 for a pencil?


  1. I like to support people, but nope, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to spend $40 on a pencil. Or much of anything else — especially if someone has his own TV show. But I’m glad you found something of so much value that it can elevate a pencil to that price point. That kind of perception/value isn’t one most people experience.

    • Norm

      November 11, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      I wouldn’t spend $40 on many things either. But this combines my appreciation for things made by hand, and also the ridiculous. Like I said, this was an epic Frugal Fail!

  2. Thanks for the links, very interesting. I had to write a letter the other day – I find if you want a response to something, if you write there’s a 99% better chance of a satisfactory response. I hadn’t written longhand for so long it felt almost awkward. Normal handwriting will soon seem like calligraphy. Maybe quills will come back in fashion?

    • Norm

      November 21, 2015 at 10:28 pm

      Not only is my handwriting terrible nowadays, it also takes me twice as long as typing. It even feels weird now to have to think everything out before you write by hand because you can’t edit it easily. I won’t be using this pencil, though.

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