The First Day of Class: A Lesson in Scarcity

What can you do on the first day of economics class?

Figuring out what to do on the first day of class is a minefield for high school teachers. Do you go over the syllabus and risk boring kids to death on day one? Do you scour the internet for “cool” first day ideas and hope they’ll work with your teaching style? Do you put together some sort of ice breaker and pray the students will humor you?

My first day of economics starts with the basics: Economics is the study of scarcity. Kids understand scarcity — many constantly struggle to find the time to do homework, work, go to practice, meet family obligations, carry on a thriving social life (in person and online), and sleep. Students start with an activity in thinking about their scarce time that doubles as a “get to know you” activity. And as a bonus, this exercise also can serve as a wonderful introduction for adults trying to budget, prioritize their spending/saving, or work toward goals.

I give each student a paper with 24 slots for each hour. I instruct students to imagine their IDEAL day — they can wake up anywhere they want in the world and be surrounded by anyone they want. All of us only have 24 hours in a day — this is where the scarcity comes into play — and they choose to fill their 24 hours with whatever makes them happy.

This is you! (When you think about the things that make you happy!)

Why do I love this first day activity? It forces students to think about what truly brings them joy. In my relatively affluent suburb, students often find themselves pulled in many directions because of pressure from parents, friends, school culture, etc, so in this activity they have the power to take control. Instead of being strictly scheduled by the demands of others, students choose the activities that bring them the most joy 🤩.

I encourage students to use pencil — mostly because many originally put “sleep” in half the open time slots, but end up changing to spend more time doing stuff they love. Some kids go to concerts. Some have elaborate shopping trips with friends. Others are camping or playing basketball or designing video games in their own studios. And, yes, some still sleep 12 hours or more. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s their ideal day and they don’t deserve any judgement from me.

After students decide on what they choose to do for their 24 hours I have them list 3-5 specific things they value at the bottom of the paper. This forces them to synthesize their list and boil it down to their key values. When I collect these papers, I can easily find out more about what drives these students, what we have in common, what their unique interests may be, and how I can use these activities as examples when I design class activities about debating opportunity costs. (And the kids that sleep most of their day are already telling me they may be busy and over-scheduled so I can be sensitive to that.)

These values come into play later when I have students develop long-term financial goals and plan for their budgets — which is why this is a good exercise for adults too. Before we make conscious decisions on how to spend our scarce time, money, and energy, it’s imperative that we are staying in line with our values and focusing on the things that really make us feel fulfilled.

In the spirit of allowing any potential readers to get to know me a little better, I’ll share my ideal day:

12am-6am: Sleep

6am: Wake up and have coffee with my fiancé on our patio overlooking the beach (preferably in Sydney or Tasmania — I absolutely loved my travels in Australia)

7am: We take the dogs for a walk on the beach

8am: Light yoga on the beach

9am: Breakfast on the patio

10am: Read, relax, and chat on the patio

11am: Crossfit class or tennis with a friend

12pm: Swim/walk on the beach (with the dogs)

1pm: Return home to shower and get ready to go out

2pm-6pm: Wine tasting at vineyards with friends (cheese boards and oysters should be plentiful at the vineyards)

7pm-11pm: Casual catered dinner party (with lots of dessert options!) on our patio with friends — ending with a bonfire on the beach!

Midnight: Go to sleep

As I look at my list, several things jump out at me: I spend several hours outdoors being active, but also allow time to relax and connect with my fiancé (and our dogs!) and friends. Using the core personal values list from James Clear, I would say that these are some things that are important to me:

  • Adventure
  • Balance
  • Fun
  • Friendships
  • Pleasure

These values can easily translate into the opportunity costs involved in personal finance: When it comes to my priorities, my fun/self-care parts of my actual budget revolve around my gym membership and happy hours, instead of new clothes, electronics, or spa days (oh how I wish my city had vineyards…). One of my long-term goals is saving for a property near a beach.

It doesn’t matter where you focus your time, money, and energy — as long as it makes you happy (and you don’t go into debt). Keep your ideal day in mind when you develop a budget or check progress on your goals.

Me, sleeping well after I buy my house on the beach

I also reference student’s ideal days when they start their goal setting on Day 2. Click here for my suggestions and lesson plan for goal setting with teenagers in the economics classroom.

What would you do on your ideal day? How do your choices reflect your values?


4 thoughts on “The First Day of Class: A Lesson in Scarcity”

  1. Those first days are so important – and you’ve got this one nailed. A great way to start our class and engage students right from the start.

    I like the Clear core values exercise. Our ideal days look different, but my core values are very similar. Good luck on finding that place on the beach – it’s an important part of our retirement plans too.


    1. Thanks! The students seem to really enjoy it too 🙂

      If that’s close to your ideal day, you definitely need to plan a trip to Tasmania if you haven’t been there yet. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet – amazing beaches, hiking, wineries, and seafood.


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