For this reason I would also advise against speed lights. There is so little power and control that it's just not worth it. Modifiers are expensive and clunky to use. Add to that you can pick up a used monolight for about the price of a new speed light. I know some people love the whole speed light thing but it would just drive me nuts. Invest your money wisely and you will be happy for a long time.
My suggestion is to start with two monolights, a couple of cheap umbrellas, some grid spots and maybe one soft box. Add a silver/white reflector and you are in business. I'm a White Lighting guy, and I just freaking wear those things out. They are amazingly reliable; worth every penny. I have made a lot of money with my five lights.
As far as learning lighting goes, nothing beats a digital camera. That's your Polaroid. If you want to shoot a final version on film, you'll be very happy that you didn't spend four rolls to get the light just right.
Lighting is the soul of photography. You'll be a much better photographer for all the time you invest in it.