Use Plugin Whenever One Exists?

Always, definitely not, there are plenty of bad plugins out there. If a plugin exists that does exactly what you want without too much overhead and seems to be well supported and popular it’s probably a good idea to use it. If you are mostly out to learn though, it can be a good idea to start with the small stuff and learn. There are a plethora of tutorials for WP coding and you can probably find one that covers most of the basics for just about anything you can think of doing early on. It doesn’t take long to find some functionality you want that isn’t quite covered by a good plugin.