I'm a camping n00bie but benefited from a lot of great advice and Internet research over the long winter.
Unless you're in a hurry, you should be able to purchase almost everything on sale at one time or another from one outlet or another. My tent, my sleeping bag and my mattress pad were all bought on sale. Definitely don't scrimp on the tent. I ended up with a Sierra Designs Gamma and it saved my sorry butt within minutes of setting it up outdoors for the very first time. I was in southern Kentucky and was hit with FOUR thunderstorms over a period of just a couple hours. The tent kept me dry.
If you have any bad back issues (or even if you don't) you've gotta take the advice I did and buy a Therm-a-Rest Luxury Camp or equivalent (the CampRest LE is out of production now). It's a real back saver and makes the rest of the trip more enjoyable.