From my experience you don't need to spend thousands of dollars or be a pirate to access terrific GIS software. Two of my favorite programs are Global Mapper version 5 (free to use, $179 to register) and Map Maker Gratis (free). Global Mapper can read almost any data format, reproject it on the fly, rectify images, digitize map objects, etc. Map Maker Gratis has good print and database features. (If you like Map Maker, the Pro version is only $330.) Manifold GIS ($245) is in the same class as the GIS heavyweights.
If you are new to GIS and want to explore free and low-cost software and data sources, you might want to check out http://www.digitalgrove.net/