First, Know What You Need.
What is it exactly that you want to do? Are you interested in creating interactive multimedia presentations for the web, designing animated user interfaces, creating animated CGI videos, or any of the many other applications of 2D-and-3D-animation technology? Before you decide on which software package to invest in, do a little research; check out the developer's website, and the product specifications. Make sure that the software will meet your needs, so that you won't find yourself toting the box and your receipt back to the store to exchange it for something with the features that you require.
Try Before You Buy.
Many companies, such as Macromedia, offer functionality-limited or time-limited trials of their products to allow you to give it a test-drive before you buy it. Websites like CNet's Download.com offer comprehensive listings of downloadable trial versions of thousands of software packages, searchable either by category or keyword. Downloading a trial version can let you work with the user interface to test its user-friendliness, and insure that not only does the program meet your requirements, but it can also run on your system.
Don't Be Afraid to Turn to a Lower-Priced Alternative.
Just because an animation software package carries a big name doesn't mean that you have to invest in a second mortgage in order to buy it. While giants like Discreet and Macromedia are premiers of the industry for a reason, you may not necessarily need all of the extra features or cool add-ons that come packed into their software. Lower-priced alternatives like Reinhard Epp Software's CyberMotion 3D-Designer may suit your needs just as well.
But this doesn't apply only to software. Many animators use hardware peripherals like graphics tablets to help with their animation tasks; some tablets, like Wacom's Cintiq, can have price ranges reaching into the thousands of dollars, and even their smaller tablets can be priced in the hundreds. Wacom tablets are reliable, fully-featured, sturdy, and highly advanced; however, you're just looking to dabble, there's nothing wrong with experimenting with other brands. For example, the SuperPen Graphics Tablet (available at ThinkGeek) is a great small tablet for the beginner, priced only at $49.99.
Last, Know Your Capabilities.
It's always a disappointment to bring home that shiny new software CD, only to slide it into the drive and be informed that you have insufficient system resources to install the application. It's important to know your system specs before you spend the money on new software, and equally important to check the hardware and OS requirements on the side of the box before you take it up to the register.
But even if that decal-decorated box says "512 MB RAM required" and you know that your home PC is only sporting 256, don't despair; more than likely, there's no need to shell out the cash for a new computer. Depending on the brand, model, and year of your PC, upgrading your hardware can be exceedingly simple, and can save you a great deal of money, time, and headaches.
With these ideas in mind, you can take the hassle out of shopping for computer animation software, and take the weight off your checkbook. Whether you'd like to start off slow or dive right on into the heavy artillery, you'll be ready to start animating with the pros--so good luck, and happy shopping.