I just bought my first DSLR camera and am also pretty much a beginner, so I recently had to make the decision on which route to go.
From what I learned surfing the camera websites/threads it comes down to deciding which brand of camera you want to invest in. Each different brand (Canon, Nikon, etc) will use their own lenses. Therefore, you can start out with an entry level DSLR and then begin adding lenses to your collection as you become more experienced. Then down the road should you decide to move up to a more advanced camera you can do so within the same brand and continue to use the lenses that you have already accumulated.
The last SLR camera I owned was a Canon AE-1, so trying to learn my way around my T1i is a little daunting at first, but I'm starting to get a feel for it. I'm still shooting in full auto mode, so I'm getting some very nice shots, especially compared to the point and shoot I was using before. However, I'm quickly wanting to get more control over my shots, so I'm trying to learn as much as I can. I found an app on my iphone for the T1i that is basically giving me a complete tutorial not only for my camera, but for photography in general. This alone has been well worth the $5 it cost as it goes well beyond what the owners manual covered.
I would suggest that you first narrow it down to which brand of camera you want and then start educating yourself on the different cameras within the line-up that brand is offering. Then narrow it down to a couple of models based on the features you need/want. Then watch the weekly ads and websites for a deal. When the camera you want pops up in an ad, snag it! This is exactly what I did and I ended up getting my T1i for under $400. Granted, it was a mistake on the store's part as the camera should have rang up at $499, but even at $499 it would have been a great deal. You just need to keep your eyes open and be ready to pounce on a deal when it presents itself.