Reassembler poses an excellent and thought provoking question:
You sold all your books and all your memberships have expired except for USCF. Everything else – state, club, ICC, Playchess, MCO, Fritz, Chessbase – you have none of that. You’re starting from scratch.
You’ve decided not only to get back into the game, but also to raise your rating to the next class level.
But you only have $200 to invest this year.
How do you spend the money?
Which books, DVDs, lessons, memberships, software…? Be specific to your own improvement requirements — as opposed to saying “every chessplayer should have a copy of My System” — and stay within budget.
There are already a number of interesting answers in the comments there, including the remarkable variety of free online resources available: FICS for playing, ChessBase Lite, Wikipedia openings articles (as pointed out by the excellent Blunderprone) etc., etc.
Here is my rather radical take on the subject: Get Andrew Soltis's new book Studying Chess Made Easy (for why, see Farbror the Guru's review). That's $16, and add $20 for a spanking-new copy of 500 Master Games of Chess and now you've got your free shipping, and a lifetime of games to study when away from the computer. I originally didn't think tournament entry fees were part of the budget, but most responses included them. So, the remaining $164--join weekly club ($30-60) and the rest, enter tournaments! Study with friends over the board (free!). Play some longer time control games at FICS (free!).
For me, at this stage of life, the problem isn't a chess budget, it's time. Just like so many of us Adult Chess Improvers, I have a demanding job, and worse, a five-year-old KID. There goes the study time, right down he sink! The good thing is that the kid is already playing chess, and with any luck he'll be rated higher than me by the time he's 10. Then, I can play him for high quality practice. FREE!
That's the secret long-term plan. Until then, like you, I'm just holding on to serious chess by my fingernails.