My 2 cents- all the brands that are made by Janome - Janome, New Home, Kenmore, Elna, and CraftMaster - are good, and you can get some pretty good deals. I have a Kenmore sewing maching and a CraftMaster serger and I am very happy with them. The serger was only $165- cheap for a serger. I didn't want to spend a lot on a serger since I had no idea how to use one but I have been really happy with it.
Just to reiterate what everyone else has said---
You CAN get good machines from good brands (like Janome) for under $250 without resorting to buying a toy or buying at WalMart. My Mom's previous machine was a Brother from WalMart and she hated it. (Her machine before that was an excellent '80s singer which I broke and she still hasn't forgiven me
)The high-end brands like Viking, Pfaff, and Bernina are amazing but you are going to pay more for fewer features.
I admit I had the "ewww, Sears" feeling for a while but I'm glad I bought the Kenmore from them.
Hope this helps---
PS> the Bernina lady above- Berninas start at about $700 where I live and I think that is beyond the means of most of us, especially when that doesn't even get you a one-step buttonhole.