Here's what to get on the cheap--and what to invest more time and money into getting just right.
Some camping gear is not worthy of significant expenditure. They're either not worth it, or there are just cheaper ways to get it done. Let's start with what not to spend on.
Cookware Needn't Be Expensive
Don't get your camping cookware from REI. For backpacking, yes, but simply for camping... go cheap.
Buy a Dutch oven. They work as a pan and a pot. Maybe a cheap stainless steel sauce pot and lid to go with it. However, that's all the cookware you need. Dutch ovens aren't always cheap, but with basic care, your grandchildren will be able to use it down the road.
Plates, Cups, Silverware, Etc.
Buy paper plates, Solo cups and plastic silverware. This makes things SO easy. If you must have something requiring washing, go to the local dollar store or thrift store. Same goes for all other accessories like spatulas, cleaning implements, and so on.
It's also a good place to grab cheap snacks.
Air mattresses are going to develop a leak. If you're determined to use one, you'll get a few years out of it, if you're lucky. Therefore, don't bother spending much... unless it gets you a lifetime warranty with the extra expense.
You don't need a $100+ propane stove. There are plenty of second-hand stoves or cheaper solutions for far less than what Coleman charges these days. In fact, with a Dutch oven, you don't need a stove at all; you only need a fire.
Camping Gear to Spend On
Some camping gear, though, you definitely want to spend on. These items are investments in outdoor camping. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, they make the experience dramatically better. Furthermore, investing in a bit of quality gear will ensure years or decades of service. Some kits may outlive you.
A Good Tent
That Walmart or Kmart special tent? It's great for summer or early fall, and for a few years of one or two camping trips per year. That's why they're cheap. A good tent will last longer, can hold up to three or four seasons, and can even be used with a heating source such as a stove or propane heater.
Sleeping Bags Are a Must
Everyone has had those cheap flannel sleeping bags at one point or another. Sure, they're soft and comfy... until it actually gets cold. Then you'll know why some people spend two or more times the purchase price on quality sleeping bags. Spend a cold night in a good bag and you'll thank yourself for spending on quality.
For Cots Sake
Let's be honest: air mattresses suck, and cots are where it's at. Yes, they're a pain to lug around and set up. Yes, good ones can get expensive. However, the truth is that they offer support (and therefore quality sleep) that an air mattress just doesn't. Obviously, cots are for car camping or longer expeditions rather than backpacking, but the investment is totally worth it.
Put Cheap Coolers On Ice
A good cooler keeps ice for more than a day. Some are even bear-proof. A good one will keep you from needing to run to town for ice every day, which is annoying when the point is to get away from it all. Furthermore, if you have game on ice in warm weather, keeping ice longer is absolutely vital. Not only that, it's advisable, if not just plain necessary, for coolers to be bear proof.