I posted this somewhere else, but I started with a $69 Skylark from Sears catalog. I thought it was great until I played a Grancino and WOW! That was a wake-up call to the difference a quality instrument can facilitate. So I started looking for something better than my Skylark. My wife and I both were well-paid back then, so every time I got anything for teaching lessons, performing weddings or funerals, judging talent shows, gift money… anything extra … went into my instrument fund.
I have a 100+ year old instrument that I restored with guidance from my luthier — he appraised it at $1250 when I finished it. I also have a 19th century instrument of unknown origin that is a very nice instrument. My best may be my instruments by Scott Cao, supposedly before he started his workshop line of instruments and his copies of master instruments.