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Re:Newbie Design Challenge

Hi Chris, 
Welcome to planted aquarium world. You are in for a lot of fun and probably
a bit of frustration too. ;->
> Substrate
Would be the my first priory.
I would recommend going with Flourite. I found it to be the best substrate
available. IMO it way out performs laterite/TexBlast method. Pricey but well
worth the investment as it will last the life of your tank. Consider asking
for "best" price since you are getting a lot. I got mine for $12/bag when I
did a similar sized tank.

> Plants
Would be my second priory.
Lots and lots of stem plants. Relatively inexpensive and grow fast. There
are often folks on this list, self included who have prunings of stem plants
that they are willing to part with for little more than shipping.
> Algae eaters
I would do SAE as my starter fish.

> Fish
There is no limit to what you can spend here but there is no hurry.
In planted tanks, I don't worry about "scavengers" You can add later what
ever you like. I am partial to Kuhlii loaches  but have many tanks with no
grounds crew at all.
Rosy barbs are inexpensive and may be good choice early on as they are
sturdy, interesting and will eat some algae. If they are too nippy for later
fish choices, trade them in.

With good light, I would put CO2 injection system in my budget ahead of a
lot of fish. You might consider DIY CO2 until you can afford injection
system. It is tedious but workable even on large tank. I did it for months
on 125. Would be glad to share the details of what method worked for me.

Good luck. Feel free to email me off list about prunnings if you like.