I started in mid-2000s and was a total newbie. Took years to get it right. Think that is a great part of the journey. Starting as a wanna-be and slowly graduating into something really awesome.
Today, the first thing I do when I see a Jeep is look under the engine at the steering and suspension. Probably look like an idiot laying there for 15+ minutes. But to me that is the real difference. That's the wow factor -- stuff you never see unless you look closely.
As a newb, I spent money on the outside. Today, 75% of my upgrades are hidden, which is the way it should be -- function over form.