1) information is key. you are making a big ticket item purchase. so get your information from someone who knows about cameras. do not go to Best Buy or Target or Cost Co to inquire about cameras. your local camera shop, will know more about different brands of cameras, and will be able to answer your questions and suggest brands and models to meet you needs.
2) i am very big on educating oneself about new products, especially electronics. read up on camera models online or in photo magazines. reviews are also informative.
3) this is a must!! after you buy your camera, make a commitment to learn it outside of "auto" (if it has this setting). if you have difficulty following your manual, (do not throw it away! put it in a safe place for reference) take a workshop or class to learn how to use the features of your camera. you will have bought an expensive "point & shoot" camera, if you don't use the other features of the camera.
4) shoot, shoot, shoot. practice makes perfect. it's digital, so you're not wasting money on processing and developing. join a Flickr group or join a MeetUp group. there's a plethora of free advice and critique, and thousands of enthusiasts, like you, learning from one another.
if you have any other photography-related questions, please post a comment on our site! your question may be featured on our blog in future entries! happy shooting!