I have Cougar, X52Pro, and a cheap Thrustmaster PS3/PC T-Flight Stick X ($30).
All three work very well indeed.
The Cougar has a "feel" advantage due to the all metal construction, weight, and aftermarket "force sensors". Force sensors lead to very accurate control after a learning period. Cost a fortune.
The Saitek X52Pro is nimble and has the most spring-stick control because of its neutral joystick springing and many analog dials etc. Most ergonomic stick as it is adjustable to your hand -- and, the throttle feels great. I like the lights for night flying (in a dark room). More than enough programmability for a normal person (but not everyone on this site)
The T-Flight is cheap. Yet, it is precise as the Saetek and Cougar for all practical purposes and a darned good controller, I think. I've bought 3 -- one for me two for relatives -- they used to be called Top Gun -- the new model has an extra button.
My point. If money really is tight, the T-Flight is a good choice. It is not very programmable, but it flies the planes and you can set it up for using in-game mapping.
However, the Saetek X52Pro probably represents the most "high end" stick for the money -- if its in the budget. At the time I bought, I considered the standard X52, but decided on the Pro (heck, it will last a real long time, hopefully, due to Hall Sensors -- much longer than an expensive graphics card or CPU upgrade). Since I don't own the standard X52, I can't compare them from my own experience.
Cougar and CH topoftheline stuff winds up expensive due to the rudder pedal requirement.
Just my opinions FWIW.