it can take big money to get your site up there in the top four or five results, but not always - it very much depends on your site's subject matter. If you have a site that deals with the nesting habits of a rare species of humming bird it's likely that you'll be up there at the top anyway - their just won't be any/much competition. If on the other hand you're publishing a tribute site to Kylie you'll find yourself buried way down in the also rans.
You can submit your site to the major engines, or wait for them to find you, but success depends on having something that people want to visit. There's no point in worrying about search engines unless you're running a commercial site, or one that provides a valuable free resource, because nobody's going to search for your chronicle of the trip you took to Cyprus last summer. Commercial sites often live or die by search engine related visitors, and those are the sites that will pay fees to get a high ranking. The companies that run the search engines know this, and they're exploiting it as a useful source of revenue.