So what are your thoughts.

I've recently been looking at things like expression engine,

Purely because, writing my own CMS from scratch is one helluva ballache. The above sites look appealing because they afford enough flexibility to write a CMS to control pages using templating in PHP, much like using laravel or something.

However, some of the price tags look a little scary, I do like modx though being free. Just wondered what you guys do?

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I would look at your requirements - possibly beyond your current projects and conduct a thorough investigation of all the major CMSes - paid-for and otherwise. Pay particular attention to the licences - what you're allowed to do and what you're not. Also if you think about paying - as you say, some of these are scary - how long do you get with regard to support, updates, upgrades etc. Bangs for bucks - is it really worth it? The cost has to be offset by the money you draw in from client work - will you be able to absorb that cost comfortably and if there are any on-going costs like subscriptions etc, will you be able to keep up?

All CMSes suffer from holes - check that they have regular patch releases. A healthy contributor presence with non-noob forum participation is also a good sign. The ability to implement aspects with other applications is a good sign too (IMO) and the ability to add modules. Are the modules produced by the CMS themselves or by third party developers? If the latter, is there any peer-reviewed or CMS-reviewed process for accepting the module?

I'm sure that you're aware of most of these issues. I've used Joomla, Drupal, Wordpress, B2Evolution, Mambo, Moodle, various bulletin boards at some point and found them absolutely horrible :) That's unfair maybe - they do offer easy point-and-click customization, but their back-end admin is often a confusing jumble of terminology and labyrithine submenus and pages.

I tend to develop my own mini-CMS systems these days, although I don't tend to produce very complicated sites any more, so I don't need the gargantuan behemothic codebase! Don't know if that was any help - just a ramble really.