Welcome to the world of planted Tanks Reese. A high tech tank full of lush exotic plants can be a complex thing. If you start simple, learn along the way, and work your way up to the more advanced systems you should do fine. Much like keeping fish, when a person starts out they should get a goldfish, or maybe some mollys. But a person just starting to keep fish should not expect to be able to breed Discus their first month.
1) How long should I wait before placing live plants ?
No waiting period. Many often place the plants even before the water goes in.
2) For a 55 gallon tank, can I get away with using 2 standard 15W florescent bar lights in the hood? If more is recommended, is there a higher wattage bulb I can use in the same hood?
No, you will need more light. As a minimum, you will need a 40watt normal (T12) over a 55 gallon. And even that will still limit you to low light plants. For a beginner, a normal "shop light", which can be purchased for 8 bucks at the hardware store is a reasonable place to start.
3) Is there any special material I should use to promote plant growth? I read that Vermiculite and Laterite work good, but does that go well with a sand bottom? If so, do I add some on the very bottom, then put the sand over top?
A low tech, low light setup, with beginner plants. Plain gravel will do just fine.
4) This is a biggie... Do I need to add CO2 to the tank? I looked at a DIY kit for producing CO2 using Yeast and it looks pretty do-able to me (I think I'd put all mixture bottled in a box though in case it explodes )
is not required until you get into a higher light setup. For your tank, until you have over 110w of light over the tank there is no need to mess with CO2
5) What plant types would you recommend?
Java Fern, Java Moss, maybe an Anubias barteri. You could also float some Frogbit on the surface. Or float some Anacharis in the tank.
6) Lastly, Are the plants you buy in a package that sit on the bottom of the tank and grow after a week acceptable? I've had them before and they and 2 out of 4 actually grew into decent plants, but died shortly there after - I'm guessing CO2 was the problem?
They died when they ran out of the nutrients/energy that was contained in the bulbs. Start with the plants suggested above. Get them to grow successfully, then move on to basic stem plants. Bulbs, and the plants they contain comes a little later.
And finally, stick with it. There is nothing more beautiful than a nice aquarium willed with healthy plants. Aquariums are nice, but a planted tank will make people go WOW!! when they walk into your home.