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“Let’s go get our nails done.”

Coming from a fairly no-nonsense household, I used to encounter these words with a mix of excitement and vague panic. The aggressive feminine energy of the nail salon was something I didn’t really experience until I started to be in friends’ weddings. Initially, I was mystified. What to ask for? Did a pedicure include polish or was it just the foot bath thing? Was gel polish nail polish? Did it cost more? What was a “full set”? How much to tip?

Having my nails done a few times quickly convinced me that the wedding parties were onto something. I started experimenting with easy and cheap ways to get beautiful everyday nails. Then I read Andrea Pomerantz Lustig’s book How to Look Expensive, and discovered even more tips and tricks than I had picked up myself. So here, with Lustig’s help, I’ll be the older sister I was missing to explain how to get the nails you want—whether your budget is $3 or $100.

You might not be able to guarantee a perfect hair day or a great makeup day, but with just a little time and effort, lovely nails are always within reach, whether at the salon or at home. First, we’ll talk about the ins and outs of navigating the salon and how to get the most bang for your buck. Then, if money is tight or you don’t like the salon experience, we’ll talk through the many great options for doing your own nails at home, solo or with friends.

At the Salon

What to ask for

Often the most daunting part of the experience with a new-to-you nail salon is the first phone call. “Hi-I-was-wondering-if-you-can-do-a-French-gel-manicure-today-and-how-much-is-it?” The nail tech will almost always have follow-up questions because there are so many tiny differences. Manicure or polish change? Gel or dip?

Manicure vs. pedicure: A manicure is for your hands; a pedicure is for your feet. Both of these include some TLC: clipping cuticles, moisturizing skin, usually a massage with a manicure and a footbath with a pedicure.

Polish change: You don’t have to get a manicure or a pedicure to get your nails done. Asking for a “polish change” (if you already have nail polish) or “just the polish” should cost you a little less than a full mani or pedi—in some cases, half the price. This is great if you’re on a budget, if your hands/feet already look good, or if you just don’t like the feeling of the full mani/pedi experience. Some salons also offer an “express manicure/pedicure” that’s somewhere in between, maybe without the massage. If you’re not sure, you can always ask what’s included in the various tiers of service and what their respective prices are.

[A French pedicure]

Lacquer: This is just regular nail polish. This will be chip-free for five to seven days if you are both lucky and careful. After the tech finishes your nails, you will go sit at a table to let your nails dry under some fans (kind of like a hand version of those old-timey hair salon dryers). Removal is just the same as if you did your own nails at home—a cotton ball and some nail polish remover.

Gel: Gel polish lasts longer than regular nail polish. I can usually go two weeks or even a bit longer before people would notice any flaws. Gel is more expensive (generally $10-20 more), and is cured under a UV light so there’s no long drying process. It’s also harder to remove. It’s best to soak your nails in acetone, but it’s a bit of a process. You can get your polish removed at a salon for a small fee (some salons will even waive the fee if you get new polish, Lustig suggests). Just remember that picking at them is a bad idea. Not that I’ve ever done that.

Acrylics: Acrylics are the nail extensions you might think of when you think “fancy nails.” If you ask for these, the tech will file down your nails and then glue on nail-tip extensions. Since they’re usually longer than your regular nails, they might be best for a fancy occasion, though many women rock them every day. If you're not used to long nails, some things—like typing, playing the guitar, or doing the dishes—might prove a bit of a challenge. Acrylics are available in lots of different shapes. Lustig suggests more natural shapes, like oval or “squoval,” look the most classy and upscale, but there's a shape for every personal style.

Dip: Dip polish is a newer trend and it’s claimed to last longer than gel—up to a month—and it’s also just a bit more expensive, by about $5-10. Dip can be used with or without nail tips added for length, and dip companies say you can achieve an acrylic-like look without as much damage. The nail tech will paint your nails with glue and then dip them in a powdered color. Removal for dip powder nails is about the same as for gel. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try it yourself at home!

Pricing

Generally, the rule of thumb is that lacquer is the cheapest option, gel polish is more expensive, and dip polish is even more than that. French manicures or “French tips,” (clear on the bottom, with a little tip of white at the end) will run you somewhere from $5-20 extra.

As an example, my default nails—gel French tips at the cheapest decent salon I can find—are usually in the $35-40 range. Often pricing is available on the salon’s website, so you can make your decision before you arrive. It’s customary to tip 15-20% for a nail service in the U.S.

Colors

Prepare yourself: You’re going to see so many nail colors at the salon. Be careful when making a decision from the color of the bottles, since polishes sometimes look quite different when applied. Usually the salon will provide a set of fake nails displaying the colors more accurately. You can also swipe a little polish on one nail to compare any colors you’ve narrowed the options down to.

Lustig recommends neutral nail colors—either dark or light—in order to “look expensive.” French tips are always a classic and my go-to for the salon. My default home color is a pale pink for the spring (groundbreaking, I know, but it gets lots of compliments!) and a burgundy red for fall and winter.

Pinks are a natural choice, but Lustig also recommends a dark navy or other saturated tones for a classic look. I’d say you can’t go wrong with a tasteful pastel green-gray or blue-gray, and neons are in for 2022, if you’re feeling trendy. I’ve also been seeing so much white lately, which frankly reminds me of grade school, when people used to paint their nails with White-Out. But I still want to give it a try!

The DIY Options

If the pricing or the hands-on nature of salon nails turns you off, or you’re just looking to mix things up, there are lots of great possibilities to do your own nails at home.

Polish

I like Essie polishes (in the $8 range) as a good combination of quality and price, but when I’m feeling low-maintenance, I use Sally Hansen’s ultra-cheap InstaDri ($5, and it does dry fast, but not too much faster than Essie). OPI, a high-quality salon-style brand, is another accessible option (about $11). As you can tell, there isn’t really a way to break the bank here, especially compared to salon prices!

If you’ve never painted your nails before, there might be a bit of a learning curve, but really the only way to improve is practice. The best tip I can offer is to keep your hand still by resting it on the counter or floor while you paint it with your other hand. Sounds obvious, but it changed my nail-painting game! Cover your work surface, keep a polish remover-soaked cotton ball ready to hand, and let your nails dry between coats. Two coats will probably do it for fingernails, and I find that I don’t need more than one on my toes.

It can be fun to experiment with top coats, which can make your favorite polish even more versatile. I love OPI’s Matte Top Coat, and of course there’s your classic shine top coat, or try a sparkle.

I haven’t tried dip polish at home, but someone at Apartment Therapy did and hopefully made the mistakes so you won’t have to! It’s a bit more of an investment to start out, but if you get great at this, it would be an awesome skill both for your and your friends.

Press-on Nails

If you like the acrylic nail look and want to try it at home, know that at-home press-on nail kits usually come with glue you’ll use to adhere the nails onto your regular nails. Later, you’ll remove them just as you would acrylics from the salon.

Kiss is a classic option for this, and Etsy is another great source. Reviews of the Olive and June press-on nails carried at Target (pretty as they are!) warn they are too curved for most people’s nail beds and pop right off. If you’re lucky and your acrylics don’t pop off right away, they should last you a week or two.

Nail Wraps

Nail wraps are perhaps the best-kept secret in cute nails. They’re easy to apply, no-mess, and super cheap.

Basically, what you’ll do is peel off some nail-sized stickers, attach them to your nails, then file them down at the edge of your nail (sounds complicated, but I promise it’s not!). You can add a base coat and a top coat if you want to, but it’s not necessary. I find these last almost as long as gel polish, if not even longer if you use a good top coat.

I recommend Dashing Diva (carried at Target and Ulta), which is made with real nail polish. I also love Lily and Fox. These kits are $3 with shipping, and come with a little buffer, cuticle pusher, and directions in a cute package. I find this is the cheapest way to change up my look.

There are lots of good options on Etsy if you’re looking for something specific, like, say, a blue porcelain nail. Most kits come with enough stickers for you to do one set of nails with room for a few mistakes. And sometimes, if you’re conservative with your stickers, you can manage your toes, too! Removal for these is pretty simple: They peel off after a soak in acetone.

Nails are an easy and simple way to refresh your look. Give them a try this summer and you’ll find there really is a good option for every budget and beauty goal!