If you want to make an at-home manicure look halfway professional, you need to apply your polish like a pro.

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Not all of us have the funds for the weekly manicures we deserve -- everyone ends up painting their nails at home every once in a while. And every time you pull out your nail files, clippers and polish, you probably wonder: Exactly how many coats of color am I supposed to apply? Can I save time by skipping the base coat? Do I really need that top coat?

The quick answers: two, no and yes. In other words, you need four coats of polish on every nail. Allow us to explain further.

When you're doing an at-home manicure, you might be tempted to skip the base and top coats, especially if you're crunched for time. No one sees them, anyway, because they're clear. You can totally get away with colored polish and nothing else, right? Sure -- if you want to look like you gave yourself a manicure in two minutes flat. But if you're trying to make things look halfway professional, you can't skip the first and last steps.

The base coat serves quite a few purposes. If you have ridges in your nails, the base coat will create a more even surface. It helps polish stick to your nails better, prevents the polish from staining your nails, keeps the polish from peeling and helps the manicure last longer.

And as for your nail color, two coats are all you need. When you're painting your own nails -- especially when you're using your non-dominant hand -- the temptation is to use as many strokes as you can to get things looking more even. But, as you've probably discovered, this strategy usually backfires, giving you unsightly streaks and clumps.

The key to an even manicure is two coats of three strokes each -- that's it. One on each side and a quick one across the top. Use the same technique with your top coat, which protects the polish and can also speed up drying time. Once you've perfected this method, you might not ever go back to the salon! (Well, maybe that's a stretch.)

For more information on nails and manicures, take a look at the links on the next page.