You’ve finally conquered your fear of individual stock investing. You’ve taken the first steps toward educating yourself, poring over magazines, browsing through advice online, maybe even perusing a tome or two of investing wisdom from the legends of Wall Street. Finally…finally… you’re ready to take the plunge. Right?
If the gap between learning about stock investing and actually putting money on the line seems to you, well, chasmic…there is an intermediate step you can take. You can try your hand at pretend investing. Yep, that’s right, pretend investing. In fact, there are two options to consider, each (gratefully) sporting a perfectly respectable alias.
The Mock Portfolio
The mock portfolio, to begin, allows you to create a list of stocks and track their progress over time. You can check your investment theories, hone your stock-picking style, get a handle on diversification, and yes, even—since there’s no real money on the line—try out naked hunches. Any number of investment and brokerage websites will let you set up a mock portfolio. Google Finance, Yahoo Finance, Motley Fool and Investopedia are well-known names that provide the service.
Create your portfolio by entering the ticker symbols of your choice, adding as many as you like until your list is complete. Then access realtime data according to your preference. Review a stock’s fundamentals and performance and even download mock portfolio data to a spreadsheet if you like. Set email alerts to keep you apprised in realtime of when a stock rises to, or drops below, a certain price or rises or falls by a certain percentage. Of course, you can always choose to check in with your pretend investments by accessing the portfolio at your leisure.
If diving headlong into investing proffers the potential for shocks and chills, the mock portfolio offers you the undeniable thrill of witnessing the success of your stock choices—alas, without a chance at the actual spoils (ahem, profits). On the upside, the heartache—real or imagined—of losing money when your mock stocks perform poorly is but a dim specter, postponed until a day when your appetite for risk has swelled. Protecting your (fragile?) psyche, emotions and pocketbook all at once, as you wade inch by inch into real investing has to be a win-win-win.
Virtual investing goes a step further than simply listing and tracking your selections. Many brokerage and investment sites, such as Sharebuilder and optionsXpress, allow you to open—for free—a virtual trading account with a user ID and password. Such sites even go so far as to give you virtual money, sometimes as much as $100,000.
Via virtual investing, you can get the full experience of real stock trading. After opening an account and having it funded with play money, you can actually place buy and sell orders for stocks, options and more. Become familiar with using an online trading interface, taking advantage of more sophisticated features as you learn. Access stock charts, research data and a range of helpful trading tools. As you gain confidence, you’ll have a chance to place limit and stop-loss orders, or set up a virtual trade to, for example, trigger a purchase when a stock reaches $40, and an automatic sale when it rises to $50.
Some sites that offer virtual trading add a bit of gamesmanship to the experience, providing the chance to compete and compare your results with other virtual investors over time.
Will all this ensure that when you really start investing, you won’t make any mistakes or lose any money? Certainly not. Pretend investing is like making use of the wading pool when you learn to swim. Does it guarantee that you won’t gulp mouthfuls of water and sometimes sink below the surface when you finally jump into the deep end? No. But it does allow you to get your feet wet, become accustomed to the feel of the water, assess your comfort level with a variety of methods and indeed discover whether being in the pool is to your liking at all—all without much risk. So if you’ve the time and the inclination, paddle into the shallow blue lagoon of mock portfolios and virtual investing, while keeping your treasured principal stashed safely ashore.