If the idea of investing in stocks leads to restless nights, especially in a volatile market like today's, try practicing before you purchase.
The Internet makes it easy to create and track a test portfolio of stocks. And if you're going to go to that trouble, you might as well compete against others.
That's the premise behind the stock simulation game Final Bell (www.sandbox.net/finalbell) on the Internet. Would-be investors pick their dream portfolio, then watch it perform. The current contest ends Jan. 9, 1998, with prizes for top performers.
The site also has minigames on such things as retirement plans and mutual funds. And there's a help section on trading topics such as short-selling.
Even if you're turned off by the notion of prizes, you might well benefit from the practice, before making actual purchases.
"People don't move all their money at one time" into the stock market, says Blake Darcy, who heads Web broker DLJ Direct. "You don't actually have to spend a dollar."
If you're a beginner, start using the online resources: tracking the news, charting stocks, building a model portfolio. Then gradually move money into the market, he advises. But keep the model portfolio. It's a great way to test new strategies.