Pros and Cons of Paper Trading

By Colin Dodds · September 14, 2023 · 8 minute read

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Pros and Cons of Paper Trading

Paper trading is simulated trading, done for practice without real money. It’s a way to test different trading strategies without the risk of losing money, before an investor starts trading with real capital.

The practice gets its name from how investors would once mark down their hypothetical stock purchases and sales — and track their returns and losses — on paper. But today, investors typically use digital platforms to virtually test out hypothetical investment portfolios, day-trading tactics, and broader investing strategies.

How do Paper Trades Work?

What is paper trading? In its most basic form, paper trading involves selecting a stock, group of stocks, or a sector, then writing down the ticker or tickers and choosing a time to buy the stock. The paper trader then writes down the purchase price or prices.

When they sell the stock or stocks, they write down that price as well, and tally up their return.

💡 Quick Tip: Before opening any investment account, consider what level of risk you are comfortable with. If you’re not sure, start with more conservative investments, and then adjust your portfolio as you learn more.

Pros and Cons of Paper Trading

Paper trading has both benefits and drawbacks. Here are a few factors to consider before you try paper trading.

The Pros of Paper Trading

Build skills: Paper trading is a way to learn and build trading skills in either a bear or a bull market. For new traders, a virtual trading platform offers a way to make rookie mistakes without risking real money. It’s a method to get comfortable with the process of buying and selling stocks, and making sure you don’t enter a limit order when you mean to place a market order.

Test out strategies: Paper stock trading allows for experimentation. For example, an investor might hear about shorting a stock. But they may not know how the process works, and what it actually pays out. Paper trading permits investors to learn how these trades work in practical terms. Or, they might want to try out other strategies, such as swing trading.

Learn about strengths and weaknesses: Paper trading is also a way for investors to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses. Traders lose money in the markets for a number of personal reasons. Some stick to their guns too long, while others give up too soon when the market is down. Some lose money because they panic, while others lose money because they ignore clear warning signs. Paper trading is a way for investors to learn their own tendencies and weaknesses without paying for the lesson.

Keep emotions out of it: Finally, paper trading can help teach investors to keep their emotions in check while the markets are going up and down. Investing with hypothetical dollars can be good practice in the valuable art of making rational decisions in stressful situations and allow investors to find risk management techniques that work best for them.

The Cons of Paper Trading

It’s not real: The biggest drawback of paper trading is that it’s not real. An investor can’t keep the returns they earn paper trading. And those paper returns can lead the investor to have an unrealistic sense of confidence, and a false sense of security. Paper trading also doesn’t account for real-life situations that might require an investor to withdraw money from the market for personal reasons or the impact of an unexpected recession.

The emotional impact is hard to gauge: Paper trading does limit the impact of emotions, but once an investor’s real, actual money is in play, it may be more difficult to reign in emotions. That money represents a month’s salary, or a semester’s tuition, or a house payment, and so forth, so it can be hard to remain calm and keep perspective when the market plunges over the course of a trading day.

Could be misleading: While paper trading offers important lessons, it can also mislead investors in other ways. If a paper trading strategy focuses on just a few stocks, or using one trading strategy, they can easily lose sight of how broader market conditions actually drive the performance of those stocks, including stock volatility, or their strategy, or have an inflated confidence in their ability to time the markets. They need to realize their holdings or strategy may offer very different results in a real-world scenario.

Doesn’t involve the true costs of trading: Another danger with paper-trading is that traders may overlook the cost of slippage and commissions. These two factors are a reality of actual trading, and they erode an investor’s returns. Slippage is the difference between the price of a trade at the time the trader decides to execute it and the price they actually pay or receive for a given stock.

Especially during periods of high volatility, slippage can make a significant impact on the profitability of a trade. Any difference, up or down, counts as slippage, so slippage can be good news at times. Since brokerage commissions and other fees always come out of a trader’s bottom line, paper traders should include them in their model.

💡 Quick Tip: Are self-directed brokerage accounts cost efficient? They can be, because they offer the convenience of being able to buy stocks online without using a traditional full-service broker (and the typical broker fees).

Live Trading vs Paper Money

When an investor uses live trading, they are using real money to buy and/or sell stocks or other securities. They will confront market fluctuations and need to make decisions, sometimes quickly, about what to do. Live trading can be very stressful, but it does offer the opportunity for an investor to earn money. However, it also comes with the very real risk of losing money.

With paper trading, there is no money involved to lose. But once again, it’s not “real,” so while it may teach you some basics, paper trading does have limits and drawbacks, as detailed above.

Paper Trading in the Digital Age

Wondering how to paper trade? There are different ways to do it. Some investors swear by a tangible notebook-and-paper approach to paper trading, others keep a spreadsheet, which allows them to track other factors involved in the investment, including the exact time of the purchase and sale, volume, holding period, index direction, overall market volatility, and other factors they may be studying.

But while paper or spreadsheets are valuable tools, most investors testing out their trading chops or portfolio-construction skills now prefer virtual trading platforms, which pit a hypothetical portfolio or strategy against real markets. These platforms mimic the look and feel of an actual trading platform, but deal only in hypothetical assets. Understanding a platform can make it easier to transition to real-life trading in the future.

On these platforms, an investor will start with fake money and begin trading. As they do, they can track the fluctuations in an account’s value, along with profit and loss, and other key metrics. Many trading simulators offered by online brokerages allow investors to virtually trade in real-time during live markets without risking their money. For some investors, this can be a valuable experience before they dive in with real money–and the potential for real losses.

Recommended: Managing the Common Risks of Day Trading

How to start paper trading

If you’d like to try paper trading, be sure to research your investments, just like you would if you were investing for real, and use the same amount of paper money you would use in real life. This will help mimic the actual experience.

If you choose to paper trade with a pencil and paper, you can simply choose a stock or group of stocks, write down the ticker, and pick a time to buy the stock. You then write down the purchase price, or prices. When you sell the stock you record that price and then figure out your up their return.

If you decide to use a virtual trading platform, you’ll need to choose a platform. There are many free platforms available. You may want to look for one that has live market feeds so that you can practice trading without delays.

Setting up a Paper Trading Account

Once you’ve selected a virtual trading platform, you’ll set up an account. Simply log onto the platform and follow the prompts to set up an account. Once you’ve done that, there should be a “paper trading” option you can click on.You’ll need to select a balance and then you should be able to start simulating trading.

The Takeaway

Paper trading can be a way to learn about investing. By keeping track of all trades, and the losses or gains they generate, it creates a low-stress practice for examining why certain stocks, and certain trades, perform the way they do. That can be invaluable later, when there’s real money on the line.

However, remember that paper trading isn’t real. In real-life trading with an investment account, you’ll have the potential for gains, but also for losses. Make sure you are comfortable taking that risk.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

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Do you make money from paper trading?

No. With paper trading, there is no real money involved, so there is no opportunity to make (or lose) money. Paper trading is a way to learn about trading without risking money.

How realistic is paper trading?

Paper trading involves using real trading strategies and simulates a real market experience. However there are no real losses or gains since no real money is involved. Because of that, it doesn’t convey a fully realistic experience.

Is paper trading good for beginners?

Paper trading can be a way to learn the basics of investing. A beginner could build their skills and test different strategies without risking loss. However, paper trading can be misleading because there is no real risk involved. An investor might be tempted to take more risks than they would in a real life investing scenario, for instance.

Why is paper trading important?

Paper trading could be important because it allows beginning investors to practice trades, build their skills, and test different market strategies, without the risk of losing money. However, it can’t replicate the experience of real trading with actual money and the potential to possibly lose money, which someone who tries paper trading should keep in mind.

Photo credit: iStock/fizkes

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