Guide To Dividend Investing For Beginners

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Buying the stocks of companies that pay good dividends is one of the best ways to invest. Because you’re investing for slow, steady payments in more mature companies, some might even call dividend investing boring. But dependable returns are never boring.

Earlier generations of investors favored dividend investing—and while those earlier generations enjoyed generally higher yields than are available today, there are still plenty of benefits to a dividend investing strategy.

What Are Dividends?

When a publicly traded company generates profits, it has three choices for using the cash. It can direct the funds into research and development, it can save the money, or it can return the profits to shareholders as dividend payments.

Dividend income is a bit like earning interest from a bank in exchange for holding your money in a savings account. If you own one share of stock that’s valued at $100, a 5% annual dividend yield means the company will pay you $5 each year in dividend income.

For many investors, regular dividend income is a solid, safe way to grow a nest egg. An investing strategy built on dividend income can be an important part of any saver’s portfolio, especially as a source of cash flow when it’s time to turn lifelong investments into a retirement paycheck.

Just remember, there are advantages and disadvantages to understand before you set out to invest in pursuit of dividend income. First and foremost: Dividends are never guaranteed, and companies can and do change them at will.

In addition, dividends are more commonly paid out by larger, more mature companies that are growing slowly. Smaller, less established companies are more likely to reinvest their earnings, and these small-cap companies usually see high rates of price appreciation, which is another way to grow your wealth.

How to Invest in Dividend Stocks

Investing in dividend stocks is a long-term strategy. Dividends can provide consistent income, but stock prices fluctuate in the short term. To invest in dividend stocks, it’s imperative to avoid making any decisions based on short-term market movements.

Look for companies with a track record of stable and growing dividends. Stock screeners are essential in this effort—once you’ve screened for stocks with a history of dependable dividend payments, review their history to determine if the payments have steadily increased. Reliable hikes to dividend payments indicates a company’s commitment to returning profits to shareholders.

Dividend yield is a key metric for understanding dividend stocks. It’s calculated by dividing the annual dividend per share by the stock’s price, which provides a percentage indicating your annual return on investment from dividends.

Compare the dividend yield of different stocks within the same industry to identify those with higher yields. Be cautious of excessively high yields, as they may indicate potential risks or issues with the company.

Dividend Investing in Long-Term Portfolios

If you own stocks or index funds, it’s quite possible you’re already involved in some degree of dividend investing: About 77% of S&P 500 stocks pay a dividend, for instance. While the current dividend yield of the S&P 500 doesn’t sound like much—1.60%—check out our list of the best dividend stocks to find better options.

During most of the 20th century, the annual dividend yield of the S&P 500 ranged between 3% and 5%. More recently, dividend yields are lower as companies have been more cautious with their cash payouts.

There are many reasons for this: Most obviously, modest savings account rates and bond yields provide dividend stocks with little competition. In addition, tech companies have become more important in the last few decades. And as an industry, tech companies generally prefer investing in new products for fast growth rather than sending cash to shareholders.

How Dividend Reinvestment Boosts Your Returns

Despite these trends, dividends remain a key element that can boost your overall investing returns. When you reinvest dividend payments to buy more shares of stock in your investments, you help your portfolio benefit from enhanced compounding effects. On a basic level, each dividend you reinvest entitles you to more dividend payments in the future, which can supercharge your investment returns.

Say you invested in an S&P 500 index fund starting in January 2000 and held your investment until September 2020. Your average annualized return based on stock price gains alone would have been 4.2%, for a cumulative return of 136%.

Pretty good, right? But if you’d reinvested all dividend payments back in the fund over the same period, your annualized return would have been 6.2%, for a cumulative return of 247%. Just reinvesting dividends would have nearly doubled your gains.

Play with the numbers a bit using this calculator and you can find even more dramatic effects. Say you invested $10,000 in an S&P 500 index fund in January 1990. You’d have about $91,300 today based on price gains alone. But add in the dividend reinvestments, and you’d have nearly double that amount, or $180,000.

How Is Dividend Income Taxed?

For tax purposes, there are two types of dividends: ordinary dividends and qualified dividends.

  • Ordinary dividends. These are the most common type of dividend, typically paid out of a company’s earnings and subject to your marginal income tax rate. These dividends can be received from various types of investments, such as stocks, mutual funds or real estate investment trusts. Ordinary dividends are taxable in the year they are received and are reported as income on your tax return.
  • Qualified dividends. These dividends are subject to long-term capital gains tax rates. To be considered qualified, dividends must be paid by a U.S. corporation or a qualified foreign corporation; you must meet the holding period requirement, which generally means you must have held the stock for at least 61 days in a 121-day period that begins 60 days before the ex-dividend date.

Dividends paid by real estate investment trusts (REITs) or master limited partnerships (MLPs) are typically classified as ordinary dividends and taxed as regular income. Money market funds and other cash-like instruments also pay ordinary dividends.

It’s crucial to review the dividend classification provided by the company to determine whether dividends qualify as ordinary or qualified. The tax treatment of dividends is subject to change, so it’s advisable to consult with a tax professional for personalized advice based on your tax situation.

How to Evaluate Dividend Stocks

Dividend yield is the key tool for choosing the best dividend-paying stocks. Many websites are devoted to helping investors find high-yielding dividend stocks, but just going with the highest dividend yield can be a bit deceiving.

Let’s say you’re looking at a stock that paid $5 in annual dividends and had until recently been valued at $100 a share. But the company’s business came under pressure, and its shares fell to $50—although it’s still paying $5 in annual dividends. In a relatively short period of time, the dividend yield would’ve doubled to 10% from 5%. In this case, the rising dividend yield is a sign of stress, not a sign of a healthy company.

A company with a declining share price might be facing problems, and its board may need to reconsider the dividend. This highlights reliability as a key element for picking dividend-paying stocks. You need to ask yourself, “Is this company secure enough to keep paying the promised dividends—and perhaps even slowly increase them over time?”

One place to find reliable dividend stocks is to look at stocks in the dividend aristocrats, a group of stocks that historically has increased dividend payments over time. Stocks in certain sectors, like real estate and utilities, may also pay higher dividends on average.

Another measure of good dividend stocks is the dividend payout ratio, which removes volatile stock prices from the equation by comparing a company’s earnings to its dividend payment per share. If a company earns $2 per share in a given quarter and pays a dividend of $1 per share, its payout ratio is said to be 50%.

Lower payout ratios should indicate more sustainable dividends—or a low payout ratio could mean that a company needs to increase its dividend. A payout ratio over 100% indicates a company is returning more money to shareholders than it is earning, and it may need to lower its dividend—or that its earnings are under pressure. A steadily rising payout ratio, on the other hand, could indicate that a company is healthy and generating reliable returns in a mature industry.

How You Can Pursue Dividend Investing

If you’d like to start generating income with dividend investing, you might implement one of the following three strategies.

Aim for High Dividend Yields

This is the classic strategy for dividend investing. The focus here would be on slow-growing, established companies with a lot of cash flow that pay high dividends. These kinds of investments make sense when you are looking to generate income right away. Just keep in mind that high yields aren’t everything. The companies may not see as much growth in stock value as other companies with lower dividend yields.

Choose High Dividend Growth

Investors with a longer time horizon can focus on buying stock in companies that are growing quickly but currently pay lower-than-average dividends. This won’t yield as much income in the short term, but as a firm grows and its business matures, the dividend yield should rise gradually. Getting in early means investors can buy more shares and eventually earn more dividends. The cheaper “cost-on-yield” makes this a better long-term investment strategy.

Pursue Dividend Capture

Dividend capture is a more active, hands-on approach to harvesting dividend income. With dividend capture, it’s not necessary to hold shares of a company for a whole year or an entire quarter to earn the dividend. Instead, you swoop in and buy them right before the dividend is paid out. Then once you’re paid, you sell them again so you’re able to buy other stocks.

But this isn’t as easy as it sounds: To earn a quarterly or annual dividend payment, you must own a stock before the ex-dividend date, which is typically two weeks before the dividend is paid. Then, after the dividend is paid, you have to decide when to sell. This gets complicated and risky because share prices are volatile and may be lower once the dividend is paid than when you bought them.

Share price declines like this can easily wipe out the money you earned from the dividend—or more. And even if your shares increase in value, if you’re not trading in a tax-advantaged retirement account, dividend capture can generate short-term capital gains that are taxed at the higher regular income rate.

Risks of Dividend Investing

Every investing strategy involves risk, and dividend investing is no exception. The biggest risk is that dividends are never guaranteed. Companies can and do reduce and even eliminate their dividends. During the Covid-19 pandemic, some very prominent, old-guard stocks have done so: Wells Fargo, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Carnival, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, HSBC, Airbus and Rolls Royce, to name a few.

But there are more subtle risks. Diversification should always be top of mind for any investor, and someone who focuses too much on dividends is likely to ignore some sectors and classes of companies they need for good diversification. Young, fast-growing tech companies, for example, don’t generally pay dividends.

Lack of diversification always exposes investors to increased volatility. Dividend-only investors can miss out on high-value growth in those sectors that might not be paying dividends or that pay uncompetitive dividends.