What is a dividend?

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Dividends are typically cash payments from a company’s net profit to its shareholders. While perhaps less exciting than chasing the latest highflyer in the stock market, dividends can account for a significant portion of investors’ total return over time.

How dividends work

Companies can choose to pay dividends for a number of reasons, but typically it’s a way of sharing the firm’s profits with its owners, or shareholders. Companies may also look to pay dividends if they don’t have enough business opportunities to reinvest the cash themselves.

Dividends are usually paid quarterly, but other schedules are also possible. Special dividends are one-time payments that should not be counted on to reoccur.

A company’s board of directors will approve its dividend policy and announce its plans to investors through a press release or a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In order to collect your dividends, you’ll need to be aware of some key dates:

  • Announcement date: This is the day the company announces its dividend plans.
  • Record date: Investors who are recorded as shareholders as of this day will receive the dividend payment.
  • Ex-dividend date: This is the day when shareholders who purchase the stock will no longer receive the next dividend payment.
  • Payment date: This is the day investors will receive the dividend payment.

Dividends can account for a meaningful portion of investors’ total return, which includes both income and price appreciation. Since 1970, reinvested dividends accounted for 84 percent of the total return of the S&P 500 index, according to a recent study by Hartford Funds.

A company’s dividend yield can be calculated by taking the annual per-share dividend and dividing it by the price of the stock. This percentage, or yield, can be used to compare across different companies, mutual funds or ETFs and help you determine where to get the most for your money.

Dividend investing strategies

Oil titan John D. Rockefeller Sr. once said that seeing his dividends come in were the only thing that gave him pleasure. Want to find out for yourself what Rockefeller was referring to? You’ll need to buy shares in companies, mutual funds or ETFs that pay dividends.

Individual companies: One way to start receiving dividends is to buy stock in a company that pays them. Many companies pay dividends and several have long histories of raising payouts annually. For example, Walmart announced in February 2021 that it was raising its annual dividend for the 48th consecutive year. But you’ll want to be confident in the strength and durability of the company before planning on future dividends.

High-yield mutual funds and ETFs: If you’re looking for a more diversified approach, funds and ETFs with high dividend yields can be an attractive option. These funds will tend to hold companies with higher dividend yields than average and can be a way to generate higher income than a typical portfolio. The Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF holds consistent dividend payers like JPMorgan, Johnson & Johnson and The Home Depot and comes with annual expenses of just 0.06 percent.

Dividend-appreciation funds and ETFs: This approach will typically include companies that have a history of increasing dividend payments over time. While the yield will likely be lower than funds that focus solely on high payouts, the dividend growers may see more stock price appreciation over the long term based on higher earnings growth rates. Funds focused on dividend growth will often hold companies such as Microsoft, Walmart, Visa or even Apple.

Things to watch out for

Taxes: It’s important to remember that dividend income is typically taxed at ordinary income rates if the shares are held in taxable brokerage accounts. To avoid this, you might consider owning the shares through a tax-advantaged account like a traditional or Roth IRA.

Dividends can be cut: Dividends are not guaranteed and sometimes companies are forced to cut them or eliminate them entirely due to financial difficulty. That’s why you need to watch out when a company pays a very high dividend. Sometimes that high yield really is too good to be true, and the high yield may be a signal that investors expect the company to cut the payout.

But owning a diversified group of companies through an index fund can be a great way to avoid the risk of picking the wrong company. In the past 50 years, the only meaningful decline in dividends per share of the S&P 500 index came during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 when many banks were forced to cut their payouts. Dividends fell 21 percent during that time frame, but have since surpassed the prior peak by a wide margin.

Rising interest rates: When rates go up, it could also pose a risk to funds and ETFs with high dividend yields. As rates rise, investors who have purchased dividend funds to boost their income may rotate out of high-yield stocks toward bonds or other assets, causing stock prices to fall.

Bottom line

Dividends can have a big impact on your portfolio over time. They can help generate income during retirement or earlier and can also be reinvested to increase your total investment return. Consider owning dividend-paying companies through a low-cost fund or ETF in a tax-advantaged account as part of your long-term investment plan.

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Written by
Brian Baker
Investing reporter
Bankrate reporter Brian Baker covers investing and retirement. He has previous experience as an industry analyst at an investment firm. Baker is passionate about helping people make sense of complicated financial topics so that they can plan for their financial futures.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor
Reviewed by
Senior wealth manager, LourdMurray