Dividend stocks are stocks of companies that make regular distributions to their shareholders, usually in the form of cash payments. Dividend stocks can be useful sources of income, but the best dividend stocks can also be excellent ways to increase your wealth over the long term.
However, not all dividend stocks are great investments, and many investors aren't sure how to start their search. With that in mind, here's a list of dividend-paying stocks you might want to consider and some of the most important things to look for in top dividend stocks.
Five dividend stocks to buy
The Dividend Aristocrats list is a great place to find top dividend stocks. Dividend Aristocrats are companies that are both in the S&P 500 index and have paid and raised their base dividend for at least 25 consecutive years.
Here are five top dividend stocks to consider buying now:
- Lowe's (LOW -0.98%): The home improvement giant may not seem like a very exciting stock. And that's true, unless you like dividend growth. The company has raised its dividend every year since going public in 1961 and has raised the payout a massive 556% over the past decade alone. For investors worried about the housing downturn that began in the second half of 2022, don't fret. People are more likely to invest in the home they have when housing supply is tight and it's harder to buy. Another important number that's good for Lowe’s: The typical U.S. home is between 31 and 60 years old, depending on the state. The next generation of DIYers will spend a lot of money at Lowe's.
- Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA -0.52%): One of the largest retail pharmacy operators in the world, Walgreens' turnaround plans are bearing fruit. The company has cut expenses by billions of dollars, and its efforts to become a more integrated healthcare company are paying off. Add it together, and this profitable company is set to become even more profitable. Management recently raised its long-term target for its U.S. healthcare segment. With a dividend yield well above 4.5% and 47 straight years of annual payout growth, there's a lot for dividend and value investors to like about Walgreens stock.
- Realty Income (O -0.22%): If you're looking for a simple way to invest in high-quality real estate for income and growth, this might be the perfect stock. The company owns a wide array of largely e-commerce-resistant properties, earning strong cash flows from tenants on long-term leases. Realty Income is also a Dividend Aristocrat, with 27 consecutive years of dividend increases -- that's every year since going public in 1994 -- and 53 straight years of paying a dividend every month.
- Johnson & Johnson (JNJ 0.05%): Johnson & Johnson owns a portfolio of excellent brands that make products people need -- specifically healthcare items. In addition to its well-known consumer brands, Johnson & Johnson has massive and steadily profitable operations in pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The combination has allowed the company to increase its dividend for 60 years in a row. This diversity across consumer health brands, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices is unmatched and has proven to be a massive profit engine. However, management thinks this "conglomerate" structure has limited the company's ability to focus its resources and announced plans in late 2021 to split the consumer products business into a separate company. The split is on track to happen in 2023, with existing shareholders receiving shares of both companies.
- Target (TGT -0.86%): For years, Target has proven more profitable than its peers by posting some of the highest gross margins and operating margins in retailing. At the same time, its focus on increasing its e-commerce business and expanding in-store offerings has kept sales growing at a solid clip. However, 2022 was a brutal year for Target investors, with very high expectations clashing with the challenging realities of retailing and sending shares of the stalwart down more than 36% through early December. Despite a tough year, Target remains one of the best-run retailers out there and a solidly profitable company. With dividend growth at 50 years and counting and shares trading for a steep discount to its all-time highs, dividend investors should put Target on their shopping list.
Four more of the best dividend stocks to buy
The Dividend Aristocrats aren't the only place to look. Many excellent companies simply haven't been paying dividends (or haven't been publicly traded) for long enough to be included in the list, although they can still make excellent long-term dividend investments.
Here are four more dividend-paying stocks with excellent brands, loyal customer bases, and favorable demographic trends that are also worth putting on your radar:
- Brookfield Infrastructure Corp. (BIPC 0.07%) (BIP -1.53%): Sometimes the best stocks are the ones hidden in plain sight. That's the case with Brookfield Infrastructure, which owns water, energy, utility, transportation, and communications infrastructure all over the world. Its assets generate steady, recession- and inflation-resistant cash flows, and Brookfield returns a sizable portion to shareholders. With a dividend yield near 3.5% at recent prices and a goal to raise the payout 5% to 9% every year, Brookfield Infrastructure is a hidden dividend gem that's delivered almost 900% in total returns since it went public in 2008.
- Microsoft (MSFT 1.97%): As one of the largest companies in the world, Microsoft has steadily increased its sales, and its focus on recurring, or subscription-based, revenue sources is an especially attractive feature for dividend investors. The company has a solid balance sheet with more cash than debt and a very low payout ratio that leaves tons of room to increase the dividend. Given its 12-year streak of dividend increases, it wouldn't be surprising if Microsoft reaches Dividend Aristocrat status. Its low 1.1% yield may not be exciting, and 2022 has been a tough year for the stock, but it has a great long-term track record of market-beating total returns.
- American Express (AXP 0.01%): Financial services such as consumer and business lending are another place to find a handful of top dividend stocks, and American Express is one of the best. Although not a Dividend Aristocrat, American Express has a decades-long track record of either raising or maintaining its dividend through every economic environment. That's a credit to its high-quality lending standards and its focus on higher-income consumers who are less likely to default on their debts during weak economic periods. That makes American Express very appealing for investors who like owning a top financial services company but are also concerned about economic conditions. This is a great stock to buy during broad market downturns and hold for the bull market recovery.
- Clearway Energy (NYSE:CWEN.A): Renewable energy is mostly considered a place for growth investors, but it's also a wonderful opportunity for dividends. Clearway Energy, which owns and operates utility-scale wind and solar assets, is a perfect example. The company invests in, acquires, and operates renewables facilities, selling the power on long-term contracts -- think decades, not years -- to utility companies. The dividend yield has been above 4.5% for much of the past couple of years, and the payout has been increased an amazing 84% since 2019. If you're looking for a safer and lower-volatility way to profit from renewables, Clearway Energy is an excellent choice.
Highest dividend stocks
Whether to generate income you'll use today or as capital you can reinvest to increase your wealth, there's a good chance you're looking for a big dividend payout. If you're hoping to maximize the amount of dividends you earn, here are some suggestions:
First, focus not on dividend size but on dividend yield. The dividend yield, or the percentage of the share price you bought it for, paid in dividends annually, is more important than the dollar amount of dividends per share.
Next, don't make owning high-dividend-yielding stocks your No. 1 priority. Focus first on business quality and a company's ability to maintain -- and increase -- the payout. Only then can you know if a high dividend yield is sustainable.
Dividend Aristocrats are often excellent companies, but you can find great income investments elsewhere, too.
What to look for in dividend stocks
If you're new to dividend investing, it's smart to familiarize yourself with dividend stocks and why they can make excellent investments. Once you have a firm grasp on how dividends work, a few key concepts can help you find excellent dividend stocks for your portfolio.
- Payout ratio: A stock's payout ratio is the amount of money the company pays per share in dividends divided by its earnings per share. In other words, this tells you the percentage of earnings that a stock pays to shareholders. A reasonably low payout ratio (say, 70% or less) is a good sign that the dividend is sustainable.
- History of raises: It's a very good sign when a company raises its dividend year after year, especially when it can continue to do so during recessions and other tough economic times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Steady revenue and earnings growth: When looking for the best dividend stocks to own for the long term, prioritize stability in the companies you consider. Erratic revenue (up one year, down the next) and fluctuating earnings can be signs of trouble.
- Durable competitive advantages: This is perhaps the most important feature. A durable competitive advantage can come in several forms, including a proprietary technology, high barriers to entry, high customer switching costs, or a powerful brand name.
- High yield: This is last on the list for a reason. A high yield is obviously preferable to a lower one, but only if the other four criteria are met first. A high dividend is only as strong as the business that supports it, so compare dividend yields after you make sure the business is healthy and the payout is stable.
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Dividend stocks are long-term investments
Even the most rock-solid dividend stocks can experience significant volatility over short periods. There are simply too many market forces that can move them up or down over days or weeks, many of which have nothing to do with the underlying business itself.
So while the companies listed above should make great long-term dividend investments, don't worry too much about day-to-day price movements. Instead, focus on finding companies with excellent businesses, stable income streams, and (preferably) strong dividend track records. The long term will take care of itself.
Dividend stock FAQs
How do dividends work?
A dividend happens when a company sends money (or, very rarely, stock) to its shareholders. When a company gets to the point that it consistently earns more than management can effectively reinvest in the business, establishing a dividend policy and sending those excess profits back to investors is a smart move.
What are Dividend Aristocrats?
A Dividend Aristocrat is a company in the S&P 500 that has paid and increased its base dividend every year for at least 25 consecutive years.
What is dividend yield?
Dividend yield is a stock's annual dividend payments to shareholders expressed as a percentage of the stock's current price. This number tells you what you can expect in future income from a stock based on the price you could buy it for today, assuming the dividend remains unchanged.