Investing Fundamentals

What are Dividends? How to Become a Dividend Aristocrat

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what are dividends

What exactly are dividends and how do they work? When you invest in a company you get paid a portion of a company’s profits as a way to compensate you for your investment. These payments are called dividends and they are a form of passive income.

What are Dividends?

When you own stock in a company directly or through a fund you may receive dividends. A dividend is a distribution of a portion of a company’s profits. They are decided by the board of directors and can be issued as cash payments, as shares of stock or other property. It’s an opportunity for a company to reward shareholder loyalty.

The amount you receive depends on how much stock you own and how much profit there was to divide.

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Why Buy Dividend Stocks?

Investors, particularly retired investors, like the steady income that dividend stocks provide and also like the option of reinvesting dividends to buy more shares of stock.

Most companies don’t offer dividends, and if they do, they can cancel them if it’s a bad time to make a payout. Companies can increase dividends if times are good.

Startups and some high-growth companies in certain sectors like tech and biotech usually don’t pay dividends because all of the profits are plowed back into the company so they can maintain higher than average expansion and growth.

If a company wants to increase it value (which increases the share price) it may opt to reinvest earnings rather than pay out dividends. Some companies choose to use that money to fund new projects, buy new assets, buy back some of its shares or acquire another company.

Bigger well-established companies are more likely to pay out dividends regularly. Companies in certain sectors including oil and gas, financial, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, historically have had some of the highest dividend yields.

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Why Do Companies Pay Dividends?

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Investors are less sure that they’ll receive capital gains at a later date when earnings are reinvested as retained earnings than they are of receiving current dividend payments. In other words, better the sure thing now.

There are tax reasons too. In some countries income derived from dividends is taxed at a lower rate than regular income. This is particularly an incentive for investors in high tax brackets. We’ll cover taxes below.

If a company has a long track record of paying dividends, eliminating them or reducing the amount might be taken as a sign by investors that the company is in trouble.

The reliable income that dividends can provide is appealing to many investors, so they’ll be more tempted to buy stock in a company that pays them. Paying dividends is also typically a sign that a company is healthy and that management expects future earnings.

Should you buy before or after the dividend payment goes out? Bird in hand theory means you buy before the payment goes out while the stock is more expensive because you can expect payment soon. Once the payment goes out, the stock will, in the short term, be worthless. For a bigger yield, buy after the payment has gone out.

And for your daily dose of the sophomoric, a share is said to be “cum dividend” when it is offered for sale with an entitlement to the next dividend payment attached. See also, “jizz dividend.” Don’t google that, Matt just made that up.

When are Dividends Paid?

If a company is going to pay dividends, shareholders are notified by a press release sent to the big stock quoting services. The record date is set. All investors who own stock as of that date will receive dividends.

The ex-date is the day after the record date, the day the stock starts trading “ex-dividend.” Anyone who buys the stock on the ex-date is not entitled to receive the most recent dividend payment. The payable date is usually a month after the record date.

On that date, the money is deposited for payout to the eligible shareholders with the Depository Trust Company.

Cash payments are then sent out from the DTC to brokerage firms where investors hold their shares. and these dividends are paid quarterly. 

Once declared, dividends must be paid within 30 days.

However, the best way to make more money in the stock market is reinvesting your dividends. Remember the game here is to buy and hold. Buy quality stocks and hold onto them for the long haul. Take full advantage of your long-term investment strategy by reinvesting your dividends.

Companies like Betterment will automatically reinvest your dividends keep your tax bill as small as possible.

what are dividends reinvest

How is the Number Decided?

The target payout ratio is the fraction of net income a company pays to shareholders in the form of dividends. The number is calculated by dividing the dividends distributed by the net income for that period.

The share of that number each investor receives is based on how many shares you own. If you own 100 shares of Company X, 100 is the number your dividend distribution will be based on.

Yield calculation matters too. If the company agrees to pay $1 per share and you bought your shares at $50, your yield will be lower than if you had bought at $25. At $50 the yield is 2%, at $25 it’s 4%. An average to good yield is 2.5-3%.

The amount to pay out can be chosen using a few methods:

Stable Dividend Policy: Even if earnings have been inconsistent, the dividend payments remain steady. They are a set fraction of the company’s yearly earnings. This policy lessens uncertainty for investors and provides them with income.

Constant Payout Ratio: A company pays out a certain percentage of its earnings every year as dividends. The amount paid varies with the earnings.

Residual Dividend Model: Dividends are paid based on earning minus any money the firm keeps to finance the equity portion of its capital budget. The remaining profits are paid out as dividends.


Dividends are considered taxable income. There are two categories, qualified and non-qualified.

Qualified dividends are tax-free if you’re in the 10-15% tax bracket ($0-$37,650 for single filers for 2016) as long that income doesn’t move the investor above that bracket.

If that money does push you into a higher bracket, the dividends are taxed at 15% for those in the 25-35% brackets ($37,650-$415,050) and 20% for those above the 35% bracket. Most regular dividends are qualified.

Nonqualified dividends are taxed at regular income tax rates. Investors will receive a tax form at the end of the year that shows how much dividend income they received.

What is an Aristocrat Dividend?

An aristocrat dividend is a company that has continuously increased the number of dividends it pays to its shareholders. To be categorized as such, a company must typically have increased dividends for at least 25 years.

Coca-Cola and McDonald’s would be two examples. The S&P 500 has a fund called The S&P 500 Aristocrat Fund that has over the last five years had returns of 17.56%.

You can invest in The S&P 500 Aristocrat Fund through some ETFs. The list is composed of 53 companies spread over ten different business sectors. Some of the companies are 3M, AT&T, Chevron, Hormel, and Target.

You can also buy individual stock in dividend aristocrat companies.

Aristocrat dividends have a place in every portfolio. They provide steady income and can give you some of the security of bonds with a better payout.

Show Notes

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Candice Elliott - Editor-in-Chief Candice Elliott is a substantial contributor to Listen Money Matters. She has been a personal finance writer since 2013 and has written extensively on student loan debt, investing, and credit. She has successfully navigated these areas in her own life and knows how to help others do the same. Candice has answered thousands of questions from the LMM community and spent countless hours doing research for hundreds of personal finance articles. She happily calls New Orleans, Louisiana home-the most fun city in the world.
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