In investing, knowledge is power. To paraphrase Ben Graham's investment advice, you should strive to know what you are doing and why. If you don't understand the game, don't play it. Stay away until you do.

If you are considering building a portfolio for income, this article will help guide you toward success, which means getting portfolio income that provides for your financial needs long after you've stopped working. We're not proposing a get-rich-quick plan. In fact, we're saying the best investments come with patience and common sense.

The Scourge of Inflation
Inflation and market risk are two of the main risks that must be weighed against each other in investing. Investors are always subjecting themselves to both, in varying amounts depending on their portfolio mix. This is at the heart of the dilemma faced by income investors: finding income without excessive risk.

At 5%, a $1-million bond portfolio will provide an investor with a $50,000 annual income stream and will protect the investor from market risk. In 12 years, however, the investor will only have about $35,000 of buying power in today's dollars assuming, a 3% inflation rate. Add in a 30% tax rate and that $50,000 of pre-tax and pre-inflation adjusted income turns into just under $25,000.

Is that enough for you to live on? Welcome to the scourge of inflation.

Why Dividends?
An equity portfolio has its own set of risks: non-guaranteed dividends and economic risks. Suppose that instead of investing in a portfolio of bonds, as in the previous example, you invested in healthy dividend-paying equities with a 4% yield. These equities should grow their dividend payout at least 3% annually, which would cover the inflation rate, and would likely grow at 5% annually through those same 12 years. If the latter happened, the $50,000-income stream would grow to almost $90,000 annually. In today's dollars that same $90,000 would be worth around $62,000, at the same 3% inflation rate. After the 15% tax on dividends, (also not guaranteed in the future) that $62,000 would be worth about $53,000 in today's dollars. That's more than double the return provided by our interest bearing portfolio of certificate of deposits and bonds.

A portfolio that combines the two methods has both the ability to withstand inflation and the ability to withstand market fluctuations. The time-tested method of putting half of your portfolio into stocks and half into bonds has merit, and should be considered. As an investor grows older, his or her time horizon shortens and the need to beat inflation diminishes. In this case, a heavier bond weighting is acceptable, but for a younger investor with another 30 or 40 years before retirement, inflation risk must be confronted or it will eat away earning power.

A great income portfolio, or any portfolio for that matter, takes time to build. Therefore, unless you find stocks at the bottom of a bear market, there is probably only a handful of worthy income stocks to buy at any given time. If it takes five years of shopping to find these winners, that's OK. So what's better than having your retirement paid for with dividends from a blue chip with great dividend yields? Owning 10 of those companies or, even better, owning 30 blue-chip companies with high dividend yields!

Motto: Safety First
Remember how your mom told you to look both ways before crossing the street? The same principle applies here: the easiest time to avoid risk in investing is before you start.

Before you even start buying into investments, set your criteria. Next, do your homework on potential companies and then wait until the price is right. If in doubt, wait some more. More trouble has been avoided in this world by saying "no" than by diving right in. Wait until you find nice blue chips with bulletproof balance sheets yielding 4 to 5% (or more). Not all risks can be avoided, but you can certainly avoid the unnecessary ones if you choose your investments with care.

Also, beware of the yield trap. Like the value trap, the high yield trap looks good at first. Usually, you see companies with high current yields, but little in the way of fundamental health. Although these companies can tempt investors, they don't provide the stability of income that you should be seeking. A 10% current yield might look good now, but it could leave you in grave danger of a dividend cut.

Setting Up Your Portfolio
Here are the six steps to guide you in setting up your portfolio:

Diversify Among at Least 25 to 30 Good Stocks
Remember, you are investing for your future income needs - not trying to turn your money into King Solomon's fortune; therefore, leave the ultra-focused portfolio stuff to the guys who eat and breathe their stocks. Receiving dividends should be a main focus - not just growth. You don't need to take company risk, so don't.

Diversify Among Five to Seven Industries
Having 10 oil companies looks nice - unless oil falls to $10 a barrel. Dividend stability and growth is the main priority, so you'll want to avoid a dividend cut. If your dividends do get cut, make sure that it's not an industry-wide problem that hits all of your holdings at once.

Choose Financial Stability Over Growth
Having both is best, but if in doubt, having more financial wherewithal is better than having more growth in your portfolio. This can be measured by a company's credit ratings. Also, the Value Line Investment Survey ranks all of its stocks from A++ to a D. Focus on the 'As' for the least risk.

Find Companies with Modest Payout Ratios (Dividends as a Percentage of Earnings)
A payout ratio of 60% or less is best to allow for wiggle room in case of unforeseen company trouble.

Find Companies with a Long History of Raising the Dividend
Bank of America's dividend yield was only 4.2% in early 1995 when it paid out $0.47 per share. However, based on a purchase made that year at $11.20 per share and the 2006 dividend of $2.12, the yield that an investor would have earned for that year based on the stock's original purchase price would be 18.9% in 2006! That's how it's supposed to work.

Good places to start looking for portfolio candidates that have increased their dividends every year are the S&P's "Dividend Aristocrats" (25 years) and Mergent's "Dividend Achievers" (10 years). The Value Line Investment Survey is also useful in identifying potential dividend stocks. Companies that have raised their dividends steadily over time tend to continue doing so in the future, assuming that the business continues to be healthy.

Reinvest the Dividends
If you start investing for income well in advance of when you need the money, reinvest the dividend. This one action can add a surprising amount of growth to your portfolio with minimal effort.

The Bottom Line
While not perfect, the dividend approach gives us a greater opportunity to beat inflation, over time, than a bond-only portfolio. If you have both, that is best. The investor who expects a safe 5% return without any risk is asking for the impossible. It's similar to trying to find an insurance policy that protects you no matter what happens - it doesn't exist. Even hiding cash in the mattress won't work due to low, but constant, inflation. Investors have to take risk whether they like it or not, because the risk of inflation is already here, and growth is the only way to beat it.

Related Articles
  1. Investing Basics

    4 Things That Make a Stock a Safe Bet

    No investment is a sure bet, but you can reduce your chances of taking a loss by choosing fair-priced stocks with growth potential and low volatility.
  2. Investing Basics

    The Complete Guide to Financing an Investment Property

    If you're considering adding an investment property to your portfolio, you need to know what your options are for financing its purchase.
  3. Investing Basics

    A Beginner's Guide to Investing in Company Stock Plans

    There are certain advantages to investing in your employer's stock but there are some potential drawbacks to be aware of.
  4. Stock Analysis

    The 5 Best Stocks That Pay Monthly Dividends (PSEC, LTC)

    Get the scoop on five of the best stocks that pay regular monthly dividends, offering investors looking for regular income dividend yields of up to 16%.
  5. Stock Analysis

    The Top Rated Dividend Paying Stocks for 2016 (ABBV, BA)

    Discover five of the top-rated stocks that pay investors solid dividends that you may want to consider adding to your investment portfolio in 2016.
  6. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    The 4 Best Indexes for Dividends

    Learn about some of the biggest dividend indexes in the marketplace and which niche of the dividend universe each of these indexes targets.
  7. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    Top 3 Allianz Funds for Retirement Diversification in 2016

    Discover the top three Allianz funds for retirement diversification in 2016, with a summary of the portfolio's managers, performance and risk measures.
  8. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    The 3 Best American Funds for the Income Seeker in 2016

    Learn about American Funds' mutual fund offerings, their past performance compared to peers and three American funds to consider for income investors.
  9. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    The Top 5 Large Cap Core ETFs for 2016 (VUG, SPLV)

    Look out for these five ETFs in 2016, and learn why investors should closely watch how the Federal Reserve moves heading into the new year.
  10. Fundamental Analysis

    The 3 Best Investments When Bull Markets Slow Down

    Find out why no bull market lasts forever, and why investors should shift their assets away from growth and toward dividends when stocks slow down.
  1. Which mutual funds made money in 2008?

    Out of the 2,800 mutual funds that Morningstar, Inc., the leading provider of independent investment research in North America, ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. What are the dividend reinvestment options for a mutual fund?

    There are two primary choices for how investors can choose to handle dividend distributions made by mutual funds that they ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. Do mutual funds pay dividends or interest?

    Depending on the type of investments included in the portfolio, mutual funds may pay dividends, interest, or both. Types ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Should I sell my shares if a company suspends its dividend?

    Since 2008, when the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to zero and then kept them there indefinitely, dividend-paying ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Do hedge funds pay dividends?

    Hedge funds rarely pay dividends to the accredited investors who invest directly in them. Instead, these investors share ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Which mutual funds pay the highest dividends?

    For many people, the reliability of dividend or interest income is one of the primary benefits of investing. Like individuals ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Black Swan

    An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult ...
  2. Inverted Yield Curve

    An interest rate environment in which long-term debt instruments have a lower yield than short-term debt instruments of the ...
  3. Socially Responsible Investment - SRI

    An investment that is considered socially responsible because of the nature of the business the company conducts. Common ...
  4. Presidential Election Cycle (Theory)

    A theory developed by Yale Hirsch that states that U.S. stock markets are weakest in the year following the election of a ...
  5. Super Bowl Indicator

    An indicator based on the belief that a Super Bowl win for a team from the old AFL (AFC division) foretells a decline in ...
Trading Center