Income is important to consider when choosing an investment. Especially important for investors approaching retirement, income can add meaningfully to one’s total return, which comprises income and price return (capital appreciation). Investors can pursue income returns in many ways including bonds, real estate investment trusts, and stocks.

Stock income is typically paid in the form of a monthly, quarterly, annual, or special cash dividend, which can be used to finance current consumption or to reinvest. Dividends are typically expressed in terms of yield. Like an interest rate, yield is represented as a percentage rate and is calculated by taking the annual cash dividend divided by a stock’s current price. For example, a stock trading at $20 with a future annual cash dividend of $1 would have a dividend yield of 5%.

Keep in mind, though, that there is no guarantee a dividend will be paid, even if a certain company has a consistent dividend-paying track record. A company can increase, decrease, and even eliminate dividends altogether, depending on its financial situation. Furthermore, if a dividend is declared, the company has to pay dividends for preferred shares first, before any common share dividends can be paid.

Although stocks can be a source of income return, not all stocks are created equal in this regard. Some companies distribute significantly more of their profits in the form of dividends than others, and some don’t distribute dividends at all. The following image demonstrates this point. Historically, dividend-earning stocks—represented by Morningstar’s Dividend Composite Index—have had compound annual returns of 6.6%, while large stocks have had compound annual returns of 4.3%. Additionally, higher-yielding companies—represented by Morningstar’s Dividend Leaders Index—have outperformed large stocks: Dividend Leaders Index components had a compound annual return of 9.0% compared with 4.3% for large stocks during the period studied. For investors looking both for income and total returns, dividend-paying stocks can be a reasonable place to invest.

Although higher-yielding stocks have demonstrated an ability to outperform large stocks, all that glitters is not gold. Dividends are paid at a company’s discretion, and exceptionally high yields can indicate a potential dividend cut. For example, had investors been lured to many high-yielding bank stocks in late 2008, they would have been sorely disappointed when many banks subsequently cut their dividends as profitability declined during the credit crisis. When looking at dividend-paying stocks, investors should focus on reasonable dividend yields with companies that have the earnings power to increase their dividend distributions over time. Many large companies with recognizable brand names have demonstrated an ability to offer this slow and steady income distribution to shareholders.