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Getting steady income from dividend-paying stocks is getting harder. During the entire year of 2007, only seven companies in the S&P 500 cut their dividends, and only three did away with them entirely. 2008 was a different story. 39 companies cut their dividends, and 22 suspended them. 2009 promises to be just as bad.

That means you have to be careful to pick dividend-paying companies that have the best chance of continuing to give you at least the same amount of money as they’ve given previously. So…

  • Don’t fall for the highest dividend yields. A high yield doesn’t automatically mean the company is in danger of cutting its dividend – but with money so tight, the more cash a company hands out to shareholders, the more difficult it is to keep their generous cash payouts going.
  • Look for companies with little debt and steady (if not growing) cash flow used to fund their dividends. My own standard is that dividends shouldn’t take up more than 80 percent of a company’s cash flow for any given quarter.

At finance.yahoo.com, you can look up a company and find its cash flow by clicking on “Key Statistics” or “Cash Flow.” “Key Statistics” will give you the company’s cash flow in the last 12 months. “Cash Flow” will show you a cash flow chart of the company, either by year or by quarter. You want the quarterly chart. What you’re looking for is to make sure there’s been no deterioration of cash flow in the last quarter or two.

With the steep drop in today’s markets, it’s a great feeling to get regular checks from dividend-paying companies. (They can pay you at least twice the interest you’d get from your savings account.) To avoid getting less money (or no money) from the income stocks you buy, simply follow the above two rules.

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