In January 1993, the SPDRs exchange-traded fund, which tracks the S&P 500, made its debut. In the nearly 15 years since then, an investment in that fund would have quadrupled your money. That's not bad.

But not all of that return came from a rise in the stocks of the S&P 500. No, quite a bit of it was the product of boring old dividends. In fact, on a $1,000 investment that turned into $4,019, dividends would have accounted for $514. That's around 17% of the total profits.

And that is not an aberration. It's actually low. Historically, a full 41% of the market's return came from dividends. So, as easy as it may be to ignore those payments in the short term when doing stock research, know that they add up to big returns over time.

It gets better
Of course, hardly anyone invests simply for the dividends. Yet literally hundreds of companies are known for delivering great payments, year after year. If you actively seek them out, you can see a tremendous difference between the money you get from capital gains and your total return, which includes that extra cash.

Take a look at the returns from these dividend dynamos over the same period of time that SPDRs has been in existence:

Company

Gain Only
(No Dividends)

Total Return
(With Dividends)

Dividend Difference
on $1,000 Investment

Dividend Boost Over
Gains Alone

3M (NYSE:MMM)

284.7%

363.9%

$792.24

27.8%

Cedar Fair (NYSE:FUN)

173.4%

411.0%

$2,376.20

137.0%

Corus Bankshares (NASDAQ:CORS)

147.2%

248.5%

$1,013.03

68.8%

Kimco Realty (NYSE:KIM)

849.1%

1113.7%

$2,645.79

31.2%

PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP)

252.8%

313.2%

$604.35

23.9%

The Stanley Works (NYSE:SWK)

231.7%

313.1%

$814.65

35.2%

Washington REIT (NYSE:WRE)

159.6%

295.8%

$1,361.90

85.3%

Average:

299.8%

437.0%

$1,372.59

58.46%

All data split-adjusted.

In less than 15 years, the difference between capital gain and total return is staggering. In fact, your total return was more than 58% higher than your growth alone, thanks to the dividends. On average, in fact, you would have gotten your initial investment back and then some in these dividend-friendly companies. Had you reinvested those payments rather than taken them as cash, your total return on your initial investment would have been even higher. Imagine taking that gap and expanding it over your entire investing career. If it's that large now, imagine it after 30, 40, even 50 years.

A lifetime strategy
Yes, that 50-year look forward is appropriate to dividend-focused investors who expect to still be around then. It's even appropriate for those who don't expect to be around, but would like to leave a substantial legacy to their families. After all, dividends most often come in the form of convenient, easy-to-spend cash. During your working years, you can reinvest those payments to help boost your total returns. Once you're retired, you can simply start taking those dividends as cash. Presto! You've got an instant, built-in cash flow machine to help you meet your retirement lifestyle needs.

If you're serious about making money from your investing, then you need to pay attention to your dividends. Over time, those little payments certainly add up to create great wealth. At Motley Fool Income Investor, we understand just how powerful those seemingly tiny distributions can be. That's why, every month, we pick two companies that already deliver decent dividends to their shareholders. Join us now for a free 30-day trial to start benefiting from all of the rewards the stock market has to offer.

This article was originally published on Nov. 29, 2006. It has been updated.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta did not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. 3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Cedar Fair is an Income Investor selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.