The more often you have to make choices as an investor, the more opportunities you have to lose money. Your research and analysis may be wrong. Your valuation may be wrong. The market's random fluctuations may move against you through no fault of your own. On top of all that, each time you trade a stock, you pay commissions and may face taxes if you're closing out a profitable position.

For these reasons and more, it makes sense to minimize the number of times you have to make buy or sell decisions. Take that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and an ideal holding period would be forever.

It's a great concept, but the reality is that very few stocks really are worth holding for the rest of your life.

Still, what would it take?
First and foremost, a "forever" company would have to pay a dividend. As great a wealth creator as Warren Buffett has been for Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) owners, all that stock appreciation buys absolutely nothing -- unless you're willing to sell your shares. If you need to sell to get cash, it becomes rather impossible to own it forever.

Of course, paying a dividend isn't enough. A truly great business will be able to sustain -- and grow -- those payments over time. A one-time dividend is nice, but a sustainable, growing payment is a reflection of the strength of the operations that enabled the payments in the first place.

3M (NYSE:MMM), for instance, has been paying dividends since 1916 and has routinely raised its payment year after year -- for nearly half a century. Like 3M, the companies listed below also pay decent dividends, have increased those payments for at least a decade, and look to have the ability to keep on doing more of the same:




Dividend Growth

Sonoco Products (NYSE:SON)




Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC)




Chubb (NYSE:CB)




Why it matters
Dividends give you tremendous financial flexibility throughout your investing life. While you've got an income from working, you can reinvest those payments to speed the process of compounding your wealth. Once you've left the workforce, the cash thrown off by dividends spends just as well as any money you earned from your salary. Even better, a rising dividend payment can help you fight inflation by providing you more cash every single year.

Additionally, dividends have the tremendous benefit of being exceptionally difficult for companies to fake. After all, it's difficult to convince lenders to loan money to a company if that company is going to turn around and hand it over to its shareholders. As a result, to sustainably make and increase those payments, a business needs to generate serious cash -- on a regular and repeatable basis.

Perhaps most important, a company's dividend payment comes from its operational success -- not from the manic gyrations in its stock price. In volatile market periods, those payments give you a way to make money even when your stocks move down.

What's not to love?
Faster compounding. Better financial flexibility. Cash in hand without selling. A buffer against inflation. An honesty check on a company's accounting. Money in a down market. With all they give to you, it's obvious why dividend payments are such a key part of anyone's search for a company to hold forever.

Anand Chokkavelu updated this article, originally written by Chuck Saletta and published Aug. 15, 2007. Anand does not own shares in any companies mentioned. Sonoco Products is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. 3M and Berkshire Hathaway are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Fool has a disclosure policy.