Sorry to disappoint you, Fools: However much you may imagine it, dividend checks don't make that ka-ching sound when they land in your account. There's no jackpot siren or shower of rainbow confetti, either.

High-yielding stocks are more than just the sum of their distributions. No two dividends -- or dividend-paying companies -- are alike, so try to avoid any romanticized dreams of celebration.

You can get rich from dividends. It's just not as easy as you think. Then again, it's not as hard as you think, either. I've got three tips to make you a better income investor.

1. Don't chase yields
There's nothing as ego-bruising as snapping up a stock solely because of its high yield. A dividend is only as secure as the company's ability to pay its declared distributions.

Income investors like to watch their companies' payout ratios, making sure that each investment is earning more than enough to cover its regular dividend. But sometimes, the bottom line can turn sour in a hurry. Companies such as payday loan provider Advance America (NYSE:AEA) and cruise line operator Carnival (NYSE:CCL) seemed to have attractive yields until they slashed their payouts last week.

Shareholders who held on going into last week's markdowns, figuring that the higher yields would save the day, learned the cruel lesson that unsustainable yields can get slashed.

2. Take a hike with the hikers
Every Monday, I profile four stocks that have increased their dividends during the previous week. Typically, these increases send an upbeat message that a company is comfortable enough to part with a few more of its greenbacks.

Watch for companies that regularly raise their dividends. When I see an energy company like Vectren (NYSE:VVC) -- which has boosted its shareowner distributions in each of the past 49 years -- I get excited. When I see a paint and chemicals specialist like PPG Industries (NYSE:PPG) buck cyclical swings to generate 37 consecutive years of increases, I get pumped. Aerospace giant United Technologies (NYSE:UTX)? It's not a regular hiker, though it has been paying out uninterrupted dividends for 72 years. Even a troubled sector like the battered mutual fund industry can turn up a winner. Eaton Vance (NYSE:EV) has increased its dividends annually for 28 years now.

3. Avoid the one-time dividends
There are several reasons why companies issue huge one-time distributions, but none of them impress me. Sometimes a hefty payout will leave a company saddled with debt. Other times it is simply a matter of returning money to shareholders in a hurry, as Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) did when it declared a $3 a share one-time payout four years ago.

Because there's no free lunch, these huge disbursements result in big tax bills for you, and big ex-dividend price adjustments for the stocks. Unless you're comfortable assessing what a company and its balance sheet will look like after a one-time dividend hit, it's best to stay away.

Add it up
The moral of this story should be familiar: Even yield-hungry investors should remember to buy companies, not dividends. Readers of our Income Investor newsletter will be the first to tell you that. Our newsletter's monthly stock recommendations can't just have attractive yields; they must have attractive prospects, too.

After all, what good is a dividend if the share price falls by more than the sum of your dividend checks? With a little Foolish savvy and a few careful choices, dividend investing can be the perfect strategy for investors who want real profits, rather than imaginary celebrations.

If you need a few of our best dividend stocks for new money, try Motley Fool Income Investor free for 30 days.

This article was originally published April 22, 2008. It has been updated.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz pays attention to yield signs. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. PPG Industries is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Microsoft is an Inside Value recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.