Don't you dream of buying the one great growth stock that will make you really rich? Wouldn't it have been great to have bought something like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in 1996 (up 9,411%) or Microsoft in 1988 (up 8,719%)?

Hunting for the next big growth stock can be fun and profitable, and I'm all in favor of doing that. But when it comes to retirement investing, I'm also in favor of safer bets. No, I don't mean dumping everything into money market funds or anything like that. I mean stocks that give you real growth you can count on year after year.

Yes, they exist. In fact you probably know lots of them, although if you're a growth-stock enthusiast you might not own any.

What's the secret? Dividends.

Why dull-looking stocks can be really exciting
Specifically, the secret is to buy stocks with sustainable dividends and reinvest them. Reinvesting dividends means that you instruct your broker, usually by checking a box on an online form, to use the dividend payments to buy you more shares instead of just dropping the cash into a money market fund. And it's one of the most awesome things you can do in a long-term portfolio.

Why is that awesome? Because it means even if the market stinks -- even if it goes through phases where the prices of the stocks you own are way down -- you're making money. Take Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), the very definition of a boring blue-chip dividend payer. A decade ago, at the very height of the 1990s market bubble, P&G closed at $104.87. As I write this, it closed yesterday at around $59, but since the stock split 2-to-1 in 2004, that's not actually a decline -- it's more like a gain of 13% or so. Better than nothing, but not much to show for over 10 years.

But when we factor in reinvested dividends, the picture looks a little different -- more like a 40% gain. Again, that may not seem like a whole lot over 10 years ... until you remember that P&G is a big component of the S&P 500, which has fallen by nearly 25% from where it was 10 years ago today.

Where it gets really awesome
I just did a screen for highly rated stocks paying outsized dividends and included a few in the chart below. Just for the sake of comparison, I included the 10-year returns for each of them. Don't take those too seriously -- past performance is a lousy reason to buy a stock -- but in this case I wanted to clearly illustrate the power of reinvested dividends over time. At the bottom of the chart I've also included a big S&P 500 index fund -- which has its own yield, made up of the dividend yields of the stocks in the index -- and its cumulative 10-year performance with dividends reinvested.

Stock

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Current Yield

10-Year Total Return

Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK)

****

6%

53%

Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE:EPD)

*****

7.7%

543%

Altria (NYSE:MO)

****

7.4%

416%

BP Prudhoe Bay Royalty Trust (NYSE:BPT)

****

8.8%

3,574%

Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI)

****

7.4%

884%

Kinder Morgan Energy (NYSE:KMP)

*****

7.6%

412%

Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX)

-

1.9%

(7%)

Sources: Motley Fool CAPS, Yahoo! Finance; Vanguard. 10-year returns are as of market close on Oct. 29 and include reinvestment of dividends and, in the case of the mutual fund, capital gains.

See what I mean? You can get serious growth from a boring old dividend stock, growth that puts to shame the idea that "the market" hasn't shown any gains in the past decade and that leaves all of those vaunted index funds far behind. And you get it even if the stock's price doesn't move all that much, as long as the company behind the stock can keep paying the dividend.

And that last point is the real key when researching dividend stocks: If the company can't sustain the dividend, the whole thing falls down. That's why you should always be skeptical of very high dividend yields -- sometimes, they just look high because the stock price has tanked for good reasons. Do your due diligence on any of these ideas before investing, and make sure you're comfortable with the potential ups and downs of the underlying business.

And lastly, if you'd rather skip the hard part and learn more about some great (and pre-researched) dividend stocks to buy today, help yourself to a free trial of the Motley Fool Income Investor service. You'll get 30 days of full access to all of their research and recommendations, and there's absolutely no obligation to subscribe. Just click here to get started.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Enterprise Products Partners. Duke Energy, Enterprise Products Partners, and Procter & Gamble are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.