How much longer will the stock market's good times last?

There's no denying that the market has had a great run since last March's lows; a 60% gain for the S&P in less than a year is an excellent, almost unbelievable result when put in historical perspective. And it's true that the economy at least seems to be in much better shape than it did then.

But given still-high unemployment numbers -- 9.7% in the most recent survey -- and continuing economic sluggishness, I'm thinking that we're nearer the end of this run than the beginning. I am just not seeing enough signs of a recovery to think that it's going to be anything more than sluggish, and I think that reality has to hit the market at some point.

It may already be starting to sink in; the S&P 500 is down over 6% since mid-January. Even if we don't see a major correction, the odds seem high that overall market growth is going to be subdued for a while.

But if anything's certain, it's that we're living in uncertain times.

Solid returns in a not-so-solid market
One way to take some of the uncertainty out of your returns is to buy stocks with sustainable dividends. If you tell your broker to reinvest those dividends -- use the dividend payments to buy more of the stock, rather than keeping them in your account as cash -- you'll have a great formula for making money no matter what the market does.

Here's why: 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. As long as the company can sustain those dividend payments, you'll be making money and adding to your position. In fact, having the stock price dive for a while can help you over the long haul, since your dividends will buy more shares!

Here's an example of what I mean: H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ), the ketchup king. Over the past 10 years, looking just at the stock price, it has gained about 29%. That's not bad -- better than the S&P 500's decline over the same period for sure -- but we can all name plenty of stocks that have done better. But if you factor in the dividends, and assume they were reinvested, you're looking at more like an 89% return over that period.

Returns of 89% during a period when the S&P was down? From a household-name consumer giant, where the potential downside was small?

Yeah. The numbers don't lie. Dividends can be a big deal.

Where to find the best buys
The best dividend stocks tend to be fairly boring, established companies. You're not going to be looking for the next Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD) here. You're going to be looking at companies that have substantial assets, low levels of long-term debt, and reasonably predictable cash flows, such as these:

Stock

CAPS Rating
(out of 5)

Current Yield

Suburban Propane

*****

7.4%

NuStar Energy (NYSE:NS)

****

7.9%

Verizon (NYSE:VZ)

****

6.6%

Health Care REIT (NYSE:HCN)

****

6.7%

Olin Corp. (NYSE:OLN)

*****

4.9%

Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI)

****

7.0%

Let's see ... we've got tobacco, chemicals, health-care properties, energy infrastructure, the phone company everyone loves to hate. Yep, no big-concept supergrowth stocks to be seen. Just a bunch of good companies paying hefty dividends.

Now, these are just ideas for further research, not in-depth recommendations. But these are the kinds of stocks that can be good anchors for your portfolio -- investments that will return real money over time no matter what the market is doing in the near term.

Whatever you do, don't just do a screen for huge dividends. Sometimes, dividends look high because the stock price just tanked, and the stock might have tanked for good reason. If the company can't sustain those dividends, there's no point in basing a dividend-investing strategy around them.

Finally, if you'd rather skip the screening and digging and take a look at research that's already been done on some great 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 has no position in the companies mentioned. Buffalo Wild Wings is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. Health Care REIT and H.J. Heinz are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.