As a dividend investor, it pays to follow how much of a company's money goes toward funding its dividend. A nice yield now won't matter much if the company can't keep making those payments going forward.

Here, we'll highlight a given company and its closest competitors to see just how safe their dividends are, with a little help from three crucial tools:

  • The interest coverage ratio, or earnings before interest and taxes, divided by interest expense. The interest coverage ratio measures a company's ability to pay the interest on its debt. An interest coverage ratio less than 1.5 is questionable; a number less than one means that the company is not bringing in enough money to cover its interest expenses.
  • The EPS payout ratio, or dividends per share divided by earnings per share. The EPS payout ratio measures the percentage of earnings that go toward paying the dividend. A ratio greater than 80% is worrisome.
  • The FCF payout ratio, or dividends per share divided by free cash flow per share. Earnings alone don't always paint a complete picture of a business's health. The FCF payout ratio measures the percent of free cash flow devoted toward paying the dividend. Again, a ratio greater 80% could be a red flag.

Let's examine Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) and three of its peers.

Company

Yield

Interest Coverage

EPS Payout Ratio

FCF Payout Ratio

Hewlett-Packard

1.3%

44.5

7.9%

9.5%

Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO)

1.5%

13.7

18.8%

6.2%

Seagate Technology (Nasdaq: STX)

4.3%

5.2

44.8%

NM

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC)

3.7%

2716.3

30.6%

47.7%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. NM = not meaningful because of negative FCF.

With an interest coverage ratio of 44.5, Hewlett-Packard covers every $1 in interest expenses with more than $44 in operating earnings. Given that its EPS payout ratio and FCF payout ratio are below 10%, you shouldn't have to worry that Hewlett-Packard will need to cut its dividend anytime soon.

Another tool for better investing
Most investors don't keep tabs on their companies. That's a mistake. If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're in a much better position to spot potential trouble early. We can help you keep tabs on your companies with My Watchlist, our free, personalized stock-tracking service.