Being able to retire rich, or at least comfortable, is the goal of almost any investor. However, it's much easier said than done. In a recent Wells Fargo survey, respondents between the ages of 50-59 said that they had, on average, about $29,000 saved up. With pensions all but gone, and Social Security targeted for cuts in the future, it's hard to count on anyone but yourself. But $29,000 isn't going to cut it for most people, so you've got to get involved in the stock market in order to grow that nest egg. Getting in the game is the easy part; choosing the right stocks is the hard part.

Making prudent decisions
Generally speaking, I look for four traits in a retirement stock:

  1. Valuation: Investors of all ages want to make sure they're not overpaying for a stock, but this matters even more in retirement. Retirees don't have the long time horizon that younger investors have, so it's essential to make sure you don't overpay in the short term.
  2. Dividends: Most retirees need a combination of both growth and income, as they'll be depending more and more on their portfolio to help with everyday expenses. Companies that pay dividends not only offer immediate income, but they've also proven to outperform non-paying dividend companies over long periods of time.
  3. Growth: Investors love dividends, but everyone wants to see their stocks rise over time. Growth can be as big a part of your portfolio as a steady dividend. It's important to note that you don't need a high-flying stock that's going to shoot to the moon; a company that can grow and outperform the market is hard enough to find, so steady growth is highly covetable.
  4. Low volatility: Retirees want to invest in great growth stocks just as much as anyone else, but they also want to be able to rest well knowing that their portfolio won't be taking them on a roller-coaster ride. At the end of the day, most retirees would rather own a sturdy company that lets them sleep at night than a company that whips up and down with the gyrations of the market.

Although some companies are definitely more geared toward retirees, which companies you choose to invest in will be dictated largely by what you already have in your portfolio. Small, mid, and large caps can all play a role in your investing strategy, so I chose to evaluate all varieties of stocks in this regular series.

So how does Southwest Airlines stack up?
In order to check out the valuation of Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV), we don't want to look at only its P/E ratio of 19.4. That may seem expensive, but really we don't know without looking at the ratio in historical context. Over the last five years, Southwest Airlines's average P/E ratio has been 32.6, which is greater than the current ratio. This suggests that investors could be seeing an opportunity to buy Southwest Airlines on the cheap right now.

Southwest Airlines's dividend is 0.153%. This might not seem like a whole lot right now, but that dividend has room to grow, so I wouldn't discount its importance. Getting a dividend at all shows a company's dedication to its shareholders, and that's significant.

Next, we want to ensure that Southwest Airlines' stock has the ability to rise over the next five, 10, or 20 years. A company that's growing its net income has the best possible chance to see its share price rise over time. Of course, we can't predict the future, but we can look back to get an idea of how the company has performed in the past in order to try to ensure future earnings growth. Over the past five years, Southwest Airlines has shrunk its net income by -1.05%. Unfortunately, Southwest Airlines has run into its own share of problems, and the financial collapse of 2008 certainly couldn't have helped either. So the company has been unable to grow earnings, which doesn't exactly mean that it won't in the future, but it's certainly not the greatest of signs.

One of the best measures of volatility is called beta. Beta measures the impact that the movement of the stock market will have on a particular stock. For instance, a beta of 1.0 signifies that Southwest Airlines will move in tandem with the market; a beta of 2.0 means that the stock will move up twice as much as the general market, and vice versa. In this particular case, Southwest Airlines has a beta of 1.1, which is pretty low. Generally speaking, I like to see a beta below 1.2 for retirees. In this case, Southwest Airlines fits the bill.

Let's look at the competition
We've taken a look at Southwest Airlines, and maybe you think it's passed all the tests, or maybe you just don't feel comfortable with the results. Either way, it's beneficial to see how a company stacks up in its industry, because it's just as important to understand a company's competitors as it is to understand that particular company. Here are Southwest Airlines' stats when compared to three of its closest competitors:

Company

Current P/E

Dividend Yield

5-Year Net Income CAGR

1-Year Beta

Southwest Airlines 19.4 0.2% (1.1%) 1.1
Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) 16.1 0% N/A 0.9
AMR (NYSE: AMR) N/M 0% (11.3%) 1.5
United Continental Holdings (NYSE: UAL) 22.3 0% N/A 1.6

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Each company has traits to like and traits left to be desired. Either way, it's beneficial to look at the industry picture and not just Southwest Airlines in isolation.

Of course, I can't decide for you whether or not this is the best stock for retirement, but it has passed three of the four tests, which shows that this stock has some serious promise. Depending on which traits are most important for you, you'd be wise to look further into this stock for your portfolio.

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Jordan DiPietro owns no shares. The Fool owns shares of Wells Fargo. Southwest Airlines is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.