For most investors, there are two ways to make money in the stock market: share appreciation and dividends.

While over the long term most companies that consistently increase their dividends will likely see share price appreciation the same can not be said of the short term - where anything can happen. It is for this reason that for investors looking for consistent returns dividends paid by the right companies are the only game in town. Investors should also look for stocks with a history of increasing their dividend payments, which usually comes once a year. Those increases not only put more money in shareholders' pockets, but are also a sign of corporate strength and increasing cash flow, which can come in spite of a flat share price.

Let's take a look at three big-name consumer-facing companies that should be lifting their dividends this fall.

1. McDonald's
While McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) stock has floundered in recent months, but its dividend is looking as tasty as ever. The fast-food giant actually just last week announced a 5% increase in the quarterly payout to $0.85 from $0.81, a decision that comes even as the company is expecting operating income to decline this year. That decision signals marks the 38th year in a row that McDonald's has raised its dividend, putting in the exclusive club of "dividend aristocrats" -- companies that have raised their dividend at least 25 years in a row. Investors cheered the dividend increase, sending shares up 1.5% the following morning. With the higher payment, McDonald's now offers a 3.6% dividend yield, one of the best in the restaurant industry. However, 2014 will in all likelihood be the third year in a row that McDonald's dividend grew faster than its earnings per share, during which time its payout ratio has gone from 47% to 61%. That trend will not be sustainable for long, however, as above 80% is considered an unsustainable payout ratio. Going forward, either McDonald's will have to find a better way to grow earnings, or slow down its dividend increases. In recent years, the company has spent nearly all its free cash flow on dividends and share buybacks, and CEO Don Thompson has promised to return $18 to $20 billion to shareholders between 2014 and 2016. 

2. Nike
The sneaker king has been no slouch when it comes to dividends either. Nike (NYSE:NKE) began paying dividends in 1984 and has raised the payouts every year for the last 11, all the way from $0.03 to $0.24 a quarter, while the stock jumped 500% during that time. Currently, the stock sports a 1.2% dividend yield, and after a 14% hike last November, another big jump may be in store. With just a 30% payout ratio based on net income, Nike has plenty of room to grow its dividend if it so chooses, and analysts are projecting a 14% increase in EPS in the current fiscal year so I would expect a hike of at least that much in Nike's dividend. Recently, the footwear-maker has been devoting the vast majority of its free cash flow to an $8 billion share buyback program, spending $2.2 billion on it last year. With its P/E ratio a reaching 27, however, the company may be better off returning that money directly to shareholders through dividends.

3. Starbucks
The coffee giant did not begin paying a dividend until 2010 as it's still growing at a significant pace, but there are plenty of reasons to expect its dividend yield to head north in the future. Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) offers a 1.3% yield and last lifted its dividend payout in October 2013, raising it 24% from $0.21 to $0.26 per quarter. Starbucks usually announces its dividend increase in its fourth quarter earnings report so you can expect the increase to come in next earnings report, due out in late October. The java-slinger has also performed well this year with strong same-store sales and expected EPS growth near 20%. With a relatively low payout ratio of 36%, I'd expect Starbucks to lift its payout by 20% or more once again this year. Considering the promising growth opportunities it has in China and through recent acquisitions, Starbucks' dividend could see several more of years of strong growth without eating into cash flow.

Two kinds of yield
Dividend growth is so important for investors because it makes the original investment that much more valuable. While we calculate dividend yield using the present stock price, investors should really think about in terms of the price they paid for the stock. As an example, let's use McDonald's stock. If you had bought the stock in January 2003, you would have paid just about $14 for it. With the annual dividend now it $3.40, you'd be making 24% annually off your annual investment, essentially a 24% dividend yield, and you would have already made back your original investment and then some. In other words, a good dividend will make it essentially free to buy stocks, paying you back the money from your initial investment over time. Now that's more than enough to reason to look forward to this fall's dividend hikes.

Jeremy Bowman owns shares of Nike. The Motley Fool recommends McDonald's, Nike, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Nike and Starbucks. 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.