Working people approach one day of the year with unequaled anticipation. No, it's not the first day of a two-week vacation in Hawaii, although that would be pretty darn nice, too. It's the day when an employee is due to receive his or her annual pay raise.

Shareholders go through something similar when awaiting word of their companies' dividend announcements. Not all company press releases demand your attention, but the ones that announce dividends do justify a bit of "worry allocation." And every year around this time, I allocate some worry over Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and its dividend announcement. Thankfully, the payout wizards at the beverage behemoth came through again, giving me (and fellow investors) a 12% raise.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Coke's dividend is one of the reasons I'm staying with the stock. It isn't case-volume action, that's for sure. A mere 2% growth in that metric for 2004 gives Wall Street a bout of the blahs. W.D. Crotty mentioned in his coverage last week of the company's earnings that Coke still has a refreshing amount of free cash flow at its disposable, represented by a $5.1 billion take in 2004, which is great for payouts. However, he also mentioned that debt levels increased, constituting a potentially bearish mark on the balance sheet. One might understandably ask: How good is the dividend under an environment of increasing debt?

I believe it is still a quality dividend. And looking at the corporate website's press-release history, you will see a succession of steady increases over time. Coca-Cola will be able, in my view, to leverage its brand and margin powers for the long haul, and that will ensure the safety of the payout. (I do, however, believe the brand has suffered what will hopefully be a temporary decline.)

The capital value of the shares will, on the other hand, remain pressured until a new marketing campaign comes along to re-energize the operations and catalyze the sales of the core products. PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) will try to stop any momentum. But to the long-term thinker who wants to bet on Coca-Cola and just set the position on automatic dividend-reinvestment mode, I believe this icon of American corporate culture has a good chance of rewarding patience.

Of course, as someone who purchased many shares at higher prices, I do become frustrated from time to time, as evidenced by a previous article. I certainly hope the pessimistic prediction on absolute share value that I offered in that piece doesn't come to pass. (I suppose this increase has been a salve for my psyche). Even if it does, though, I'll keep my eye on future dividend releases and remind myself that I won't be retiring for a long, long time.

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Fool contributor Steven Mallas owns shares of Coca-Cola.