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 1 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' 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 Lowe's (NYSE: LOW) and three of its peers.

Company

Yield

Interest Coverage

EPS Payout Ratio

FCF Payout Ratio

Lowe's

1.8%

10.3

31.0%

28.4%

Home Depot (NYSE: HD)

2.7%

11.3

34.7%

48.0%

Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT)

2.6%

11.4

31.9%

55.5%

Fortune Brands (NYSE: FO)

1.2%

4.0

23.7%

41.4%

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

With an interest coverage of 10.3, Lowe's covers every $1 in interest expenses with $10.30 in operating earnings. Given its EPS payout ratio and FCF payout ratio are around 30%, you shouldn't have to worry that Lowe's 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.

Follow Dan Dzombak on Twitter at @DanDzombak to check out his musings and see what articles he finds interesting. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended Home Depot, Fortune Brands, Lowe's, and Wal-Mart. The Motley Fool owns shares of Wal-Mart. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended writing covered calls in Lowe's. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.