How To Build Your Income Investing Strategy

Key Tips for Making Your Portfolio Generate Income


The Balance / Hilary Allison

Do you need to build a portfolio that will generate cash? Are you concerned with paying your bills and having enough income now and need an additional income stream? If so, you should consider using an older investing technique—income investing.

Income investing is the practice of designing a portfolio of investments that will give you a passive income you can live on. Investments can include real estate, stocks, mutual funds, and bonds. It's crucial to consider which types of assets will enable you to meet your passive-income goals and investing philosophy while understanding some common dangers that can affect an income investing portfolio.

What Is Income Investing?

The art of good income investing is gathering a collection of assets such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and real estate that will generate the highest possible annual income at the lowest possible risk. Most of this income is paid out to the investor so they can use it in their everyday lives to buy clothes, pay bills, take vacations, and live a good life without worrying about money.

Naturally, income investing is popular with those at or nearing retirement. When you are retired, you depend on a steady flow of income to replace the income you once had when you were in the labor force. Today, with pension systems going the way of the dinosaur and 401(k) holders being spooked by fluctuating balances, there has been a resurgence of interest in income investing. In 2020, the amount of money being moved around in 401(k)s was the highest it has been since 2008.


Though income investing is popular with retirees, it's not only for retirees. Income investing can be a strategy for any investor seeking a stream of income from their investments.

Finding a Monthly Income Target for Your Portfolio

To find the monthly income your investment strategy needs to bring in, you will mainly be concerned with your withdrawal rate, which is how much income you pull out from your investments each year.

The rule of thumb in income investing is if you never want to run out of money. You should take no more than 4% of your balance out each year for income. This is commonly referred to on Wall Street as the 4% rule.

Put another way, if you manage to save $350,000 by retirement at age 65 (which would only take $146 per month from the time you were 25 years old and earning 7% per year), you should be able to make annual withdrawals of $14,000 without ever running out of money.

If you are an average retired worker, you will receive close to $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits. A couple with both people receiving Social Security benefits will average around $2,500. Add $1,166 per month from investments, and you have a comfortable $3,666 per month income.

By the time you retire, you'll probably own your own home and have very little debt. Absent any major medical emergencies, you should be able to meet your basic needs. If you're willing to risk running out of money sooner, you can adjust your withdrawal rate. If you doubled your withdrawal rate to 8% and your investments earned 6% with 3% inflation, you would lose 5% of the account value annually in real terms.

Key Investments for Your Income Investing Portfolio

When you build your income investing portfolio, you are going to have three major "buckets" of potential investments. These include:

  1. Dividend-paying stocks: Both common stocks and preferred stocks are useful. Companies that pay dividends pay a portion of annual profit to shareholders based on the number of shares they own.
  2. Bonds: You have many choices when it comes to bonds. You can own government bonds, agency bonds, municipal bonds, savings bonds, or others.
  3. Real estate: You can own rental properties outright or invest through real estate investment trusts (REITs). Real estate has its own tax rules, and some people are more comfortable because real estate offers some protection against high inflation.

A closer look at each category can give you a better idea of appropriate investments for income investing portfolios.

Dividend Stocks in an Income Investing Portfolio

In your personal income investment portfolio, you'd want dividend stocks that have several characteristics.

  • Dividend payout ratio: You'd want a dividend payout ratio of 50% or less, with the rest going back into the company's business for future growth.
  • Dividend yield: If a business pays out too much of its profit, it can hurt the firm's competitive position. A dividend yield of between 2% and 6% is a healthy payout.
  • Earnings: The company should have generated positive earnings with no losses for the past three years, at a minimum.
  • Track record: A proven track record of slowly increasing dividends is also preferred. If management is shareholder-friendly, it will be more interested in returning excess cash to stockholders than expanding the empire.
  • Ratios: Other considerations are a business's return on equity (also called ROE, after-tax profit compared to shareholder equity) and its debt-to-equity ratio. ROE and debt-to-equity should be healthy when compared to industry peers. This can provide a bigger cushion in a recession and help keep dividend checks flowing.

Bonds in an Income Investing Portfolio

Bonds are often considered the cornerstone of income investing because they generally fluctuate much less than stocks. With a bond, you are lending money to the company or government that issues it. With a stock, you own a slice of the business. The potential profit from bonds is much more limited; however, in the event of bankruptcy, you have a better chance of recouping your investment.


Bonds are safer than stocks but are not risk-free. In fact, bonds have a unique set of risks for income investors.

Your choices include bonds such as municipal bonds that offer tax advantages. A better choice may be bond funds, which are a basket of bonds, with money pooled from different investors—much like a mutual fund.

Here are some bond characteristics you will want to avoid:

  • Lengthy bond duration: One of the biggest risks is something called bond duration. When putting together an income investing portfolio, you typically shouldn’t buy bonds that mature in more than eight years because they can lose a lot of value if interest rates move sharply.
  • Risky foreign bonds: You should also consider avoiding foreign bonds because they pose some real risks unless you understand the fluctuating currency market.

If you are trying to figure out the percentage your portfolio should have in bonds, you can follow the age-old rule, which, according to Burton Malkiel, famed author of "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" and respected Ivy League educator, is your age. If you're 30, then 30% of your portfolio should be in bonds; if you're 60, then 60% should be.

Real Estate in an Income Investing Portfolio

If you know what you’re doing, real estate can be a great investment for those who want to generate regular income. That’s especially true if you are looking for passive income that would fit into your income investing portfolio.

Your main choice is whether or not to buy a property outright or invest through a real estate investment trust (REIT). Both actions have their own advantages and disadvantages, but they can each have a place in a well-built investment portfolio.


One major advantage of real estate is that if you are comfortable using debt, you can drastically increase your withdrawal rate because the property itself will keep pace with inflation.

This method is not without risk, and you shouldn't just put 100% of your investments into property. There are three issues with this approach:

  1.  If the real estate market falls, the loss is amplified by leverage, the use of debt to finance your real-estate purchases.
  2. Real estate requires more work than stocks and bonds due to lawsuits, maintenance, taxes, insurance, and more.
  3. On an inflation-adjusted basis, the long-term growth in stock values has always surpassed real estate.

Allocating Your Investments for Income

What percentage of your income investing portfolio should be divided among stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.? The answer comes down to your personal choices, preferences, risk tolerance, and whether or not you can tolerate a lot of volatility. Asset allocation is a personal preference.

The simplest income investing allocation could be:

  • One-third of assets in dividend-paying stocks that meet previously stated criteria
  • One-third of assets in bonds and/or bond funds that meet previously stated criteria
  • One-third of assets in real estate, most likely in the form of direct property ownership through a limited liability company or other legal structure

While simple, this example allocation may not be what's best for you individually. If you are young and willing to take risks, you may allocate more of your portfolio toward stocks and real estate. The higher risk you take can potentially lead to higher rewards. If you are risk-averse, you may want to allocate more of your portfolio to bonds. They are less risky and offer lower returns as a result. There is no one-size-fits-all portfolio.

The Role of Saving in an Income Investing Portfolio

Saving money and investing money are different, though they both serve your overall financial plan. Even if you have a diversified income investing portfolio that generates lots of cash each month, it is vital that you have enough savings on hand in risk-free FDIC-insured bank accounts in case of an emergency.

Funds saved in a bank account are liquid and can be quickly withdrawn if needed. When all your funds are invested, your capital is tied up, and you could be forced to liquidate positions in order to get cash. Doing so could negatively affect your returns and tax efficiency.

The amount of cash you require is going to depend on the total fixed payments you have, your debt levels, your health, and how fast you might need to turn assets into cash.

Understanding the value of cash in a savings account cannot be overstressed. You should wait to begin investing until you have built up enough savings to be comfortable about emergencies, health insurance, and expenses. Only then should you start investing.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can you make a full-time income from investing?

It's possible to make enough from your investments to cover your costs of living, but this doesn't happen overnight. It requires years of careful and disciplined investing and patiently allowing your wealth to grow. Once you do have enough invested to earn a full salary's worth in annual returns, you have to be careful not to withdraw more than what your investments earn each year.

What is the difference between income investing and growth investing?

Income investing is meant to provide a steady stream of income in the present or near future, while growth investing is meant to build up wealth that you will live off or grant to your heirs in the long term. While they're not mutually exclusive (for instance, growth investments provide income during retirement), the two strategies generally differ in terms of how you invest and what you do with your invested funds.

How much money do you need to start investing for a fixed income?

The amount you need for income investing depends on how much you're hoping to earn every month. For instance, if you had an investment of $100,000 earning 7% per year, you could safely withdraw between $3,000 and $4,000 per year (between 3% and 4%). If you had $1 million invested, you could safely withdraw $30,000–$40,000 annually.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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