How I Built a Dividend Growth Investment Portfolio

I remember the first time I read Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. It was witty, it was entertaining, and it wasn’t anything like your standard annual report with glossy pages, full color photos, and mind-numbing marketing-speak.

That first time, the page that blew me away was his list of stock investments – specifically the dividend producing stocks.

Berkshire Hathaway, as of the 2017 letter, owns 400 million shares of stock at a cost of $1.299 billion. Each share pays out $1.48 a year. Berkshire Hathaway gets $592 million from Coca Cola every single year.

That’s an annual yield of 45.6%.

When we look at the 2019 letter, we see that he now gets $640 million in dividends each year (he hasn’t acquired any more shares of KO). His annual yield on this investment was 49.26% in 2019.

How is this possible!? What is this sorcery!?

Time is an investor’s best friend.

Buffett acquired shares of Coca-Cola in 1988. Back then he wrote “We expect to hold these securities for a long time. In fact, when we own portions of outstanding businesses with outstanding managements, our favorite holding period is forever. We are just the opposite of those who hurry to sell and book profits when companies perform well but who tenaciously hang on to businesses that disappoint. Peter Lynch aptly likens such behavior to cutting the flowers and watering the weeds.” (1998 letter)

The formula is simple. He bought the shares a long time ago, his cost basis was much lower than the market value, and KO kept increasing dividends. If you buy shares today of KO (at $48.67), you get 3.37% yield. Warren Buffett is getting close to 50%!

I wanted to replicate his success. I wanted to build a portfolio of blue-chip, dividend stocks that would produce passive income for us.

I’ll start with explaining where dividends fit in our existing portfolio, follow it up with a discussion of why we invest in individuals stocks and not dividend funds, a brief chat about the factors in our favor followed by the strategy I use to pick stocks. Let’s go!

My approach is ever-evolving – I will update it periodically as I update my approach. To succeed in anything, especially as an investor, you have to be constantly learning, refining, and improving your process. What you’re reading is what I do today but that might change in a few months or years, check back periodically for changes.

Table of Contents
  1. Where Dividends Fit in Financial Picture
  2. Why Individual Stocks?
  3. A Few Factors in My Favor…
  4. How I Built My Dividend Portfolio
  5. The Importance of Dividend Growth

Where Dividends Fit in Financial Picture

Before we get into how I built my dividend portfolio, it’s important to know how it all fits.

70% of our stock market investments are in various Vanguard funds. The balance is in individual dividend producing stocks. The Vanguard funds also produce dividends, since many stocks in the stock market produce dividends, but I don’t consider those funds part of the “dividend” section of our portfolio. The Vanguard 500 Index Fund Shares has a decent 1.74% yield, so it’s not inconsequential!

My goal with dividends was to create a stream of passive income that would act as insurance against the unpredictability of entrepreneurship. I can put them in a dividend tracker to keep them all straight.

In 2015, that stream amounted to $55,152.60, a 10.4% increase over 2014. (and what’s nice about this income is that it’s taxed at the 15% long term capital gain rate too!)

It would increase to $57,750 in 2016 and $64,981 in 2017.

Part of the increase is attributed to more investments, part of it was dividend growth. Dividend growth is especially attractive because I don’t have to commit any more money to get greater dividends… you can’t beat that!

Why Individual Stocks?

If low-cost index funds are the best, why not use a low-cost dividend fund from Vanguard? The Vanguard Dividend Appreciation Index Fund Investor Shares (VDAIX) has a 1.92% yield with an expense ratio of 0.17% (the Admiral version’s expense ratio is just 0.08%).

It holds many of the same companies that I would end up buying. At the end of Jan2016, 36.6% of the holdings were in Microsoft, J&J, Coca-Cola, P&G, Pepsi, Wal-Mart, IBM, CVS, Medtronic, and 3M… classic dividend producing blue chippers. As of this writing, of that list, I only own Microsoft, Medtronic, and Coca-Cola.

So why didn’t I go with a fund? I wanted to cherry-pick companies that had higher dividend growth rates and higher dividend yield. 2.25% on a dividend fund is meh, especially when the S&P 500 yields 1.74%, right? I wanted more.

I also wanted to have a little fun and scratch that stock picking itch in a way that was safe, smart, and fit our financial plan.

Don’t underestimate the value in responsibly scratching an itch. It’s better than I get to try my hand at picking dividend stocks than the alternatives. 🙂

A Few Factors in My Favor…

To put everything in better context, it’s important to know a few things I saw as my advantages:

  1. I just sold a company and had a sizable sum of investable assets – While this allowed me to grow my dividend portfolio faster, it didn’t give me any special access or advantage other than lower transaction fees on Vanguard.
  2. The great recession just brutalized stocks, I was getting them at a big discount – The bargains will be fewer and farther between now. General Electric was as low as ~$7 in March 2009! With so many bargains, I was able to make some mistakes and not get burned as badly by them.
  3. I have time on my side – I view our assets as a series of buckets. Near-term (needed within the next 5 years), middle term (5-10 years), and long-term (10+). All of this money was long-term money so I could put it in individual companies, with greater volatility, because I could wait out the volatility. Every stock I’ve owned for more than 3 years is positive (not positive in “real” terms, like vs. inflation or the S&P or any other benchmark, but they’re green).

I believe that if you need the money in the next five years, do not put it in the stock market. It’s just too volatile. If you don’t need it for 10+ years, it has to be in the stock market (or some other investment). It cannot be in cash, you give up too much growth.

I also believe that dividends are awesome. You’ve probably heard statistics that say dividends account for a big percentage of gains in the stock market (here’s an article by Bob Pisani about it). I see it as good insurance against income volatility, of which I experience a fair amount as an entrepreneur.

Check out the historical chart for KO, a Dividend King, on Google Finance:

Coca-Cola Co Chart from Google Finance - 1/15/2021

In July 1998, KO hit $43.59 – a high that wouldn’t be revisited until October 2014. Ack!

That would stink if you needed your money because KO’s stock price languished for many many years. But… They kept on paying and increasing that dividend. KO’s stock price may have stunk but KO was doing its job and paying its dividend. That’s pretty awesome.

(Charts like that also make stock market bloodbaths more palatable — as long as the stocks keep doing their jobs!)

How I Built My Dividend Portfolio

My criteria for picking companies has slowly evolved over the years.

It’s not perfect, I don’t think any system ever is, but it has worked for me.

The first filter is that they must be a well-known household brand or be a Dividend King or Dividend Aristocrat. A Dividend King is a company that has increased their dividend for 50+ years, only 18 companies have done that.

A Dividend Aristocrat is a company that has increased its dividends for at least 25 years. (DRiP Investing Resource Center calls them Dividend Champions and organizes them in a very useful Excel spreadsheet) All Dividend Kings are Dividend Aristocrats.

As everyone knows, “past performance is not indicative of future results!” I fully believe that… but I don’t stop my analysis with those lists. They merely pare down the universe of stocks to a more reasonable subset. Also, 25 and 50 years is a long time. 🙂

The next filter is financial and the big number I want to look at has to do with dividend coverage. Dividend coverage is the company’s earnings per share divided by the dividend per share. I want earnings to be at least twice that of the dividend, or a dividend cover of 2 times. I also look at some of the other metrics many use to analyze a company (increases in earnings per share, equity per share growth percentage, etc.). The basic idea here is that I want to make sure they can continue paying the dividend (coverage) and that they can continue to grow the dividend (increasing EPS).

Now I’m confident that the company is financially stable, I check out is dividend growth. It needs to beat 3% each year, which is what I put in my head as average inflation. Inflation is such a fickle number but I’m confident that by having a growth rate greater than 3% means the dividend will grow faster than inflation.

Next, I start doing some searches about these companies on other financial websites I trust. Dividend Growth Investor is a blog I’ve been following for years, he does a good job of analyzing a lot of companies. His commenters are also excellent too and I’ve discovered folks like Passive Income Pursuit through him. I also like Crossing Wall Street, though it doesn’t have a dividend angle, it’s well informed and the Friday market reviews are a must-read.

I read other blogs, not for their analysis per se, but a lot of times they uncover news or tidbits I didn’t see. It’s also fun to read someone else’s approach and see what you can integrate into your own.

Lastly, know when to fold em. I sell when the conditions change. You always need to know when you plan to exit, or you run the risk of making decisions based on emotion. Just recently, ConocoPhillips announced they were slashing their dividend. I sold it because its purpose was to be a dividend stock (and at a certain yield)… and they cut their dividend from $2.96 a share to $1 a share. It’s still a dividend stock, just a lower yield one, but it stopped doing the job I needed.

I am always learning and this system is always evolving, so let me know what you think about it in the comments below. I’m always looking to discuss my approach!

If you’re thinking about investing in dividends and hoping to build a monthly cash flow from dividends, check dividend calendars to see when payouts happen so you can structure them effectively.

The Importance of Dividend Growth

The sneaky non-obvious part about dividend investing is that you can build a safe portfolio that produces ever-increasing cash flows. By selecting companies that grow their dividend faster than inflation, you are building a stream of income that grows upon itself.

You can also achieve this by automatic reinvestment of dividends because this will grow your stake in the company. This is useful if you’re don’t actually need the income. I don’t reinvest dividends because keeping track of those separate purchases can be a bit of a pain. I’d rather just buy more when favorable conditions present themselves.

Looking only at individual dividend stocks, my 2014 yield was 5.623%. If you were to buy the exact same basket of stocks in 2016 (the year of this original calculation), the yield would only be 3.707%. (don’t try to do the math using the $55k dividend income above to reverse engineer our portfolio size, the income number included index funds which aren’t included in this 2014 yield calculation)

By 2018, my yield would only be around 4.58% because I added to the portfolio. But if you bought the same exact basket of stocks, the yield would be only 2.26%. The spread has gotten bigger, since my older holdings, with a much lower cost basis, now have much higher yields.

One of my oldest holdings, and one I haven’t added to, is Verizon. Last year, my yield was 8.6% and more than double what you’d get if you bought the same number of shares today (4.03%).

OK, part of the difference has been the gains in the stock market but the rest has to do with how much you benefit from investing in companies that increase dividends every year. When you find companies that consistently increase their dividend and do so at a rate greater than inflation, your yield is sure to improve.

Dividend growth FTW!

Maybe one day that number will be 40% like the Oracle of Omaha. 🙂

Are you a dividend investor?

What is your process and approach?

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  1. Norman says

    This is exactly the reason I like dividend stocks! A lot of people don’t see that increasing dividends can drive up your effective dividend yield, like it did for Buffett’s KO investment. I know you were looking at specific stocks, but have you heard of VYM? It’s a diversified Vanguard dividend fund that’s yielding over 3% right now.

    • Jim says

      Yes I have, it’s the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF, which is the ETF version of Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index Fund (VHDYX).

  2. Dom @ Gen Y Finance Guy says

    Jim – You have a very impressive portfolio.

    If I do the math based on your 5.623%, that implies that the size of your dividend portfolio is approx. $1M.

    You also mention that this is only about 30% of your stock market investment portfolio, which would imply that you total stock portfolio is approx. $3.3M.

    My question is how did you land on the 70/30 split of index vs. individual stock dividends?

    BTW, that annual letter from Buffet was a great read. Awesome to hear so much optimism from Warren…especially the part where he says “that for 240 years it has been a bad bet to bet against America,” or something to that effect.



    • Jim says

      The math doesn’t work out nearly that well only because I get dividends from a lot of the Vanguard index funds, which didn’t go into that 5.623% calculation. That said, we do have a lot of investments so sometimes the day to day gyrations can really affect our financials… if I looked day to day. 🙂

      The split was mostly unintentional, I was more interested in the split of equities vs. bonds and that was really just me buying dividend funds as they were appealing and then adjusting bonds and rebalancing with index funds.

      His letters are great, the 2015 one just came out this past weekend.

  3. Dave @ Financial Slacker says


    Helpful insight into your methodology.

    What are your thoughts on other income generating instruments as compared to dividend yielding stocks? Specifically, high yield bonds and preferred stock.


    • Jim says

      I think they’d good but I’ve done less research about them. I think the biggest risk with high yield bonds is that you suffer when interest rates go up. If you hold a stock, you have the stock price to help you along. You don’t get that with bonds. You also have default risk, especially with the junkier bonds, and so that’s a lot of balls to juggle at once… but it’s certainly doable. It’s just not as much fun as dividend stocks so I opted to look at dividend stocks first – and never left. 🙂

      Preferred stock wasn’t appealing to me for a couple reasons. First, it’s not as liquid as common and second, it can get called back.

  4. Ally says

    Great insights! What investing vehicle is best for holding the dividend producing portfolio? If in taxable accounts, qualified dividends get taxed at lower capital gains rates, but are subject to the 3.8% super tax.

    • Jim says

      We invest in our taxable accounts and we aren’t subject to the 3.8% net investment income tax because our AGI is under the threshold amount ($250,000 for married filing jointly).

      Even if you had to pay the 3.8%, it’s still less than ordinary income. 🙂

  5. Lazy Man and Money says

    It sounds like this is a lot to keep up with. To diversify, I’d think you’d want to have at least 10 companies… and then you have to follow them to make sure they don’t cut their dividend.

    Did you look at Dividend Aristocrat ETFs such as NOBL and High-Yield ETFs like SDY? If so, I’m curious what you think of them or whether they are similar to the Vanguard one you mentioned.

    • Jim says

      I never looked at them in part because I wanted those that also had high growth too, not all Dividend Aristocrats come with 3%+ dividend growth. With the ETFs, I don’t know if I want to pick up the lower growth ones to get simplicity. Part of this was because I wanted to scratch that stock picking itch too… 🙂

      It’s actually not that hard to keep up with because dividend changes only happen once a year, unless something (usually bad) is happening.

      • Lazy Man and Money says

        Fair enough… can I sneak in a plug in for IBM (which I own a very small stake in)… solid yield and small P/E.

        Hoping for growth once they finish with the multi-year business re-org. I have high hopes for Watson if it doesn’t get Google’d.

    • Jim says

      Thanks for sharing the article – I think this year’s stock market returns will be muted but dividends always pay!

  6. Syed says

    Great primer on dividend investing. I’ve been looking into getting into this as soon as I’m able to max out my 401k and Roth, which should be this year. I do also have a stock ppicking itch and I think this is a great way to scratch it!

    Quick question, you said you don’t immediately reinvest the dividends. Do you just hold them in a savings account and buy shares when you see a good deal? Why wouldn’t you do automatic reinvestment of dividends?


    • Jim says

      I don’t because every time you reinvest, it’s a new position. So when you sell, it’s another thing to keep track of. 🙂 I’d just rather reinvest when I find a good opportunity.

      • James says

        Just curious for a little more insight on reinvesting. What do you mean it creates a new position? Fairly new to investing but if for example I had an etf and set up automatic reinvesting wouldn’t my long term goal be to achieve compound growth? Which would lead to more returns. Just wanted to hear your thoughts, awesome read thank you.

        • Jim Wang says

          When the brokerage reinvests your dividends, they are just taking the money and buying shares. They do it so you don’t have to, which is good, but it’s a new position.

          Let’s say you had 100 shares of Company X that you bought for $5 last year. They are currently at $10 and they issued a 10% dividend, or $1 a share. You get $100 of cash that the brokerage would buy 10 shares of the stock (let’s ignore price changes for simplicity, the shares would usually drop to $9 immediately but that’s not the point of this example).

          You now have 100 shares of Company X with a cost basis of $5 per share that you bought last year.
          You also have 10 shares of Company X with a cost basis of $10 per share that you bought just now. Two positions.

          The headache comes because it’s usually not that clean. When I automatically reinvested, I had like 2.7 shares and 5.7 shares of whatever companies every quarter. 🙂

  7. Shaun says

    Good article. I also love dividend paying companies. My favorite dividend stock, which you don’t seem to own, is Realty Income (O). It’s a REIT and pays dividends monthly. It has paid for 545+ consecutive months, increased their dividend for 72 consecutive quarters, and have never decreased their dividend in the company’s 45+ year history. I love the stock!

    • Jim says

      I don’t own it, I’m not into REITs at the moment but I’ve heard about Realty Income before, looks promising.

  8. George Mathew says


    Interesting and very thoughtful article. Wanted to know your thoughts on motif investing’s High Yield Dividend Motif. Thought their motif stock picking was very similar to your approach. I do like the fact that I can buy a basket of stocks for a flat price of $9.95.



    • Jim says

      Hi George – I’ve only briefly looked at Motif but I like the idea of it. I like a lot of ideas though, so it comes down to execution, right? 🙂

      Being able to buy a basket of ten high yield stocks for $9.95 (plus free rebalancing, which is a nice touch) is actually quite appealing. If you like the mix, the transaction cost is about what you’d pay for two trades at a discount broker like TradeKing ($4.95 a trade) and you get ten. Plus free rebalancing.

      The only reservation I’d have is that I’d need to believe in all ten of these stocks and it’d be nice if they had more data on the motif screen itself. The individual stock pages has more data, not all the data I’d like to see (dividend growth rate the last 5 and 10 years would be nice), and I’d love to see the dividend yield updated on a more regular basis (4.6% is based on 10/8/2013 — which is way too long ago). Based on current yields today, the Motif yields 5.2%.

    • Jim says

      I don’t really want to list them all out but it’s a lot of names I’m sure you’re familiar with. 🙂

  9. JT says

    So the secret to creating a great Dividend portfolio is start with a few million dollars of investment capital? 🙂

    Ok, Donald Trump Jr.

    Any thoughts on SDIV?

    • Jim Wang says

      The secret in creating a big dividend portfolio is to start with a few million in investment capital, but you can build a great one without it. You have access to the same set of tools. SDIV seems fine except for the 0.58% management fee though you get 100 of the highest dividend yielding securities for a 12-month yield of 7.38%. You are, however, giving up some NAV growth compared to some other dividend funds. Nothing strikes me as extremely good or bad about it but I only did a perfunctory look.

      • JT says

        So $1M position will give you approx. $72,000 annually. Of course the market may go up or down so you need to be able to stomach the fluctuations.

        My portfolio is 70% in cash right now and trying to figure out what to do with the cash.
        What percentage would say makes sense to put toward a dividend portfolio. I was thinking maybe 60% dividend stocks (long term), 20% active trading, 20% cash.

        Do you have any guidelines for this?

  10. Buy, Hold Long says

    For me portfolios are here for the long run. I am not too concerned about the day to day interactions of the share market. I want to see long term results, that is why I have started so young as I want to see the best returns possible.

  11. Wallet Squirrel says

    Hey Jim, I’m a dividend investor and very much agree with your approach. I follow a similiar style of Warren Buffet’s and stick with companies I understand how they make money and out of those companies which have been around the last 25 years. The longer the better because as a Dividend Investor you really need to be prepared to set it and forget it.

    I also really like your comment about if you’re not willing to wait it out for 5 years, don’t put your money in the stock market. I have a dividend portfolio that has ranged from 4% profit to 18%. They do fluctuate.

    You can see everything on my site, but just wanted to say awesome advice and great job with the 55k dividend income stream. I’m only at sub $300, but I’m catching up. =)

    • Jim Wang says

      Hey Wallet Squirrel! The 5 year rule is an easy rule for me to remember and one that works well – though I’ve never been put to the test!

      The dividends do fluctuate, I think dividend investing is great and more people should get into it!

  12. Jack Foley says

    Excellent post,

    many investors are not decisive enough when selling their stock. AS you say when a vehicle stops giving you the premium you want, ditch it and move on.. Its all about the re balancing..

  13. Dividend Driven says

    Congrats on your dividend growth portfolio. I like that you have both Funds and individual stocks. Currently I have a set of ETFs that focus on dividends that I’m using as my foundation. I will buy individual stocks again starting this month. Long term you will win with a dividend growth strategy.

  14. Craig says

    I have been evaluating this because it is really tempting from a psychological standpoint. That is you get income each year without selling any shares. That is a good feeling. However, I keep going back to the idea of doing the same with mutual funds, such as S&P 500 and NASDAQ 100. You could set these up to automatically distribute income each year or month. They in turn would sell the right amount of shares to reach the income you need. If you compare the growth of the S&P , and especially the NASDAQ 100 most dividend stocks don’t beat it. Coke is an example for the last 10 years.

    For the dividend method you mention to be superior you have to pick dividend payers that will have a total return that outpaces the tow index funds mentioned. And, one nice with buying the index funds, you don’t really have to even think.

    However, when you reach retirement, it would feel good to have the income you need without any shares of stock.

    • Jim Wang says

      Many mutual funds also will have disbursements. For example, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX) has an SEC yield of 1.68%. That is the “theoretical yield” based on the last 30 days for a stock fund. There are S&P 500 stocks that distribute dividends and since that fund holds those stocks, the fund will distribute those dividends too.

      You can also just plan to sell stock but that potentially comes with a short-term capital gain if you purchased those shares in the fund within the last year. Qualified dividend rules are much laxer (60 days during the 121-day period around the ex-dividend date).

      The appeal of dividends is the cashflow and the favorable tax treatment of those disbursements, so you’re right you have to pick right and accept the tradeoff. Dividends are just one way of extracting value from the company without selling physical shares, but it is still equity leaving the company.

  15. Angel says

    Hello Jim,
    Congrats on doing what many of us dream to do one day. To tell you the truth, I do not know anything about investing and I just got married 3 years ago but do have goals of improving our financial situation for the future. With that said, my wife and I have been able to save what I would call a substantial amount of money compared to the average savings. I do know that money sitting in the bank is no bueno, and I just wanted to ask, if you had any advice for us as far as how to invest our money, how should we start investing our money. We do not need it in the next 5 to 10 years and by doing some research the stock market sounds like a good option. Do you have any word of advice for us??

  16. Paul says

    Great read. Have you ever attempted to write far out of the money calls on your dividend stocks to generate yet even more income? (Far enough out so you could safely avoid assignment) Love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Jim Wang says

      I have not but when I looked into it, what I’d earn for those calls seemed so small. And I didn’t want to risk losing the shares, they’re really really nice to have right now. 🙂

  17. Jeff says

    Great read Jim. I’m 52 and just announced my retirement for this year (Sept.) I’ve been trading and investing these markets since 89 or so and am looking to my next phase and have been slowly rebalancing … but it’s painful to take capital gains just to rebalance for more safety. Like you I have a few different accounts. A One Year Account which is all cash, a 2-7 year account which is 40/60 equity to fixed income and an 8+ which will be 60/40 or 65/35. The interesting thing about my situation is that my pre-retirement accounts are twice the balance of my retirement (IRA/401k) accounts. These three accounts I call my “Bridge Fund” to bridge my income for about 18 years (or longer) I’m a little more aggressive on the near side and a little more conservative on the longer end as I don’t expect to touch any of my retirement accounts until I need to do RMDs at 70.5. But even on the 2-7 account, my holdings are very dividend oriented and low risk.

    In any event, I’m trying to do another round of rebalancing on my 8+ account to bring down the stock exposure but waffling on whether to just go low growth div stocks or keep building up my fixed income (VCSH, AGG, etc.). I’m about 10% overweight in equities right now in that account and having a hard time being okay with just more fixed income for an 8+ year account.

    Your thoughts?

    • Jim Wang says

      Hmmm to be honest, this is a little out of my depth and expertise but if I were looking at my own portfolio configured in this way, I’d rebalance to the allocation that fits with your plan regardless of it being more fixed income in your 8+ account. The goal is to make it last, not accumulate as much as you can, and given that we’ve had such a good run, it’s not a bad time to bank that.

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