Most of us have 401(k) plans invested in a limited slate of predefined mutual funds. But for those of us willing to take the extra steps of opening a brokerage account and investing in stocks, there's more to be had than just the promise of better investment returns.
Some of America's best-known names also offer perks to their shareholders -- and not just big-money shareholders, either, but anyone who picks up even just a few shares of the company's stock.
In years past, Starbucks (SBUX) sent gift cards to shareholders with annual reports, while Walt Disney (DIS) used to offer investors free entry into a benefits-laden affinity program it called the Magic Kingdom Club. Both perks have since gone away as companies cut down on excesses in the name of a recession-induced quest for efficiency.
Still, there are plenty of perks to be had at some big-name companies. Here's a closer look at some of the best:
1. Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) (BRK-B): Warren Buffett's holding company offers shareholders traveling to its May annual meeting a slew of benefits, including discounted auto insurance quotes from its GEICO subsidiary. There's also the intangible yet timeless benefit of experiencing live the wit and wisdom of Buffett and investing partner Charlie Munger.
2. Carnival (CCL) and Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL): Both operators offer shareholders onboard benefits indexed to the amount of time they spend at sea. Sail six nights or less with Carnival and you'll get a $50 credit during the trip. Royal Caribbean offers the same perk for five nights or less. The benefits get bigger as trips go longer; both companies hand out $250 for a two-week cruise.
3. Churchill Downs (CHDN): Those who own at least 100 shares get two complimentary passes annually to any of the company's races, and that includes the Kentucky Derby. Just don't expect champagne cocktails in the front row. The passes are for general admission seating only. Reserved seats go to those willing to spend big enough to get them.
4. Ford (F): Buy 100 shares of Ford stock and hold them for six months, and you can apply to join the company's X-Plan for discounted pricing on its vehicles. Think of it as employee pricing extended to owners. It's a good deal, to be sure, but you might be able to do even better with a little extra research and by employing a smart haggling strategy.
5. IBM (IBM): Although IBM sold its PC division to China's Lenovo years ago, those who still own Big Blue stock get access to discounts on equipment. Prices vary and you'll need to create your own shareholder-specific account to go shopping, but the effort could prove worth it if you're in need of an upgrade.
Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway, IBM, and Walt Disney at the time of publication. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor, Starbucks, International Business Machines, and Berkshire Hathaway. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Starbucks, Berkshire Hathaway, Ford Motor, and Walt Disney; creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor; and writing covered calls on Starbucks.