The maximum Social Security benefit a retiree can receive in 2021 is $3,895. That's well above the average benefit of $1,553. Both the maximum and average benefits go up most years.
Sadly, most people don't have a chance at the largest benefit check. To get it, your earnings need to meet or exceed a certain income amount — and not just for one year but for 35 years.
So how much do you need to earn to score the maximum benefit when you retire?
Your income would need to be at least this much
In order to get the maximum Social Security benefit, you must earn an annual income that equals or exceeds the “wage base limit.” The wage base limit is the maximum amount of money subject to Social Security tax. Anything you earn that exceeds it won't be able to raise your benefit.
In 2021, the wage base limit is $142,800. That means you'd need to earn at least that much to be on track to get the maximum Social Security benefit. But you wouldn't just need to earn $142,800 this year. You would need your earnings to meet or exceed the wage base limit every year for 35 years.
The table below shows how much you'd have had to earn in recent years if your goal is to get the largest Social Security check available.
Wage Base Limit
Why do you need to earn so much to max out your Social Security benefits?
To understand why your earnings must be so high in order to get the maximum benefit, let's take a step back and look at how Social Security benefits are calculated. Here's how the formula works:
Social Security calculates your average wages in the 35 years your earnings were the highest (after adjusting for wage growth over time).
Your benefits equal a percentage of your average wages in those 35 years.
That's why your earnings need to equal or exceed the wage base limit for a full 35 years or longer. If they don't, you'll have an average wage that's below the maximum, and your benefits will be below it as well.
What if you earn more than you need to?
If your earnings exceed the wage base limit, the extra money isn't subject to Social Security tax, and it doesn't help you to earn a bigger benefit. That's why people who make millions of dollars a year still get the same max benefit as someone who makes closer to $150,000.
Will you max out your Social Security benefits?
The reality is most people aren't going to have earnings equal to or above the wage base limit over a full 35-year career. That would mean starting out at a high salary and staying there for decades.
But the good news is that there are other ways to maximize your personal benefits, even if you can't earn the largest possible amount. These include raising your income as high as you can, making sure to work at least 35 years, or delaying claiming Social Security as long as possible (until age 70) so you can earn delayed retirement credits that boost the size of your checks.
Remember, though, that Social Security is designed to replace only around 40% of income — so even if you max out your benefits, it's helpful to have other retirement income sources to live a comfortable life in your later years.
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