In 2021, the maximum Social Security benefit is $3,895. That would provide an annual retirement income of $46,740 just from that program alone.
Unfortunately, you probably aren't eligible to get the maximum benefit. Here's why.
The highest benefit is available only in this case
To get the maximum benefit, you have to do two things:
Earn the maximum in taxable Social Security wages for at least 35 years.
Wait to claim benefits until age 70.
The maximum taxable Social Security wage changes from year to year. In 2021, it's $142,800. So to earn the maximum benefit, you'd need to earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $142,800 every year for at least 35 years.
The number of years matters because Social Security bases benefits on average wages in the 35 years your earnings were highest. If you have even a single year when you don't have the maximum taxable earnings, you won't get the maximum benefit.
Claiming at 70 is also important because waiting to start your checks until that time enables you to earn delayed retirement credits. These raise the size of your benefit check for each month that you wait to file for benefits between your full retirement age and age 70.
Why is it so hard to do?
It's hard to earn the maximum benefit because you have to earn a lot of money to do so.
According to the Social Security Administration, only around 6% of people per year earn up to the wage base limit. If you're not among that small minority every year for 35 years, you aren't going to get the maximum possible benefit.
Most people also have to claim Social Security long before age 70 since it's often not possible to retire without this source of income. Working until 70 can be difficult for health reasons, or because of a lack of job opportunities. If you have to claim Social Security before 70, you'll lose your chance to get the maximum monthly benefit.
Why is there a maximum benefit?
There's a maximum monthly Social Security benefit because of the way the program was designed.
Workers pay taxes that go toward paying Social Security benefits for current recipients. In return, their earnings history gives them credit for the wages they're taxed on. But for some people with very high incomes, average benefits would be extremely high if they were taxed on all that they earned.
To make sure that doesn't happen, there's a cap on the amount of wages that are taxable. Anything earned above that limit (which is the wage base limit mentioned above) will not count toward Social Security benefits.
So for 2021, it doesn't matter if you earn $142,801 or $550,000 or $10 million — you'd still pay Social Security payroll taxes only on $142,800 in income, and only that amount would count toward determining your benefits in the future.
How much can you expect from Social Security?
So if you won't qualify for the maximum Social Security benefit, how much can you expect? It depends on what your earnings are over your career, but you can get an estimate by signing into your online account at mySocialSecurity.gov.
You might find that your benefit is lower than expected, because Social Security is designed to replace only 40% of pre-retirement income. It's better to know that sooner rather than later, though, because you can plan accordingly when setting your retirement goals.
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