Social Security’s maximum benefit in 2021 is a generous $3,895 per month. Receiving a whopping $46,740 in monthly retirement benefits would be a dream come true for many people as this money, when combined with savings, could easily provide a comfortable lifestyle.
But are you on track to get the maximum benefit? There’s three key factors that can help you determine if you’re on pace to earn the largest checks the Social Security benefits program offers.
1. How long are you planning to work?
Social Security benefits are based on a percentage of average wages after adjusting for inflation. Your average wage is calculated based on your 35 highest earning years. You will need to work at least 35 full years to get the maximum Social Security benefit.
Working for any less than this period of time would result in some years of $0 wages, reducing the average wage your benefit is based on.
You can’t afford to do anything that would reduce your average wage if you want the maximum benefit.
2. What is your income?
How much are you earning? That’s the second big question that determines if you’re on track for the maximum Social Security benefit.
Remember, you must have the highest possible average wage to get the maximum Social Security benefit. The maximum wage that counts toward your benefits each year is called the wage base limit. Any income earned above it won’t be taxed or raise your benefit amount.
The table below shows what the maximum countable earnings have been for each year going back to 1987. Your income can’t fall short of this maximum for even one of the 35 years that count in your average wage.
If you’ve had a lower earnings year earlier on, you can choose to work for more than 35 years. If your 36th year (or any subsequent years) equals or exceeds the wage base limit for that year and pushes out a year when you didn’t hit the limit, you could still max out your checks.
3. When do you plan to start your Social Security checks?
If you earn the maximum average wage for 35 years, you still have one more thing to do.
You have to wait until 70 to claim benefits in order to maximize them. If you claim before 70, you won’t get the largest checks possible because you’ll be hit with early-filing penalties (assessed before your full retirement age — FRA) and/or will miss out on delayed retirement credits (awarded after FRA).
Unfortunately, it can be hard to work long enough; earn enough; and delay long enough to get your maximum benefit. But if you can do it, your Social Security income will be substantial as a retiree.
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