Social Security's maximum benefit is $3,895 in 2021, but you are probably going to get less than half that amount.

While this might be discouraging, it's important to understand how difficult it is to earn the maximum benefit. And knowing how it's determined matters in order to make an accurate estimate of how much retirement income your own benefit will provide you.

Here's how your Social Security benefit is likely to stack up. 

Older adults reviewing paperwork with financial advisor.

Image source: Getty Images.

Why your benefit probably won't be anywhere near $3,895 

In order to receive the maximum Social Security benefit, there are two things you need to do:

  • Earn the maximum taxable earnings each year for at least 35 years.
  • Wait to claim Social Security benefits until 70.

Failing to do either means you'll get less than the maximum. And the vast majority of people fail to do both.

That's because the maximum taxable earnings each year are very high. In 2021, for example, workers pay Social Security tax on income up to $142,800. In 2020, they paid the tax on income up to $137,700. Any income above this isn't subject to Social Security tax and doesn't go on your earnings record for purposes of determining your benefit. 

That amount is ultimately based on the wages you were taxed on during the 35 years that you earned the most. So, to get the maximum benefit available, you would need to have earned the maximum taxable earnings for at least 35 years. As you can see from the numbers above, the maximum taxable earnings are well above what most people make.

With the median income being $51,480 as of the second quarter of 2021, you'd need to earn more than double what the typical American earns to be on track to get the maximum benefit.

Then, after earning a very high salary for at least 35 years, you'd also need to wait until 70 to claim benefits to get the largest possible amount. That's because you not only need to maximize your earnings over your entire career but you also need to earn the most possible delayed retirement credits, which can be accumulated through age 70 and allow you to raise the size of your benefits by two-thirds of 1% per month. 

Most people, however, can't wait until 70 to start getting Social Security because they must retire earlier and claim benefit checks to make retirement financially feasible. If you need to claim your benefits prior to 70, you wouldn't get the absolute max even if you had 35 years of top earnings. 

How much your will your benefit be? 

So, if you won't get $3,895 in monthly benefits, how much will you get? It varies depending on many factors, including what you do earn as well as how long you work and when you start your checks.

If you sign into your mySocialSecurity account, you can get a good idea of what your benefit will be, although it's estimated based on current earnings, so it could change if your wages rise or fall dramatically.

But the key thing to remember is, with the average Social Security benefit coming in at just $1,544 this year, you should realistically expect your number to be well below $3,895, unless you've consistently been one of the country's top earners.