The maximum monthly Social Security benefit in 2022 is $4,194. So will you get this generous payment each month after you retire?

Here's what you need to know in order to determine your eligibility.

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How much money did you make over the course of your career? 

The maximum $4,194 monthly benefit is available only to people who earned above a certain amount of money for at least 35 years. 

There's a "wage base limit" that applies to Social Security each year. Income below the limit is all subject to Social Security taxes and all of it counts toward determining how big your benefit checks will be. But income above it is not taxed and does not count. 

Since benefits are based on average wages, the highest possible benefit is determined based on what the wage base limit is. And your own benefit is based on how your earnings compared to it.  

In 2022, the wage base limit is $147,000. This limit is adjusted periodically due to inflation, so it's always the equivalent of that amount. If you don't earn at least that amount -- or the inflation-adjusted equivalent -- for 35 years, then you can't get the $4,194 benefit. 

How old will you be when you claim Social Security benefits? 

The maximum $4,194 benefit is also available only to people who max out their delayed retirement credits.

See, you can max out your wages every year by earning at least the wage base limit and this will put you on track for the highest possible benefit. But if you claim Social Security before the age of 70, you will not get the maximum monthly Social Security income. If you claimed at full retirement age, for example, the maximum monthly benefit is $3,345 in 2022.

Your earnings over your career determine your standard benefit available at full retirement age (FRA). But you can shrink your checks relative to your standard benefit if you claim them before FRA and increase them if you claim them after -- but only until age 70.

So, to get the maximum monthly benefit, you need:

  • The highest average wage available to max out the standard benefit you'd get at full retirement age (which you'd have only if your earnings equaled or exceeded the wage base limit for 35 or more years).
  • To increase that standard benefit as much as possible by waiting until 70 to claim your first Social Security payment. 

Accomplishing both of these things is going to be difficult for most people. The typical person does not earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $147,000 for 35 years. And the typical person does not wait until age 70 to claim Social Security.

But you can still try to increase your earnings and put off your retirement benefits claim if you want to get the largest benefit that's feasible in your particular situation. 

By coming to terms now that your benefit is also probably going to be well below $4,194, you can also ensure you have a realistic perception of what Social Security will provide. This will enable you to set aside supplementary savings.

The average benefit is $1,661 in 2022, so odds are good your retirement income from this source will be much more modest than the $4,194 max available.