You'll often hear that retiring on Social Security alone could mean winding up cash-strapped as a senior. But that assumes you aren't getting the maximum monthly $4,194 benefit.

If that's the sum you're entitled to, it means Social Security could end up providing you with over $50,000 of annual income. And if you're the type who knows how to live frugally, you might manage just fine on an income like that.

A person at a desk in an office.

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But most seniors are not, in fact, able to claim a monthly Social Security benefit of $4,194 -- not even close. And if snagging the maximum monthly benefit is a goal of yours, you'll need to commit to it well ahead of retirement -- and hope the stars align in your favor.

The maximum Social Security benefit isn't easy to qualify for

There are three specific things you'll need to do in order to claim the maximum monthly Social Security benefit:

  • Work at least 35 years
  • Earn a high enough salary to hit the annual Social Security wage cap for 35 years
  • File for Social Security at age 70

Some of these things are easier to do than others. If your health cooperates, you might manage to put in a full 35 years in the workforce. This holds true even if you end up taking a few years off, whether to raise children or for another reason.

Similarly, as long as you end up in a position where you can work until age 70 or tap other income sources, delaying your filing until that point may be doable. And claiming benefits at age 70 means locking in the highest monthly Social Security payday you're eligible for (assuming you're claiming a benefit based on your own earnings record).

But it's the middle step that's a bit harder to make good on. You can work your hardest, put in extra hours, and strive to be the best employee your company has ever seen. But if you're not in a particularly lucrative field, you might struggle to earn enough to meet the annual Social Security wage cap.

Each year, there's a wage cap put in place that determines how much income is taxed for Social Security purposes and how much income counts toward calculating your future Social Security benefit. This year, the wage cap sits at $147,000. Last year, it was a little bit lower, and next year, it's likely to rise.

Earning the equivalent of the yearly wage cap may not be possible if your career isn't conducive to really high wages. So even if you commit to working for a full 35 years and also delay your filing until age 70, you might still end up falling short of the maximum monthly benefit.

That, however, doesn't have to be a source of stress or disappointment for you. Most seniors don't get anything close to $4,194 a month from Social Security. And if you do your part to build a solid nest egg, you might manage just fine during retirement on a monthly benefit that's half as large.

Similarly, if you're able to budget carefully and prioritize the things you splurge on as a retiree, you may find that you're able to get by on less income than expected. Rather than worry about setting yourself up for the maximum monthly Social Security benefit, you may instead want to map out a savings strategy and figure out a way to live comfortably as a senior without spending a fortune.