This article was updated on Dec. 20, 2017.
Social Security does an excellent job of replacing a substantial portion of American workers' pre-retirement income, and they all want as much as they can get from the program. In 2017, the maximum Social Security benefit depends on when the recipient files for benefits. Those who are eligible for the maximum amount will receive $2,153 per month if they file at the earliest possible age of 62. Their benefits will rise for every month they delay Social Security, up until age 70, when their monthly check will max out at $3,538 per month. In the future, those maximums will go up, with 2018's maximum climbing to $3,698 per month.
Let's go through what it takes to get the maximum Social Security benefit and how you can get as close as possible to that amount.
How to get the maximum Social Security benefit
Each year, the Social Security Administration calculates the maximum Social Security benefit available to retirees of various ages. In calculating the appropriate number, the SSA assumes that a worker has earned the maximum wage base limit through a career that began at age 22. That ensures that each worker has at least a 35-year work history regardless of whether that worker chooses to retire early at age 62, wait until full retirement age, or delay further until age 70 before taking benefits.
From there, the SSA then applies whatever adjustment to monthly benefits is necessary to reflect claiming decisions at different ages. The formula for calculating benefits requires a reduction in benefits for those who retire early at age 62 or 65, while those who retire at age 66 get full benefits. Those who wait until age 70 get delayed-retirement credits of up to 32%, which explains the higher monthly amount.
The maximum Social Security amount has generally risen over time. That's because the wage base limit tends to rise from year to year, increasing the amount of payroll tax that workers pay and also boosting the amount of eligible benefits that are included in work histories for high-income earners. However, those increases tend to be relatively modest, and in some years -- like 2016, for those who retire at age 66 -- the maximum can actually drop from the previous year's figure.
How inflation keeps your maximum Social Security benefit rising over time
The other thing the preceding chart shows is how inflation-driven cost-of-living adjustments will boost Social Security benefits in the future, even if you're already making the current maximum. For instance, look at 2007. In that year, if you had retired at age 66, you would have received a maximum of $2,188 per month. That's almost $500 less than this year's corresponding figure.
However, over that 10-year time frame, Social Security recipients have received cost-of-living adjustments. Those increases haven't been huge, and in some years, they haven't happened at all. However, the sum total of the cost-of-living adjustments has added almost $400 to monthly benefits over that span of time. As a result, those who retired at age 66 a decade ago receive only about $100 less than someone retiring right now at age 66.
2 ways to get more from Social Security
So how can you claim the maximum Social Security amount? Theoretically, it takes maximum earnings for 35 years to get the exact figures in the chart. That's a tough task even for people who have the potential to earn a lot, because most of the time, those who are just starting out have a period during which they earn less than Social Security's maximum wage base -- $127,200 for 2017 -- before earning raises to join top income-earners.
Nevertheless, there are two things you can do generally to get more from Social Security. First, earning as much as you can, for as long as you can, is a good way to increase your monthly benefit check, especially if you haven't yet worked the full 35 years that the SSA considers. Second, delaying Social Security if possible will boost your monthly check. It comes at the expense of missing out on early years of benefit payments, though, so you'll want to be aware of that trade-off when you make your final decision.
Most Americans won't be able to get to the maximum Social Security benefit amount based on their work histories. However, by knowing how one could get there, you'll have a better understanding of what you'll receive when you retire and how you can raise that monthly benefit. Moreover, as long as wage base limits rise, the maximum Social Security benefit is likely to keep rising over time in order to meet the needs of retirees.