Social Security helps tens of millions of Americans get the money they need in retirement, but there's only so much that the program can do. Social Security has a maximum amount that it can pay to retirees based on their work histories. However, that figure tends to go up from year to year, and Social Security recipients recently got the good news that the maximum Social Security benefit in 2018 will go up to $2,788 per month for a worker retiring at full retirement age. That's higher by $101 compared to what it was last year. However, depending on when you claim your benefits, your actual maximum will range from as low as $2,159 to as much as $3,698 monthly. Let's look more closely at the steps you need to take to get the maximum Social Security benefit and what you can do to get closer to that amount for your own retirement.

What's involved in getting the maximum Social Security benefit

Each year, you can see how the Social Security Administration goes through the calculations for figuring out the maximum that Social Security will pay to retirees who take their benefits at different ages. To figure out the payment, the SSA makes assumptions. A worker must earn the maximum possible wage base since they turned 22 years old. As a result, every worker in the examples will have a 35-year work history, which gives workers maximum credit for their work history, even if they retire as early as age 62.

Blue Social Security card mixed into a pile of $20, $50, and $100 bills.

Image source: Getty Images.

Then, the SSA makes adjustments based on the claiming age. For those who retire at 62, reductions of as much as 25% apply to those whose full retirement age was 66. By contrast, if you wait until age 70, you can get delayed retirement credits of 8% per year, resulting in a 32% higher payout if you wait four extra years from 66 to 70.

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 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.

Year Retired

Maximum at Age 62

Maximum at Age 66

Maximum at Age 70













Data source: SSA. Reflects initial payment amounts in year of retirement.

As you can see above, the maximum Social Security amount tends to go up, but it doesn't always do so. In particular, the slow rise in full retirement age from 66 to 67 that's happening now and will continue to phase in over the next few years will have a potential impact on benefits, especially for those who claim early. Other factors such as changes in the maximum wage base on which Social Security payroll taxes are charged can also lead to fluctuations in figures from year to year.

Why your maximum Social Security benefit will go up in the future

Social Security recipients also have to keep in mind that whatever they get in benefits will rise with inflation. For example, those who retired at age 66 in 2016 with the maximum benefit got $2,639 that year. For 2018, however, they'll get $2,700 in monthly benefits because of the cost-of-living adjustments that have been made for two years running.

Those COLA increases haven't been huge, with 2018's 2% rise being the largest in more than five years. Yet over time, they help your retirement benefits keep up with the loss in purchasing power of the U.S. dollar.

Get closer to the max

If you want the maximum possible Social Security check, you have to max out earnings for a 35-year career. That's hard to do, especially since it takes a $128,700 salary just for 2018.

Still, two things can help you boost the size of your check. First, if you haven't yet worked 35 years, consider delaying retirement. The SSA fills in years short of the 35-year mark with $0 figures for purposes of calculating average earnings, and each $0 can hurt you. Also, if you put off taking your benefits, then you can boost the size of those monthly benefits, putting you closer to the figures on the right side of the chart above.

If you can't max out your Social Security benefits, you're not alone. But by seeing the maximum amount as an aspirational goal, you can do your best to get as close as possible to that figure while ensuring a secure and prosperous retirement.

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