Although it should not be your only source of income in retirement, Social Security benefits will be an important contributor, replacing about 40% of preretirement income, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Because chances are good you'll need Social Security to help you cover costs as a senior, it's natural to wonder what -- if anything -- you can do to increase your benefits.

One common question many future retirees have is how long to work to max out Social Security benefits. The short answer is that you need to work at least 35 years, because the SSA bases your benefit on your average wages over 35 years. If you work for fewer than 35 years, your average wage will be brought down because some years of $0 wages will be factored in. However, there's even more to consider. Some of the factors that can affect your Social Security benefit include:

  • The total number of years you work
  • Your salary over your working years
  • The age at which you retire

If you feel overwhelmed by so many abstract concepts, check out the detailed example below, which breaks down a full example calculation.

Calendar with pages ruffling in a breeze.

Image source: Getty Images.

How long do I have to work to max out my Social Security?

The Social Security Administration has a formula in place to determine your primary insurance amount (PIA) -- this is the amount you would receive when you retire at a specific age called your full retirement age (FRA). Retiring before FRA would reduce your benefit below PIA, but retiring after that age would increase it.

The Social Security benefits formula to figure out your PIA requires first calculating your average wages in the 35 years when you earn the most after adjusting those wages to account for inflation, or what the SSA calls "wage growth." To figure out your average monthly wage, the SSA adds up the inflation-adjusted wages you earned over the 35 years you earned the most money and divides by 420 (the number of months in a 35-year working period). This calculation provides your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME).

Unfortunately, your AIME is not what you would receive each month in retirement. After all, Social Security benefits aren't designed to replace your whole salary. Instead, you get a percentage of what you earned -- with lower-income workers receiving a larger percentage. To make sure lower earners have enough income in retirement, the formula used to determine your primary insurance amount gives you benefits equal to:

  • 90% of AIME to a first income threshold called a bend point. Bend points are set in the year you turn 62.
  • 32% of AIME between a first and second bend point
  • 15% of AIME above the second bend point

The percentages never change, although the bend points do. Therefore, a higher AIME will always lead to a higher Social Security benefit.

Unfortunately, if you work fewer than 35 years, the Social Security Administration still calculates your average wages by adding up what you earned in all the years you did work and dividing by 420. So when you have some years of $0 wages factored into that AIME calculation, the entire average is dragged down. And the more years of $0 earnings, the lower your AIME will be. That's why, to maximize your Social Security benefits, it's important to work for at least 35 full years.

Could I increase my benefits by working more than 35 years?

As mentioned above, while the simple answer is that you need to work 35 years to max out your Social Security benefits, there's more to consider.

One of the big considerations: Your salary will probably go up as you get older and develop more professional experience. As a result, there's an argument to be made that you could max out your benefits by working more than 35 years if you earn more at the end of your career than at the beginning, since the formula is based on your 35 highest-earning years.

The Social Security Administration adjusts wages from past years using the National Average Wage Index to account for wage growth. Say, for example, that you earned an index-adjusted wage of just $8,000 a year during your first four years of work because you were only working part time. Now, at the end of your career, you've moved way up the corporate ladder and are making $95,000 per year.

If you work exactly 35 years and then stop, those years at the beginning when your index-adjusted wage is really low would have to count toward your average. But if you work an extra four years at $95,000, your four lowest-earning years will be dropped from consideration. The Social Security Administration only considers your 35 highest years of earnings, so your average wages would increase if you replace those four years of $8,000 wages with four years of $95,000 wages.

Working longer doesn't necessarily make a huge impact. After all, each year only accounts for 1/35th of your average wage -- but even a small increase in AIME could result in higher benefits for the rest of your life.

How could your years of work affect your Social Security benefits?

To understand how working longer helps max out your benefits, let's consider a simple example. For purposes of this example, it's important to know that the Social Security Administration multiplies your wages in each year you worked by an indexing factor to get your inflation-adjusted wage. You can learn about this process in our guide to how your work history affects your Social Security benefits, but you don't need to know more than that to understand this example.

For our example, let's consider the hypothetical earnings record of a woman named Ann who turned 62 in 2019.

Year

Earnings

Indexing Factor

Index-Adjusted Wage

1980

$800.00

4.0214209

$3,217.14

1981

$1,200.00

3.6536357

$4,384.36

1982

$1,500.00

3.4629903

$5,194.49

1983

$5,000.00

3.3021260

$16,510.63

1984

$5,200.00

3.1187897

$16,217.71

1985

$5,700.00

2.9913426

$17,050.65

1986

$8,500.00

2.9051156

$24,693.48

1987

$10,000.00

2.7309507

$27,309.51

1988

$15,000.00

2.6027612

$39,041.42

1989

$17,000.00

2.5036327

$42,561.76

1990

$18,000.00

2.3930920

$43,075.66

1991

$19,850.00

2.3071159

$45,796.25

1992

$20,000.00

2.1940688

$43,881.38

1993

$22,000.00

2.1753602

$47,857.92

1994

$23,250.00

2.1185015

$49,255.16

1995

$23,250.00

2.0368567

$47,356.92

1996

$25,000.00

1.9418879

$48,547.20

1997

$26,800.00

1.8348243

$49,173.29

1998

$30,000.00

1.7435682

$52,307.05

1999

$40,000.00

1.6515312

$66,061.25

2000

$45,000.00

1.5649875

$70,424.44

2001

$45,000.00

1.5285223

$68,783.50

2002

$46,000.00

1.5133452

$69,613.88

2003

$47,800.00

1.4772336

$70,611.77

2004

$50,000.00

1.4116111

$70,580.56

2005

$52,000.00

1.3617831

$70,812.72

2006

$54,000.00

1.3019419

$70,304.86

2007

$56,000.00

1.2454224

$69,743.65

2008

$58,500.00

1.2174169

$71,218.89

2009

$59,000.00

1.2360575

$72,927.39

2010

$60,000.00

1.2075178

$72,451.07

2011

$72,000.00

1.1708317

$84,299.88

2012

$75,000.00

1.1353789

$85,153.42

2013

$80,000.00

1.1210504

$89,684.03

2014

$82,000.00

1.0826214

$88,774.95

2015

$85,000.00

1.0462229

$88,928.95

2016

$90,000.00

1.0345326

$93,107.93

2017

$92,000.00

1.0000000

$92,000.00

2018

$95,000.00

1.0000000

$95,000.00

Table source for Indexing Factors: Social Security Administration.

In total, Ann has 39 years of work history. Since the SSA only counts the 35 years you earned the most, the SSA would remove those lowest-earning four years from determining the AIME -- in this case, that happens to be the first four years. This is beneficial, because Ann didn't earn much in those years, even after adjusting for wage growth. Given this information, the SSA would calculate an AIME of $5,130.02.

Now, remember, the SSA uses a specific formula to figure out benefits based on AIME. Using this formula, Ann's primary insurance amount (PIA) is the total of

  • 90% of AIME up to a first bend point set the year she turns 62
  • 32% of AIME on the amount between the first and second bend points, and
  • 15% of AIME above the second bend point

Based on Ann's AIME, that breaks down as:

  • 90% on the first $926 earned
  • 32% of the wages she earned above $926 but under $5,583

In total, her AIME of $5,130.02 would result in a PIA of $2,178.69 (90% of the amount up to $926 + 32% of $5,130.02 - $926). Ann didn't make an income above the second bend point, so we don't need to calculate 15% of anything.

This PIA is the basis for what Ann will receive in retirement, but it could vary slightly depending on the age at which she retires and on any cost-of-living adjustments made by the SSA. You can read more on the full Social Security benefits formula here.

Now let's say Ann decided to quit working in 2014 before getting her salary bump in 2015. She'd have only a total of 35 years of work experience, so every year she worked would count in calculating AIME, including those early years when her wages were pretty low. Her AIME in this case comes down to $4,321.14. Her benefits formula is still the same, because even though she hasn't been working, the formula from the year she turns 62 is always used. So now her primary insurance amount is $1,919.84. That's a reduction of $258.85 per month or $3,106.20 per year in benefits.

Alternatively, let's say Ann did have those higher-earning years at the end of her career -- but she took off 10 years in the middle of her working life because of family obligations, and she had no income at all starting in 1990 through 2000. Now she only has a total of 29 years when she earned a salary. But her average wage is still calculated based on her highest 35 years of earnings -- which means she has six years of $0 wages factored in. Her AIME comes down to $3,849.91, and her primary insurance amount is $1,769.05. That's a reduction of $409.64 per month and $4,915.68 per year compared to the benefits she would've earned had she worked the full 39 years shown in our chart.

As you can see, working 35 years is extremely important. But working even longer than 35 years can boost benefits if you're earning more at the end of your career than in some lower-earning years throughout your career.

What else can I do to maximize my Social Security benefits?

There's one more reason you might want to stretch out the years you're working, and it has to do with the age at which you retire.

In order to receive the maximum Social Security benefit possible, you need to wait to claim your benefits until the age of 70. That's because you can increase your primary insurance amount for each month you wait past your full retirement age to claim benefits. Your full retirement age is set by law and varies depending on your birth year, as the chart below illustrates:

If you were born in Your full retirement age is
1937 or earlier 65
1938 65 and 2 months
1939 65 and 4 months
1940 65 and 6 months
1941 65 and 8 months
1942 65 and 10 months
1943-1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 or later 67

Table source: Social Security Administration.

You receive your primary insurance amount, as calculated above, if you retire exactly at your FRA. If you retire early, your PIA is reduced, but if you delay retirement past your FRA, your benefits increase by 2/3 of 1% per month -- around 8% per year -- up until age 70. This means that retiring one year after FRA would give you benefits that are 8% greater; two years after, 16% greater; three years after, 24% greater -- assuming you didn't hit 70 yet.

For many people, it's not possible to retire without claiming Social Security benefits. Sometimes savings, pension funds, and other income sources are not enough money to sustain you without Social Security income. To truly max out your Social Security benefits, keep working until you hit 70, after which there is no additional advantage to delaying retirement further.

Will you get the maximum Social Security benefit if you work a long time?

The absolute maximum that a 70-year-old retiring in 2019 can receive is $3,770 per month in Social Security benefits. Even if you follow all the tips above, you might not receive this absolute max. That's because this maximum is based on earnings equal to or exceeding the Social Security wage base limit for at least 35 years of your working life.

The Social Security Wage base limit is the maximum earnings subject to Social Security tax each year. High earners don't pay Social Security tax on the entire amount of wages they earn, nor do they get credit for the full amount of their wages when AIME is determined. If workers paid taxes -- and received benefits -- on an unlimited amount of wages, million-dollar earners would have very high Social Security benefits. But there is a cap by law that limits the wages subject to tax and counted in the Social Security benefits formula.

The table below shows the wage base limit in recent years:

Year Maximum Earnings Subject to Social Security Tax (Wage Base Limit)
2012 $110,100
2013 $113,700
2014 $117,000
2015 $118,500
2016 $118,500
2017 $127,200
2018 $128,400
2019 $132,900

Table source: Social Security Administration.

The Social Security Administration has a table of the wage base limit going all the way back to 1937. If you did not earn at least that amount for each year that counts toward determining your AIME, you will not be able to earn the absolute maximum Social Security benefit -- no matter how many years you work or how high your salary is at various points in your career.

Now you understand how long you have to work to max out your Social Security

Now you know how long you have to work to max out your Social Security benefits. You need to work at least 35 years, but you may want to work longer if your income is higher at the end of your career or if you need to work longer to delay claiming Social Security until age 70. This will give you the maximum Social Security benefit available based on your lifetime of earnings. However, you cannot earn the absolute maximum Social Security benefit available each year unless you earn an income equal to or above the maximum wage subject to Social Security taxes over 35 years of your career.

With this information, you can make more informed choices about how long you work, as well as take steps to increase your income during your career so your benefit is as high as possible.