For millions of older Americans, Social Security benefits are a lifeline in retirement. Half of married couples depend on their benefits for at least 50% of their retirement income, and for nearly one-quarter of couples, Social Security makes up at least 90% of their income.
But the average beneficiary receives just $1,514 per month (roughly $18,000 per year), making it tough to survive primarily on Social Security.
Some retirees, though, collect significantly more. The maximum you can receive from Social Security is $3,790 per month -- more than $45,000 per year. To earn that much, though, there are three steps you'll need to take.
1. Work at least 35 years
To calculate your benefit amount, the Social Security Administration (SSA) takes an average of your income over the 35 highest-earning years of your career and then adjusts those earnings for inflation. The result is the amount you'll receive if you begin claiming benefits at your full retirement age.
If you haven't worked a full 35 years by the time you begin claiming, you'll have zeros added to your earnings average. That will reduce your benefit amount, making you ineligible to collect the maximum $3,790 per month.
2. Max out your income
Because the SSA uses your income to determine your benefit amount, the higher your income is, the larger your monthly checks will be -- up to a certain limit, anyway.
The SSA's maximum taxable income is the highest amount you'll owe Social Security payroll taxes on, and it changes each year to account for inflation. As of 2020, the maximum taxable earnings limit is $137,700 per year, meaning any income earned over that limit is not subject to Social Security payroll taxes and won't affect your benefit amount.
In order to receive the maximum of $3,790 per month, you'll need to have reached the maximum taxable earnings limit consistently for decades. While that may not be feasible for the majority of workers, boosting your income as much as possible will still help you collect more from Social Security.
3. Wait until age 70 to begin claiming benefits
Even if you've been earning a substantial income and have worked for more than 35 years, you'll still need to hold off on claiming benefits if you want to collect as much as possible.
The age you begin claiming directly affects how much you receive, and if you claim before age 70, you'll receive smaller checks each month. In fact, even if you've been earning the maximum taxable income since age 22, if you were to begin claiming benefits at age 62, you'd only receive $2,265 per month, more than $1,500 short of the maximum benefit amount.
What to do if this goal is out of reach
Collecting the maximum Social Security benefit involves earning a six-figure salary over several decades, which is a tough goal to reach. But every little bit counts, and it may be easier than you think to boost your benefit.
Even if you can't work a full 35 years, reach the maximum earnings limit each year, or wait until age 70 to file for benefits, taking small steps to work a little longer, boost your income as much as you can, or hold off on claiming Social Security by a year or two can all help boost your monthly checks.