Social Security benefits are a substantial source of income for many retirees. However, the average benefit amount is just over $1,500 per month, or around $18,000 per year, according to the Social Security Administration.
Considering $18,000 per year is barely above the federal poverty line, the average retiree won't be able to survive on Social Security benefits alone.
One solution is to boost your retirement savings to supplement your income during your senior years. Another option, though, is to increase your Social Security benefits.
The maximum amount you can collect in benefits in 2021 is $3,895 per month. But to receive that amount, you'll need to be earning a certain salary. Here's what it takes to max out your Social Security benefits.
Earning the maximum benefit amount
Your Social Security benefit amount is based on your income throughout the 35 highest-earning years of your career. If you want to earn the maximum benefit amount, you'll need to work at least 35 full years before you claim.
During those 35 years, you'll also need to reach the maximum taxable earnings limit. The maximum taxable earnings limit is the highest annual income that's subject to Social Security taxes. Consistently reaching that limit will result in earning the maximum Social Security benefit amount. And if you earn more than that limit, your benefit amount will not increase any further.
For 2021, the maximum taxable earnings limit is $142,800 per year. This limit changes over time, however, to count for cost-of-living adjustments. For example, 35 years ago, in 1986, the limit was $42,000 per year.
To max out your Social Security benefits, you'll need to have been reaching these limits consistently over 35 years. You'll also need to wait until age 70 to begin claiming benefits, because claiming any earlier than that will reduce your benefit amount by up to 30%.
What if your income falls short?
Many workers won't be able to achieve the maximum Social Security benefit amount, and that's OK. There are still ways you can boost your monthly payments.
One option is to work a little longer. To calculate your benefit amount, the Social Security Administration uses an average of your earnings over the highest-earning years of your career. Chances are you're earning more toward the end of your career than you were when you first started working.
Even if you've already worked 35 full years, by continuing to work a little longer, you can have more higher-earning years included in your average income. That, in turn, will result in a larger benefit amount.
Another way to boost your benefits is to wait to claim them. You can claim benefits at age 62 or anytime after that, but the longer you wait (up to age 70), the more you'll receive every month. In fact, by waiting until age 70 to claim, you can receive your full benefit amount plus up to 32% extra each month.
Keep in mind, too, that these benefit adjustments are permanent. No matter how long you live, you'll continue earning larger checks each month if you delay claiming benefits.
Many older adults rely on Social Security to make ends meet in retirement, so it's important to make sure you're making the most of your benefits. Even if you can't quite reach the maximum benefit amount, you may be able to collect more than you think.