How old are you? If you're like many people, you may not realize that you're closer to receiving Social Security benefits than you thought. While the "full retirement age" for most of us -- the age at which we can start collecting the full benefits to which we're entitled based on our earnings history -- is 66 or 67, we can start collecting as early as age 62.
The average monthly benefit for retirees collecting Social Security was recently $1,557 -- equal to about $18,700 per year. But the maximum benefit check being mailed by the Social Security Administration (SSA) is $3,895 (or about $46,740 annually). Here's a look at who gets that check, and how you can get the biggest check possible for yourself.
Who's eligible for the biggest Social Security benefit?
The bad news is that it's only a select, relatively small number of retirees who will qualify for that maximum benefit. Specifically, it goes to those who have work histories featuring maximum taxable earnings for most or all of their working lives and who also delay starting to collect their benefits until age 70.
If you're thinking that the group doesn't include you, you're probably right. That's a high bar, after all. Still, all is not lost. There are ways to beef up the retirement benefit checks that you'll ultimately receive.
How the Social Security formula works
It helps to understand just how your benefits are calculated. Here's how, in a nutshell. The Social Security benefit formula takes your earnings in the 35 years in which you earned the most -- with earnings adjusted for inflation, so that your earnings from when you were, say, 27, are comparable to those from last year. Those earnings are then averaged, producing your "AIME," or average indexed monthly earnings.
The formula then gets fairly complicated, but your benefit is based on certain percentages of your AIME, and the proportions change over time. Note that Social Security benefits were never intended to replace all of your pre-retirement income -- and on average, they replace about 40%. This is why it's vital to be saving and investing for retirement throughout your working life -- you'll need a hefty sum to draw from in your later years.
You can actually get an estimate of your future Social Security benefit by visiting the SSA website and setting up a "my Social Security" account, for free. Once you do so, you'll be able to see the SSA's records of your earnings and your projected benefits.
How to work the formula for bigger benefit checks
Better still, as long as you're at least a few years from retiring, there are ways that you can make your future benefit checks bigger. For example:
- Work a little longer. Ideally, you should have 35 years of earnings, so that no zeroes are factored into the calculations. Even if you have 35 years now, if you're earning a lot now relative to your (inflation-adjusted) past earnings, for each additional year that you work, your higher earnings will kick out a low-earning year.
- Earn more. If you can really beef up your earnings for at least a few years, you'll end up with fatter benefits. You might, for example, take on a side gig for a few years, such as driving for a ride-sharing service, making and selling hand-crafted items, doing freelance work (writing, editing, consulting, etc.), or tutoring young people online.
- Delay starting to collect. While you can start collecting Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62, doing so will shrink your checks (though you'll receive more of them). Delaying collecting will make them bigger -- by about 8% for every year past your full retirement age that you delay. Delay from 67 to 70, for example, and your checks will be about 24% bigger (though you'll be receiving fewer of them over your retirement). Do some reading and thinking before deciding when it's the best time for you to start the benefit checks flowing.
You may not end up with that fat $3,895 monthly benefit, but by acting on a savvy strategy or two, you may be able to collect a lot more from Social Security.