The average monthly Social Security benefit for retirees was recently $1,673 -- or about $20,000 per year. Clearly, that's not nearly as much as most of us want or need in retirement -- which is why most of us need to be saving and investing for retirement throughout our working lives.

That $1,673 is an average, though, so plenty of people will collect more than that. As of 2022, the maximum monthly benefit being paid out is $4,194 -- or about $50,000 annually. That's much better than $20,000, but it still means that most of us need to be amassing a solid nest egg to supplement that and deliver the income we need in retirement.

Person smiling, looking upward.

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Here's a look at how you might be able to earn that maximum $4,194 payout. (Spoiler: You probably can't, but you can still make your benefit checks bigger.)

1. Work for 35 years -- at least

First, to grab the maximum Social Security benefit, you'll need to work for at least 35 years, because the formula that determines your benefits is based on an average of your earnings (adjusted for inflation) in the 35 years in which you earned the most.

If you only worked for 34 years, you're already out of the running for that $4,194. But let's say you did work for 35 years. You've cleared the first hurdle -- hooray!

2. Collect maximum earnings for 35 years

Here's the next hurdle, and it's a tough one: In each of your 35 highest-earning years, you'll need to have earned the maximum amount that counts for benefit calculations.

The maximum is probably less than you think: For each year, there's a maximum taxable earnings limit, which is the income level beyond which you're not taxed for Social Security. In 2022, the limit is $147,000, and it's likely to be increased for 2023, as the number is hiked regularly. (It was $142,800 in 2021 and $137,700 in 2020.)

So you'd need to have earned at least $147,000 this year and at least $142,800 in 2021, and at least $137,700 in 2020, and... at least $43,800 in 1987. You get the idea -- clearing this hurdle is difficult. It's no mean feat to earn at least the maximum in at least 35 years.

This hurdle may have eliminated you from qualifying for that maximum payout. If it hasn't, read on for the last hurdle -- and even if it has, read on for how you can still boost your benefits.

3. Wait until age 70 to collect your benefits

If you've cleared the last two hurdles, this is your last one: You'll need to delay starting to collect your benefits until age 70. For each of us, there's a "full retirement age" at which we can start collecting the full benefits to which we're entitled based on our earnings history. For most of us, that age is 66 or 67.

Despite that, you can start collecting as early as age 62, though if you do, your benefits will be reduced. (It's not as bad as it sounds, because while the checks will be smaller, you'll get many more of them.) You can also opt to delay starting to collect your benefits beyond your full retirement age, and if you do, your benefits will increase by about 8% for each year that you do so, until age 70.

Delaying until age 70 is the last thing you need to do to qualify for that $4,194 payout.

To summarize, qualifying will require you to earn at least the maximum taxable earnings limit for 35 years and delay starting to collect your benefits until age 70. Not surprisingly, very few people can achieve this.

Some good news: You can still make your benefit checks bigger

It's not the end of the world if you can't grab that $4,194 payout -- because there are still ways to boost your ultimate benefits. For example:

  • If you've worked 35 years and are currently earning significantly more than you have in the past (on an inflation-adjusted basis), work a few more years -- because each high-earning year will kick out a low-earning year from the calculation, increasing your benefits.
  • Aim to increase your income in your remaining working years. This may involve bucking harder for a raise or promotion, or changing jobs more often, moving from job to higher-paying job. You might also take on a side gig for a few years. The more you earn, the bigger your benefits will be.
  • Even if you haven't earned the maximum in any year, you can still beef up your benefits by about 8% for each year beyond your full retirement age that you delay -- up to age 70. (It can make sense for some people to start collecting much earlier, though.)

So don't be too annoyed about not getting that $4,194. Relatively few people will get it. And you can still increase your monthly checks -- by perhaps several hundred dollars per month.