If you claim your benefit in 2022, the largest monthly Social Security check you can get is $4,194 per month. If you live in a reasonable cost-of-living area and have no debts, that amount on its own could even be enough to provide you with a fairly comfortable retirement.

The challenge, though, is that it's quite difficult to actually get the maximum Social Security benefit. To do so, you need to have maxed out your salary-based contributions from working at covered jobs for 35 years, and then wait until age 70 to start collecting.

While it's not likely that you're eligible for the $4,194 maximum Social Security benefit, it's probably worth your while to understand how those factors work together. That way, you can make the most of what you actually can get.

Senior couple with a Social Security card.

Image source: Getty Images

Your highest 35 years of covered income are what count

When you work in a job where you pay into Social Security, you're taxed on your income to help pay for the program, starting with your very first dollar of salary. The program uses a formula known as AIME -- Average Indexed Monthly Earnings -- to determine how much credit you'll get for a year's worth of income. Basically, that formula adjusts for changes in average wages over time, to better compare earnings late in your career with earnings early in your career, given that inflation happens.

Social Security uses the highest 35 years of your earnings, after considering the AIME formula, in determining your benefit. Work fewer than 35 years? You'll get $0 earnings years in the calculation. Work more than 35 years? Your lower-earnings years will be overwritten by your higher ones.

Only income up to a certain point counts

To get the highest possible benefit amount, you'll need all 35 years to be at the maximum earnings level covered by Social Security -- but don't fret if that's out of reach. Because of bend points in Social Security's formula, the first dollar you earn in a year is often worth more toward your benefit than the last dollar. As a result, it's likely a case where "close enough is good enough."

As for that maximum earnings level? Well, it's subject to change every year, but in 2022, it's $147,000 of earned income. If you earn money above that amount in a year, you won't have Social Security taxes withheld for that amount of income from your paycheck, but it also doesn't count toward your ultimate benefit amount.

When you collect also matters

Once you have your full 35 years of income on your record, the key choice that impacts your monthly check is your age at the time you start your benefit. You're allowed to collect as early as age 62, but the longer you wait -- up until age 70 -- the higher each check will get. 

The difference can be as much as a staggering $1,830 per check, just based on your age when you begin your benefit. The only way to get that maximum $4,194 amount is to wait until age 70 to claim, but there are other reasons to wait, as well.

Most notably, if you start to collect before you've reached your full retirement age but are still working, Social Security will penalize you on top of the reduction in benefits for collecting earlier. The penalty can be as much as $1 for every $2 you earn above $19,560 per year.

As a result, unless you're certain you're done working, it makes sense to wait until you've passed that threshold to take your benefit. If you haven't reached it yet, your full retirement age will fall somewhere between ages 66 and 67. 

Start your plan today

Given the time frame involved -- 35 years of earnings and an eight-year window to start collecting -- getting the most from Social Security takes advanced planning. No matter where you are on your retirement journey, you'll never again have more time before you retire than you do right now. So start getting your plans in place today, to give yourself your best chance of getting close to that maximum Social Security benefit.