In 2022, the maximum monthly Social Security benefit is $4,194. You can only get checks this big if you meet two criteria, though -- and one of the conditions is that you must have earned a very high income throughout most of your career.

Here's exactly the salary you would need this year in order to get $4,194 per month from the Social Security Administration. 

Two older adults looking at financial paperwork.

Image source: Getty Images.

You can only max out your Social Security benefits if you earn this much

If you're hoping for a $4,194 monthly Social Security benefit, you need to bring home a minimum of $147,000 this year -- if 2022 is one of the years that counts when your benefit amount is calculated. 

See, Social Security only takes 35 years of your work history into account when determining your benefit. All of your wages are adjusted for wage growth. Then, the Social Security Administration gives you benefits equal to the inflation-adjusted average of your earnings during the 35 years when you made the most money. 

If you want the largest possible monthly check from Social Security, you must earn at least the "wage base limit" in every single one of those 35 years. In 2022, the wage base limit is $147,000, so if you're earning less than that and this year counts in your formula, you are going to fall short of the max benefit.

What is the wage base limit and why do you need to earn above it?

The wage base limit is an important concept because it's the reason there's a max benefit in the first place.

Since Social Security benefits equal a percentage of average wages, it would theoretically be possible for someone who makes millions of dollars a year to have a Social Security benefit that totals tens of thousands of dollars monthly. But the government doesn't want to be paying out millions of dollars to people -- so there's a "wage base limit" each year. 

When you earn money, you pay Social Security taxes on income up to the wage base limit. Income up to this threshold is used to determine your monthly benefits. Income above the wage base limit isn't subject to Social Security taxes. And you won't get any extra credit for earning more money in your benefits formula.

If you earn the wage base limit (or more) for all of the 35 years included in your benefits calculation, you'll be on track for the highest possible Social Security check. If you earn below it, your average earnings over your career will not be as large and so you won't be able to max out your Social Security. 

There's one more step you'll have to take

As if earning the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $147,000 isn't hard enough -- which by the way will go up to $160,200 in 2023 -- you'll also have to wait until 70 to claim Social Security benefits in order to get the max benefit.

That's because you earn delayed retirement credits on retirement benefits from full retirement age through age 70. So, you need to have the highest possible average wage in order to be on track for the highest standard benefit. Then you need to increase that amount further by earning these credits. 

Most people don't earn anywhere near the highest possible average benefit, so you shouldn't assume you'll get such a large Social Security check unless you're a very high earner. Instead, those who earn closer to average wages can assume their benefits will probably replace about 40% of pre-retirement income and start working on a plan to supplement that with funds from other sources such as savings and investments.