Social Security's maximum monthly benefit in 2023 is $4,555, which works out to $54,660 a year. But if you're hoping to collect the maximum Social Security benefit someday, I've got bad news for you: You probably won't qualify.

There are certainly tried-and-true strategies you can use to maximize your Social Security. But for the overwhelming majority of people, the maximum Social Security check is pure fantasy. Here's why.

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What salary do you need for Social Security's top benefit?

The Social Security benefits formula is based on your 35 highest years of earnings. To qualify for the maximum benefit, you need to earn at least Social Security's taxable maximum for at least 35 years.

In 2023, that amount is $160,200. If you earn more than the taxable maximum during a year, you don't pay the 6.2% Social Security tax on the excess amount. But the extra money doesn't help you score a higher benefit, either. For example, if you earn $500,000 in 2023, Social Security will still record your earnings as $160,200.

Earning the taxable maximum in any given year makes you a high earner, but it isn't exactly rare. Each year, about 6% of taxpayers have earnings that meet or exceed this threshold.

It's the 35-year requirement that's the rub. Few people will have earnings that are high enough over 35 years to collect the maximum Social Security benefit. Earnings tend to increase over time, so even if you're in the top 1% or top 0.1% of earners now, chances are good that you had some lower-earning years early on in your career. Falling short of the taxable maximum in just one year out of your top 35 years means you don't get the maximum Social Security check.

Here's how much you need to have earned to reach the taxable maximum in each of the past 35 years.

Year Earnings
1989 $48,000
1990 51,300
1991 53,400
1992 55,500
1993 57,600
1994 60,600
1995 61,200
1996 62,700
1997 65,400
1998 68,400
1999 72,600
2000 76,200
2001 80,400
2002 84,900
2003 87,000
2004 87,900
2005 90,000
2006 94,200
2007 97,500
2008 102,000
2009 106,800
2010 106,800
2011 106,800
2012 110,100
2013 113,700
2014 117,000
2015 118,500
2016 118,500
2017 127,200
2018 128,400
2019 132,900
2020 137,700
2021 142,800
2022 147,000
2023 160,200

Data source: Social Security Administration.

When can you collect the $4,555 Social Security benefit?

Maybe you've notched the taxable maximum for 35 years. But wait -- there's one more requirement. To squeeze every last dollar out of Social Security, you need to wait until you're age 70 and take full advantage of the 8% delayed retirement credits you earn for each year you delay after you reach full retirement age.

If you retired at full retirement age (67 for anyone born in 1960 or later) in 2023, your maximum monthly benefit is only $3,627. And if you claimed benefits at 62, as soon as you became eligible, the maximum benefit is just $2,572 per month.

Should you aim for the maximum Social Security check?

If you're one of the few people who are eligible for the maximum Social Security check, you're probably not depending much on Social Security in your golden years. You've likely had plenty of opportunities to invest for retirement.

But even if your benefit won't come anywhere close to the maximum, you can still increase your Social Security by working longer, finding ways to boost your income, and delaying your benefit for as long as you can.

Of course, Social Security isn't meant to replace all of your income in retirement. So it's essential to start investing in a retirement account as soon as possible. If you got a late start, aim to work longer to give your investments extra compounding time.