3 Reasons You Probably Won't Get the Maximum Social Security Benefit

The maximum monthly Social Security benefit is $4,873 per month in 2024, which is a pretty huge amount of money to get every single month from the government.

Unfortunately, it's very unlikely that most retirees will get anywhere near that amount. In fact, here are three key reasons why your own Social Security checks will probably be much lower than the highest possible monthly check.

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1. You need to earn a lot of money to max out your benefits

The Social Security benefits formula is designed to replace around 40% of pre-retirement earnings for most workers and replaces even less for high earners. So, obviously, to end up with a monthly benefit of $4,873, your salary would have had to be far higher than that amount over your career.

Specifically, you would have had to earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $168,600 throughout your career. Wondering why that number? It's the 2024 wage base limit, and the wage base limit changes over time due to wage growth.

The wage base limit is the reason why there's a maximum Social Security benefit in the first place. To ensure people don't get tens of thousands of dollars a month in Social Security benefits, there's a cap on the amount of wages included in the benefits formula.

If you earn the wage base limit or higher for every year of work included in the benefits calculation, then you'll have the highest possible average wage. That's the number used by Social Security to determine your benefits, so maxing out average wages is a requirement of getting the biggest payout possible.

Unfortunately, each year, only around 6% of workers have earnings above the wage base limit. That means 94% don't -- and if you're in that 94% for most of your career, the max benefit isn't within reach for you.

2. You need to max out your wages for a full 35 years

The benefits formula used to calculate Social Security doesn't just take all of your wages for each year and divide them by the number of years worked in order to calculate average wages. Instead, the inflation-adjusted wages from your 35 highest-earning years are used.

The largest possible average benefit, therefore, is available only to people who earned at least the wage base limit for 35 years. Now, this doesn't mean every single year of your career had to a high-earning one. Just 35 of them. If you worked for 40 years and you made very little during five of those years, you could still max out your benefit as long as your earnings equaled or exceeded the wage base limit for the other 35.

On the flip side, if even one year was included in your calculation where you earned less than the wage base limit, the max benefit is off the table.

3. You must claim your benefits at age 70

Finally, there's one more reason you probably aren't getting the max benefit. It's the fact you'd have to wait until 70 to claim your first Social Security check.

Even if you've got 35 years of high earnings under your belt, this just gives you the highest possible standard Social Security benefit. To get the maximum monthly income, you'd have to earn as many delayed retirement credits as possible to increase your standard benefit to the upper limit.

Delayed retirement credits are earned each month you wait beyond your full retirement age to get a Social Security check. Since they can be earned until 70, you have to wait until then to claim your first retirement payment. And this isn't very common because that's simply too long for most people to work and many folks have to claim their benefits upon retiring to get enough support.

Now, just because you probably won't earn the max benefit doesn't mean you should be discouraged. You can still increase your own checks by putting off claiming and taking steps to boost your income during your working life. But you should be aware your Social Security check is probably going to be a lot smaller than $4,873 and plan accordingly when setting retirement savings goals.

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