If you’re planning for retirement, one of your key questions is how much you can earn from Social Security – what’s the maximum you can get? As of January 2024, the maximum benefit you can receive at full retirement age is $3,822 per month. But that’s only part of the story, because the real maximum benefit is actually a fair bit higher – and here’s how to get it.

The maximum Social Security check

Your maximum Social Security benefit depends significantly on the age you file for your benefit, among other factors such as your contributions to the program:

  • Your maximum benefit if you file at age 62 – the youngest possible age – is $2,710 per month.
  • Your maximum benefit if you file at full retirement age – between 66 and 67 – is $3,822 per month.
  • Your maximum benefit if you file at age 70 – the age when extra benefits stop accruing – is $4,873 per month.

Social Security reduces benefits as much as 30 percent for those filing at age 62. On the other hand, it increases benefits by 8 percent for each year after full retirement age that you delay filing.

In contrast to these maximum amounts, the average Social Security benefit is quite a bit lower – about $1,706 per month, as of August 2023. That’s less than half of the maximum benefit for a worker starting benefits at full retirement age in 2024.

While waiting longer to file may maximize your total monthly benefit, it may not maximize your total lifetime payout from Social Security depending on your longevity. You’ll want to calculate your likely breakeven age to see when it might be best to file for Social Security benefits.

With this Bankrate Social Security calculator, you can estimate your future monthly benefit.

How are Social Security benefits calculated?

Social Security calculates benefits using a complex formula to determine your primary insurance amount (PIA) – that is, your benefit at full retirement age.

To do so, Social Security takes your 35 highest-earning years after age 21 to figure your average indexed monthly earnings. You’ll get credit only for earnings up to the Social Security wage base, which is the maximum amount of income on which Social Security assesses taxes. For 2024, the Social Security wage base is $168,600, an increase from $160,200 in 2023.

Employees pay 6.2 percent of their income up to the wage base, while their employers put up another 6.2 percent. The self-employed foot both halves of this Social Security tax.

And if you don’t have 35 years of earnings? Social Security will figure a zero in for each missing year, reducing your average monthly earnings.

The numbers from these high-earning years are summed and then indexed for inflation to determine your average indexed monthly earnings. Then Social Security applies a graduated formula based on these earnings to determine your actual payment at full retirement.

You can see the full details in this article and then run through a real-life example.

How to maximize your Social Security benefit

Based on the formula above and other Social Security rules, you have a few key ways to maximize your benefit amount:

  • Earn more. You can earn more in a given year, up to the Social Security wage base, and get more credit, raising your average monthly earnings.
  • Add more high-earning years to your average. Your 35 highest-earning years are counted in figuring your benefit, so working later in life, when you likely earn more, may push out lower-earnings years when you were younger or even just fill in gap years that would otherwise have no or insufficient earnings.
  • Delay filing for your benefit. Your benefit will be reduced substantially if you file before full retirement age and will increase significantly if you wait as late as age 70 to file.

While you usually don’t get a second chance when it comes to Social Security, in at least two situations you can get a “do over,” allowing you to get a higher payout later.

  • Suspend your benefit. If you took benefits before full retirement age and are not yet 70, you can suspend your benefit and earn credits for each month they’re suspended.
  • Withdraw your benefit. If you took benefits less than a year ago and have never filed to withdraw your benefit before, then you can withdraw your benefit and it will be like you never filed at all. However, you’ll have to repay any money you’ve received.

If you’re trying to maximize your Social Security benefit, it makes sense to explore all the ways to do so. You have many levers to pull that can help you get a higher payout.

Bottom line

The maximum Social Security benefit relies on earning a high level of income over a long period, something that very few people achieve. But even if you aren’t a high earner, you can make smart moves, such as delaying filing for benefits, to increase your payout significantly.