How To Earn The Top Social Security Benefits

The maximum monthly individual Social Security benefits are $3,895 right now. How much income do you need to qualify for that maximum?


The stakes are high. The average monthly benefits are just $1,558.

So there is a $28,044 yearly gap between the average and maximum Social Security benefits of $18,696 and $46,740. That’s way more than chump change.

Social Security Benefits: Making Yours Grow

The $2,337 gap between average and maximum monthly Social Security benefits will mushroom into more than $908,000 if you invest it and earn a relatively modest 7% yearly rate of return for 16 years, according to

And 7% is fair. That’s much less than the broad market’s actual performance over the past 15 years. In that span, the S&P 500 has averaged annual returns of 10.3%, according to Morningstar Direct.

Why do we talk about investing your extra Social Security benefits for 16 years? That’s about the average American’s life expectancy once he or she reaches age 70. And age 70 is when you become eligible for your maximum starting Social Security benefits.

Of course, being able to invest the additional Social Security benefits depends on your not needing it for living expenses. That would be the case if you’ve invested wisely or have other sources of income, such as a traditional pension.

How To Get The Top Social Security Benefits

So whether you need it for current bills or you can afford to invest it, exactly how much income does it take to qualify for the maximum Social Security benefits?

Your benefits are based on your earnings over your work career. Specifically, it is based on your 35 highest earning years.

But your benefit does not climb without limit the higher your yearly pay was. There’s a cap on how high your benefit can be. That’s the monthly maximum benefit of $3,895.

Basically, there are two ways to figure out if you qualify for the maximum.

The longer, more detailed solution is to calculate an estimate of how much your individual benefits will be. Many financial sites offer calculators for this purpose. and are two.

What Calculators Tell You

The Social Security Administration offers two such calculators. One is a quickie calculator. It uses yearly earnings information you input. It’s good for generating what-if scenarios. Those can vary depending on earnings amounts you plug in and retirement dates that you use.

The SSA’s second calculator uses your actual year-by-year earnings data.

The second overall method tells you only if you qualify for the current maximum monthly Social Security benefits. But it won’t show you a dollar-amount estimate of your benefits.

This second method relies on the fact that the SSA bases your benefit on your earnings in your 35 highest pay years.

To receive the maximum benefits, you must reach a certain earnings threshold in each of those 35 years, says Morgan Christen, chief executive officer of Spinnaker Investment Group.

The 2021 Yearly Threshold

That threshold is equal to the maximum dollar amount that’s used to calculate your Social Security payroll tax. So, to get the maximum benefits, your earnings in each of those 35 years must be equal to or greater than what’s known as your Social Security wage base. That’s the maximum amount of your earnings that are subject to the Social Security tax (called the taxable maximum).

The SSA posts those annual numbers here, at its web site. In 2021, for example, that number is $142,800. In 2011, it was $106,800. In 2001, it was $80,400. The taxable maximum will increase to $147,000 in 2022.

If you fell short of that number in any year, you don’t qualify for the maximum monthly Social Security benefits, Christen says.

If both you and your spouse work and are joint filers, both of your numbers must beat the threshold for each of you to qualify for the monthly max.

What Else Calculators Can Teach

If you don’t qualify for the top monthly Social Security benefits? You can still calculate how much you do qualify for. You can use those online calculators.

Bear in mind that you’ll have to input such factors as what year you plan to retire.

And one of the most influential variables has to do with how old you are or will be when you retire and start to collect Social Security benefits.

When To Start Your Benefits

You can start to collect Social Security benefits as early as age 62.

But, under today’s rules, if you wait until what the Social Security Administration calls your full retirement age (FRA), your benefits will jump by up to 30%.

Full retirement age increases gradually if you were born from 1955 to 1960, until it reaches 67. For anyone born 1960 or later, full retirement benefits are payable at age 67. You can find your full retirement age by birth year in the full retirement age chart.

But full retirement age is not the same as maximum retirement benefits age. That occurs once you reach age 70. Your monthly benefits grow between FRA and age 70.

For every year you delay claiming Social Security past your FRA up to age 70, you get an 8% increase in your benefit.

But your benefits won’t grow any more once you hit the big 7-0.

Follow Paul Katzeff on Twitter at @IBD_PKatzeff for tips about personal finance and active mutual fund managers who outperform the market by picking top-performing growth stocks.

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