The Average Senior Only Gets 40% of the Max Social Security Check. How Does Yours Compare?

Many seniors miss easy opportunities to earn more.

Any Social Security benefit is a welcome sight for most retirees, but let’s be honest, we’d all love the $4,194 maximum benefit if we could get it. Unfortunately for most people, that’s not going to happen. The average Social Security check is only about 40% of the maximum. But you might be able to do better than that with some careful planning. 

How much does the average senior get from Social Security?

The average Social Security benefit for retired workers is about $1,661 per month right now. That’s just under 40% of the maximum $4,194 Social Security benefit. 

Senior talking on phone and looking at check.

Image source: Getty Images.

This isn’t surprising, given the high income requirements necessary to secure the maximum benefit. You’d have to earn the equivalent of at least $147,000 in 2022 dollars in at least 35 years to claim this benefit. You’d also have to delay Social Security until 70 when you qualify for your largest possible checks.

For most people, this isn’t a realistic expectation. But there’s plenty you can do to beat the average Social Security check. Here are three proven strategies for boosting your benefit.

1. Maximize your income today

You may not get close to the $147,000 annual income you’d need to earn the maximum Social Security benefit, but anything you can do to add to your salary today will also help your Social Security checks later. That’s because your Social Security benefits are based on your average monthly income during your 35 highest-earning years, adjusted for inflation.

Getting a raise, switching employers, or starting a side hustle are all valid options for boosting your income today. And you don’t have to do anything special to ensure that income counts toward your Social Security benefit. The IRS reports how much income you’ve paid Social Security taxes on every year to the Social Security Administration. You can view a record of this by creating a my Social Security account. 

It’s a good idea to check your earnings record at least once per year to make sure it matches up with your personal records. While errors are rare, they do happen, and they can cause you to get a smaller Social Security benefit than you deserve. If you do notice an error, fill out a Request for Correction of Earnings Record form and submit it to the Social Security Administration with documentation proving your real income for the year.

2. Work for at least 35 years

If raising your income isn’t a possibility, working longer can also help boost your Social Security benefits. That’s because most people earn more later in their careers than they did when they were first starting out.

Once you’ve worked longer than 35 years, your more recent, higher-earning years begin to replace your earlier, lower-earning years in your benefit calculation. And this leads to larger checks.

3. Delay benefits

The age you apply for Social Security also affects the size of your checks. If you want the full amount you’re entitled to based on your work history, you must wait until your full retirement age (FRA) to sign up. That’s somewhere between 66 and 67, depending on your birth year.

Claiming before your FRA shrinks your checks. You’ll get 25% less per month if you sign up right away at 62 and your FRA is 66 or 30% less if your FRA is 67. But that doesn’t mean signing up early is always the wrong move. If you don’t expect to live long or if you need your benefits to help you cover your basic expenses, signing up early is usually wise.

But if you expect to live into your 80s or beyond and you don’t need your Social Security benefits right away, delaying benefits is usually your best choice. Every month you delay increases your checks a little, and that doesn’t stop at your FRA. You can continue delaying benefits until you reach 70. You’ll get 124% of your full benefit per check at this age if your FRA is 67 or 132% if your FRA is 66. 

If you qualify for the average $1,661 benefit at 62 and you delay benefits until 70, now you’re looking at $2,943 per check if your FRA is 67. That’s nearly $1,300 more per month just from waiting to sign up.

Even taking the steps above, it’s unlikely that you’ll get the maximum benefit, but you can make a significant difference to the size of your checks. If you haven’t thought about when you’ll claim Social Security, now is a good time to do so. Once you know what you can expect from the program, you’ll be able to better estimate how much you need to save on your own for retirement.

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