How Much Is the Average Social Security Check?

What You Earn Depends on Many Factors

Elderly Man and Woman on Couch in Nursing Home
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 Getty Images/FangXiaNuo

Americans looking to retire should save and invest diligently to ensure they have enough for their post-work life. But they can also take some comfort in knowing that they will likely receive monthly income from the federal government. 

The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) is expecting to distribute over $1 trillion to retirees in 2020. Beneficiaries can receive an amount based on a percentage of their pre-retirement income as soon as they turn 62.

As of November 2020, the average Social Security check benefit for retired workers was $1,522.70 per month. However, for many Americans, this amount may not be enough to cover basic living costs, so it’s important to learn ways you can receive more. 

For 2021, the SSA expects to pay a maximum benefit of $3,895 per month to retirees who delayed their benefits until age 70 and who earned maximum taxable earnings since age 22. 

Below, we’ll examine how Social Security payments are calculated and the factors that impact what a retiree can receive. 

Calculating Social Security Payments

There are two key factors that impact what you could earn from Social Security

  1. How much you earned in your pre-retirement life 
  2. How long you are willing or able to wait before collecting 

It’s impossible to predict with perfect accuracy how much you’ll receive from Social Security when you retire because the government could always adjust the level of benefits. Moreover, benefits are based partially on your pre-retirement income level, which may fluctuate during your lifetime. 

That said, if you are curious how much you might receive from Social Security, the government offers a quick calculator that will give you a rough estimate. Results are based on your current earnings and birthdate. You can view the results in today’s dollars or in inflated future dollars.

For example, based on the SSA’s calculator, a person who plans to retire at age 70 in January 2025 after earning $100,000 during their last year of employment would potentially receive an estimated monthly benefit of $3,121. On the other hand, someone who plans to retire at age 62 in January 2025 after earning $100,000 in their last year of employment would potentially collect $1,760 per month. If this 62-year-old earned $75,000 in their last year of employment instead, their monthly benefit could potentially be $1,422.

Keep in mind that the further away you are from retirement, the less accurate those results are likely to be. 

Women and Racial Minorities Often Earn Less

If you want the maximum Social Security payout, it might help to be a man.

Unfortunately, women generally receive a lower monthly benefit than men. This is a product of income level, as women have historically earned less than men. In 2017, women age 65 and older received an average annual Social Security income of $14,353, compared to $18,041 for men. That’s about $1,196 per month for women and about $1,503 per month for men. The SSA notes that these lower benefits correlate to lower lifetime earnings and more part-time work. 

Unfortunately, women may generally be more reliant on Social Security, too. The SSA notes that women at age 65 are expected to live about 21 additional years, compared to about 19 years for men. Women reportedly represent 55.5% of all Social Security beneficiaries age 62 or older and about 65% of beneficiaries age 85 and above.

Meanwhile, African American men age 65 and older received an average annual Social Security benefit of about $16,265 in 2017, compared to African American women who earned about $13,574. That’s about $1,355 per month for men and about $1,131 per month for women. Again, this is due to lower lifetime incomes. 

Despite these differences in benefit payments, it is worth noting that Social Security is designed to be progressive, in that Social Security benefits to lower-income earners represent a higher percentage of their pre-retirement income.

It Pays to Wait

Based on the SSA’s payment structure, the longer you wait to collect benefits, the higher your benefit will be. So if you have enough retirement savings, you may be able to go several years before you start receiving Social Security benefits. This can ultimately result in more money. 

You can start receiving Social Security benefits as early as age 62. If you collect at that age, however, you’ll only receive only a certain percentage of your maximum retirement benefit. For example, if you were born in 1960 or later and retire at age 62, you will receive only 70% of the maximum benefit. If you wait until age 65, you’ll get 86.7%, and if you begin collecting at age 67, you’ll get the full benefit. Benefits for spouses range from 32.5% to 50%, depending on the year of collection.

If you were born between 1943 and 1954, and are willing to wait until age 70 to retire, you can receive up to 132% of the full retirement benefit.

It’s worth noting for those not yet near retirement age that Social Security benefits are expected to be available to be paid in full through 2037. However, after that, there may only be enough funds to pay out 76% of scheduled benefits. The Social Security Board of Trustees believes increases in taxes could help prevent a lack of Social Security benefits for retirees. 

The Bottom Line 

It’s hard to know precisely what you’ll earn from Social Security until you actually begin collecting payments. However, you can work to maximize your potential payments by earning as much as you can in your pre-retirement years and delaying collection as long as possible. While the average Social Security benefit came to $1,522.70 per month in 2020, it is possible to earn more than twice that amount each month through a combination of high lifetime earnings, luck, and some patience.