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211 Million Adults Are at Risk of a Costly Social Security Mistake

By Christy Bieber – Updated Aug 19, 2021 at 10:39AM

Key Points

  • Most U.S. adults don't understand Social Security.
  • Retirees are missing a key fact that could cut their benefits by as much as 30%.
  • Not knowing this fact could mean missing out on the chance for more retirement income.

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Are you one of them?

Despite the important role Social Security plays in most people's retirement plans, the vast majority of Americans are missing key details about how the program works.

In fact, a recent study conducted by Nationwide showed that just 16% of adults could correctly guess their full retirement age. That means over 211 million people are clueless about one of the most crucial details affecting the amount of retirement benefits they'll receive.

If you're one of them, here's what you need to know about full retirement age -- and why knowing this age is so essential as you decide when you want Social Security benefits to begin. 

Person reviewing financial paperwork with laptop.

Image source: Getty Images.

What is full retirement age?

Full retirement age is one of the key determining factors affecting the amount of Social Security benefits a retiree is entitled to. It's the age at which they must claim benefits in order to get their primary insurance amount (PIA). Your PIA, or standard benefit, is based on a percentage of average earnings calculated using your 35 highest earning years (adjusted for inflation). 

Retirees can start benefits well before their FRA, and many do. Unfortunately, doing so could result in up to a 30% cut to benefits depending on how early seniors start getting their checks. Benefits are reduced for those who claim prior to FRA because they are subject to early filing penalties. These penalties apply for each month a senior starts getting checks ahead of FRA and add up to a:

  • 6.7% reduction in benefit checks for each of the first three years benefits are claimed ahead of FRA
  • 5% reduction in benefit checks for each subsequent year 

Once benefits have been claimed early, the reduction in benefits is permanent except in limited circumstances such as when retirees quickly rescind their claim -- within the first year -- and repay all benefits earned to date. And seniors with lower starting benefits will see lower Social Security raises throughout their lifetimes because cost of living adjustments (COLAs) are based on a percentage of current benefits. 

Seniors also have the option of starting benefits after FRA. While this would mean forgoing many years of checks, retirees may wish to do so because each month of delay after FRA leads to a monthly benefit increase. Delayed retirement credits add up to an 8% annual increase to Social Security payments, and these credits can be earned until 70. 

Because of how delayed retirement credits and early filing penalties work, seniors need to know their FRA so they can compare it to their claiming age and see how their decision about when to file Social Security benefits will affect the income they receive. 

When is your full retirement age based on birth year? 

So when exactly is your full retirement age? It depends on when you were born. The table below shows FRAs by birth year. 

Birth Year

Full Retirement Age


66 and 2 months


66 and 4 months


66 and 6 months


66 and 8 months


66 and 10 months

1960 or later


Source: Social Security Administration.

Now you're among the minority of American adults who know when their FRA is, and you can make the best and most strategic choice about when to claim your Social Security checks

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