Millions of seniors depend on Social Security to pay their bills in retirement, which is why recipients are constantly advised to maximize those benefits as much as possible. Doing so, however, requires, at the very least, a basic knowledge of how Social Security works. And new data from Nationwide speaks to a glaring knowledge gap among older Americans nearing retirement.

Only 24% of older adults can identify their full retirement age (FRA) for Social Security purposes. And without that key piece of information, Americans risk filing at the wrong time and slashing their benefits as a result.

A seated senior man looks down at an envelope in his hands.


Your full retirement age matters

Though your Social Security benefits themselves will be calculated based on your highest-paid 35 years of earnings, the age at which you file for them will determine how much you collect on a monthly basis. If you file at full retirement age, or FRA, you'll get the exact monthly benefit your earnings record entitles you to. Your FRA is a function of your year of birth, as follows:

Year of Birth

Full Retirement Age




66 and 2 months


66 and 4 months


66 and 6 months


66 and 8 months


66 and 10 months

1960 and after



Now you certainly don't have to claim benefits at FRA. In fact, you're allowed to file for Social Security as early as age 62. For each month you file ahead of FRA, however, your monthly benefit will be reduced, up to a maximum of 30%. Furthermore, whatever reduction you face by filing early will remain in effect for the rest of your life unless you manage to withdraw your application and repay the money you collected to the Social Security Administration within a year. Since that's a difficult thing to do, it's best to assume that the monthly benefit you start out with will be the amount you lock in for life.

You can also delay Social Security past FRA and accrue credits that boost your benefits by 8% a year. This incentive, however, runs out at age 70, so the maximum increase you'll snag is 32% if your FRA is 66 and you wait until 70.

If you're approaching retirement with little to no savings, it pays to wait until full retirement age to file at the very least to avoid a reduction in benefits. Even if your savings are in a healthy place, having more money in retirement certainly doesn't hurt, especially when you factor in unknowns like healthcare that could wind up costing more than expected.

Now in some cases, it does make sense to claim Social Security before FRA. For example, if you lose your job and have no other way to pay your bills, you're better off filing for benefits than racking up costly debt, even if that means lowering your monthly payments in the process. Furthermore, if your health is poor, and you don't expect to live a long life, it generally pays to start collecting benefits on the early side to get more money from Social Security in your lifetime.

Furthermore, if you've saved nicely for retirement and therefore aren't particularly reliant on Social Security to pay your bills, you might choose to file for benefits before FRA and use that money to travel or enjoy life when you're relatively young. The key, either way, is to make an informed decision, which you can't do without knowing your full retirement age. If you don't know that number, commit the above information to memory. Otherwise, you'll risk filing for benefits at the wrong time and suffering financially because of it for the rest of your life.