Your Social Security benefits are based on your lifetime earnings, and the age you claim them at will dictate the amount. If you file at full retirement age (FRA), you'll get the exact monthly benefit you're eligible for based on your earnings history. FRA is either 66, 67, or somewhere in between.

You can also claim as early as age 62, but for each month you file before FRA, your monthly benefit is reduced. On the flipside, you can delay benefits past FRA, boosting them by 8% a year until you turn 70.

You get a lot of choices on the Social Security front. That's good in theory; it means you can file at a time that works best for you. But it's dangerous in practice, because if you're not careful, you could claim benefits at the wrong age and hurt your financial prospects for life. Here are three signs that you're about to make a very bad decision in signing up for benefits.

Frowning older man holds his face while sitting on couch

Image source: Getty Images.

1. You don't know your full retirement age

You'd think most people would know their full retirement age, since it plays such a big role in avoiding a reduction in benefits. But a survey by Nationwide released last year found that 76% of older Americans could not identify their FRA.

If you were born in 1960 or later, your FRA is 67 -- it's pretty simple. If you were born before 1960, this table shows where you land:

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 or later


Data source: Social Security Administration.

If you don't know your FRA, you'll risk filing early when that's not your intention. And that's a good way to slash your monthly income for life.

2. You haven't assessed your health

Social Security has an interesting breakeven formula. It dictates that as long as you live an average life span, you should, in theory, come away with the same amount of lifetime benefits regardless of the age you file at. The logic is that while filing early reduces your benefit, you collect a larger number of individual payments by doing so; filing after FRA boosts your monthly benefit, but you wait longer to start receiving it.

If you don't live an average life span, however, your filing age really starts to matter. As a general rule, if your health is in bad shape and you're unlikely to live very long, you should claim benefits early. And if your health is great and you think you'll outlive the average senior, you should delay your filing. So if you don't take your health into consideration when choosing a filing age, you'll risk making a poor choice that robs you of lifetime Social Security income.

3. You haven't considered your spouse

If you're single, you only have to take your own needs into account when deciding when to claim Social Security. But if you're married, you'll need to think about your spouse. If you don't, you'll risk filing at an age that may be good for you, but is terrible for your life partner.

Imagine your spouse is much younger than you, and is likely to outlive you by many years. Once you pass away, that spouse will be entitled to survivors benefits from Social Security that equal 100% of your monthly benefit, provided your spouse files at FRA. If you claim your benefits early due to poor health and reduce them in the process, you may get more money from Social Security in your own lifetime, but you could wind up depriving your spouse of a higher monthly income for many years after you die.

Claiming Social Security at the wrong time could result in a world of financial distress and personal regret, so remember these factors to help avoid that.