35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It

You’ll probably rely on Social Security quite a bit once you retire, so it’s important to understand how the program works. And unfortunately, a large number of Americans are in the dark in that regard. In a recent MassMutual survey, 35% of near-retirees aged 55 to 65 failed a basic Social Security quiz, while 18% earned only a D. Just 3% were able to answer all 12 questions correctly.

If you’re clueless about Social Security, it’s important that you get schooled so you can position yourself to grow and maximize your benefits. Here are a few important things you should know.

Older man and woman at laptop with concerned expressions

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Your benefits are based on your top 35 years of earnings

The monthly benefit you collect in retirement isn’t arbitrary. Rather, it’s based on your specific earnings during your 35 highest-paid years in the workforce.

If you don’t work a full 35 years, you’ll have $0 factored into that calculation for each year you’re missing an income, so it’s really important to try to fill in those gaps. If you lost your job during the pandemic and are thinking about early retirement as a result, you may want to check your earnings history before you make that call.

2. You’re only entitled to your full monthly benefit once you reach full retirement age

You can claim your monthly retirement benefit in full once you arrive at full retirement age, or FRA. But many people don’t know what that age is. Specifically, 26% of those aged 60 to 65 couldn’t correctly identify their FRA on the aforementioned quiz.

Your FRA is based on your year of birth, and you can use this table to figure out what it is:

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.

You should also know that you don’t have to file for benefits at FRA — you can sign up for Social Security as early as age 62 or delay your filing up until age 70, and grow your benefits in the process. But you’ll need to know your FRA before you land on a filing age.

3. You can collect Social Security even if you never worked yourself

We just learned that Social Security benefits are earnings-based. But what if you never worked? The good news is you’re not necessarily out of luck.

If you are or were married to someone who’s entitled to Social Security, you may be in line for spousal benefits that equal 50% of what your current or ex-spouse collects. MassMutual found that 30% of older Americans didn’t know that someone who’s divorced may be entitled to benefits based on a former spouse’s earnings history, so it pays to read up on spousal benefits as retirement nears if you never held a job.

Being ill-informed about Social Security could make it harder to file at the right time and make the most of that income stream. Do yourself a favor and keep reading up on how those benefits work so that you’re able to make smart decisions for your retirement.

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