Social Security benefits can potentially make or break your retirement, and millions of seniors depend on their monthly checks for a significant portion of their income.

It is advisable, then, to ensure that you have a solid understanding of how the program works. While Social Security can be complex and confusing, even small mistakes or misunderstandings can cost you hundreds of dollars each month.

These are some of the most common mistakes to avoid.

1. Not knowing your full retirement age

Your Full Retirement Age (FRA) is the age at which you will receive the full benefit amount to which you are entitled based on your career earnings. If you apply for Social Security before you reach your FRA, your benefit amount will be permanently reduced. By delaying benefits beyond your FRA, you will receive larger checks each month.

Those born in 1960 or later have an FRA of 67 years, while those born before 1960 have an FRA of 66 or 66 and a few months, depending on the exact year of birth.

Only 13% of American adults can correctly name their FRA, according to a 2022 survey from the National Retirement Institute. Also, the average guess among baby boomers was 63 years old, which is well below the actual FRA.

When you’re not sure about your FRA, it’s harder to know how your age will affect the amount of your checks. For example, you can start claiming at age 63 expecting to receive your full benefit amount. However, you are actually claiming at least three years early, which will result in reduced payments.

2. Not checking your estimated benefit amount

Even if you still have years before you plan to retire, you can (and should) check your estimated benefit amount.

You can do this by reviewing your statements online through your mySocialSecurity account. From there, you can see an estimate of your future benefit amount based on your actual earnings.

Keep in mind that if you still have many career years left, your benefits could change by the time you retire. Also, this estimate assumes that you will apply for Social Security on your FRA. If you start claiming before or after that age, it will affect your monthly payments.

When you know roughly how much you can expect from Social Security, it’s easier to determine how much you’ll need to save on your own. And the sooner you verify your estimated benefit amount, the more time you have to adjust your retirement savings accordingly.

3. Not taking advantage of all the benefits to which you are entitled

In general, once you’ve worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years, you’ll be eligible for retirement benefits. But there are a few other types of Social Security benefits you might qualify for:

  • Spousal Benefits: You may qualify for spousal benefits if you are at least 62 years old and married to someone who is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits. The most you can receive is 50% of the amount your spouse is entitled to in their FRA.
  • Divorce Benefits: To qualify for divorce benefits, you must be at least 62 years old, not currently married, and your previous marriage must have lasted at least 10 years. Similar to spousal benefits, the most you can collect is 50% of the amount your former spouse will receive in their FRA.
  • Survivor Benefits: If you were financially dependent on a loved one who died, you may qualify for survivor benefits. These benefits are generally reserved for widows and widowers, but are sometimes also available to former spouses, parents, children, and other family members.

If you qualify for any of these types of benefits, you could potentially receive hundreds of dollars more per month. Make sure you take full advantage of them.

Social Security can be confusing at times, but it pays to have at least a basic understanding of how the program works. By avoiding these common mistakes, you can maximize your monthly payments and enjoy a more financially secure retirement.

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