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Results from Our Social Security Quiz: A Learning Experience

Category: Financial and taxes in retirement

March 31, 2014 — Thanks to everyone who took our Social Security Quiz – all 5,700 of you (and counting)! As we warned, it was not easy. In fact, Harry, a college friend of ours commented that if your editor was a professor back in the day no one would taken his classes! There is still plenty of good news though, especially since there is a grading curve:

– Some of the points that people messed up on are nice to know, but not crucial to maximizing your benefit
– Most of all, by taking the quiz and studying the correct answers we can all learn, and make smarter decisions about Social Security.

This article will first summarize some of the key observations from the quiz results, and then provide a recap of all the questions, along with our commentary.

Key Results

Almost nobody is perfect. Only 97 out of 5674 (less than 2%) scored 100%. It was just plain hard to get all the questions right.

The average score was 55%. That doesn’t sound so good, but if we learn the correct answers through the process, that’s what counts!

Most questions had far more correct answers than incorrect. The ones that almost everyone got right were:
– Full retirement age (88% knew that it is 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954)
– If you are divorced, you have to have been married to someone for at least 10 years to collect a spousal benefit on their record (68% got it right)
– Once you hit full retirement age your benefits will not be reduced if you are working (70%)
– As a surviving spouse you are entitled to 100% of your qualified spouse’s benefit, as long as you have reached full retirement age (56%).

Only 1 question had more incorrect answers than correct ones. Fortunately it was one of the least important questions.
– The Social Security Administration calculates your benefit based on your 35 highest earning years (34% chose this, the correct answer. But 39% said it was based on 20 years). Not that critical, with the point being that the SS Administration bases your earnings on almost the entire body of your working career, not just a snapshot of your highest earning years.

The 3 most critical questions on the quiz were closer:
– Assuming you retire at age 62, what % of your full retirement benefit will you receive? (55% chose the correct answer – 75%, whereas 43% said the benefit would be 66%). We should learn from this that it is important to know what kind of reduction there is if you claim early.

– How much can you receive as as a spousal benefit based on your spouse’s Social Security record? It tends to pay to wait. The right answer was a benefit of 50% if you have reached full retirement age (48% got it right, while 37% mistakenly said you would get 50% if you were at least 62). (Note: some early quiz takers saw a more complicated version of this question that had a surviving spouse component – those results are not available).

– 51% of respondents correctly said that if you wait to start taking social security until age 70 your benefits will be 132% of what they would be if you took them at age 66. 37% of quiz takers said the benefits would be 125%, which was an incorrect answer. Again, knowing that your benefit grows if you wait is important to know.

The Questions and Correct Answers:
We have reprinted our summary report of the quiz questions and answers below for your convenience (you saw this page if you took the quiz and pasted in the link we provided with your score. Note that because of a member suggestion we added one extra question to the quiz after some people took it).

There is a Y in front of the correct answer. The percentage who chose each answer is shown in ( ). To make sure you don’t miss out on useful tools and information like this, sign up for our Free weekly Best Places enewsletter.

Q.1 Assuming you were born between 1943 and 1954, what is considered your Full Retirement Age for Social Security benefit purposes? (The rest of the questions in this quiz assume you were born between 1943-1954, unless otherwise noted).

Y 66 (88%)

62 (7%)

70 (5%)

Note: There is always some confusion over what “full retirement age” means. SS assumes 66 is the full retirement age for folks born in these years. But you can actually qualify for “more than full” and get a larger benefit at any age up to 70. The full retirement age for people born between 1955 and 1959 ranges from 66 and 2 months to 66 and 10 months. It is age 67 for those born in 1960 and later. (See Full Retirement Age Chart).

Q.2 What is the minimum number of quarterly periods you have to contribute to Social Security to qualify for receiving Social Security retirement benefits?
28 (16%)

36 (10%)

Y 40 (53%)

48 (10%)

60 (13%)

Note: 40 quarters is equal to 10 years. Many advisers suggest that if you are close to 40 you should contemplate getting a job to get yourself up to that number so you can qualify for your benefit.

Q.3 Assuming you retire at age 62, what % of your retirement benefit will you receive?

66% (43%)

Y 75% (55%)

100% (2%)

Note: As you can see, there is a substantial penalty for starting early. See “When to Start Taking Your Social Security Benefit“>

Q.4 Assume you are divorced from someone who qualifies for social security benefits. You are at least 62, and have not remarried. Can you collect benefits as a divorced spouse on the record of your former spouse?
Yes – but only if your former spouse has not remarried (10%)

Y Yes – but only if you were married to that person for 10 years (68%)

Yes – but only if you were married to that person for 5 years (11%)

No (12%)

Q.5 How much can you receive as as a spousal benefit based on your spouse’s Social Security record?
Y 50% if you start collecting at your full retirement age (48%)

50% as long as you are at least age 62 (37%)

You cannot receive a spousal benefit unless you qualify on your own contribution record (15%)

Note: We created this question to be to emphasize that it is usually worthwhile to wait until you are at full retirement age to start collecting a spousal benefit. If you begin collecting spousal benefits before your full retirement age, the benefit is reduced by a percentage based on the number of months before you reach full retirement age. You do not have to have qualified on your own contribution record to receive a spousal benefit.

This question originally contained a possible answer choice concerning your benefits as a surviving spouse. Based on some reader feedback we revised the question to eliminate the survivor option. We added a new question to pertain to that (Q 6).

Q. 6. As the surviving spouse of someone who has qualified for Social Security benefits, what are your benefits?

Y 100% of your spouse’s retirement benefit upon his/her death, assuming you are at full retirement age (56%)

50% of the spouse’s benefit, regardless of your age (28%)

100% of your spouse’s retirement benefit upon their death, but only if they were receiving retirement benefits (16%)

Note: In the case of a surviving spouse, the deceased worker whose benefit you are collecting on does not have to have started collecting their benefit (but if they were not at full retirement age your benefit will be reduced). If you start collecting as a survivor you have to be at least 60 years old, and you will receive a reduction if you are not at full retirement age. See Social Security – Survivor Benefits.

Q.7 Which is the most accurate statement?
Once you start taking social security your benefits will be reduced if you work for pay. (21%)

Y Once you start social taking security your benefits will not be reduced if you work for pay, as long as you have reached your full retirement age. (70%)

Once you start social taking security your benefits will not be reduced if you work for pay. (9%)

Note: In 2014 if you are younger than full retirement age during all of 2014, SS will deduct $1 from your benefits for each $2 you earn. In the year you reach full retirement age they will deduct $1 for every $3 you earn. BUT, if some of your retirement benefits are withheld because of your earnings, your monthly benefit will increase starting at your full retirement age to take into account those months in which benefits were withheld.

Q.8 Which of these is the most accurate statement about when to start claiming Social Security?

Y If you wait to start taking social security until age 70 your benefits will be 132% of what they would be if you took them at age 66 (51%)

If you claim Social Security at age 72 your benefits will be higher than they would be at age 70 (7%)

You should start taking Social Security as soon as you can because it will take you to almost age 85 to catch up (5%)

If you wait to start taking social security until age 70 your benefits will be 125% of what they would be if you took them at age 66. (37%)

Note: Your benefit increases by 8% a year if you claim after age 66 (up to age 70). Most experts believe that age 77-78 is the breakeven point for claiming at 62 vs. full retirement age – in other words if you or your spouse live past that age you are better off delaying. MarketWatch has an interesting article on this topic from 2 experts – 1 advocates taking SS benefits early, the other says wait under you are 70.

Q.9. Which of these “file and suspend” strategies are legally available to our imaginary couple, Ward and June?
A. Ward reaches Full Retirement Age (66) and files for Social Security benefits, then suspends (thus declining to take benefits at this time). If June is at least 62 she can now file and be eligible to start collecting the spousal benefit. (10%)

B. Ward files at any age he is eligible and starts collecting. June waits until she reaches Full Retirement Age and begins collecting the spousal benefit (4%)

C. Both spouses have reached Full Retirement Age. Then one spouse files for benefits and immediately suspends. The second spouse can now collect the spousal benefit on the first spouse. Later on the suspended spouse can start collecting his/her higher benefit, and the spouse taking the spousal benefit can file for their own benefit if higher. (18%)

None of the above (13%)

Y All of the above (39%)

Only A and B (16%)

Note: These file and suspend strategies are complicated and not for everyone. You should talk with a Social Security representative, accountant, or financial adviser before you consider one of them. See also this SS page on spousal benefits and suspend and file tactics.

Q.10 Do you have to pay federal income tax on your social security benefits?
Yes, all of it is taxable (21%)

No, none of it is taxable (9%)

Y Yes, you must pay taxes on some of your SS benefits if your (filing separately) income is over $25,000/year. (42%)

Yes, you must pay federal taxes on some of your SS benefits if your (filing separately) income is over $32,000/year. (28%)

Note: Individual states vary in their tax treatment of social security benefits. Most do not, whereas others exempt a certain amount.

Q.11 How does the Social Security Administration calculate your benefit?
Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 20 years in which you earned the most. (39%)

Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 25 years in which you earned the most. (9%)

Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 30 years in which you earned the most. (17%)

Y Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most. (34%)

Note: Your benefits are calculated on your 35 highest earning years, indexed for inflation. That’s a longer period than most people think.

For further reference
How Social Security calculates your benefit
How work affects your benefits
What You Don’t Know About Social Security Could Hurt You (3 part series)
Retirement Ranger: Answer 10 questions, get a free custom report on places that you might like to retire to.

Disclaimer: We have tried to provide the most accurate information available. However note that in matters as important and complex as your social security benefit you should do careful research on your own, consult the SS Administration, and rely on your financial or other adviser before making important decisions.

Comments? How did you do on the quiz? Did you have misconceptions about what your benefits might be? What strategies are you thinking about using to maximize your Social Security benefits? Please let us know in the Comments section below.

Posted by Admin on March 31st, 2014


  1. This question came in from Glenn:

    In your recent article regarding SSI, I think there was a mention somewhere within the links as far as what percentage of people actually live to full retirement age. I can not relocate it. If you have this information, please let me know (and your source). I am holding off collecting so far, but I’m crunching numbers and waiting too long doesn’t seem to work for me. No one speaks of all of those whom worked many years and died before collecting a cent. I know several. This is part of the equation the government doesn’t speak about——“just wait and you’ll make more money” is not reality—– nor is winning the lottery.

    A: According to the CDC the average U.S. life expectancy is 78.7. If you live to age 65 you have an average life expectancy of 19.1 more years. Women have a higher life expectancy and men lower. So chances are most people will live well beyond their full retirement age. See

    by Admin — April 5, 2014

  2. Glenn – Contact any financial company (investment, life insurance). I know i’ve seen these numbers thru Fidelity Investments. Upon inputting age and gender life-expectancy is calculated. I remember it to be much higher than the above number. I was 64 yesterday and my life expectancy is low 90’s to waaay higher. Basically, the older you are, the higher you’re chances are of living longer.

    by ella — April 6, 2014

  3. I suggest trying a few of those life expectancy calculators too. They ask for a lot more information such as family history, blood pressure, height and weight, smoking history, etc. which adds better data to the calculations. You start to see a pattern if you try a few different calculators. Still, we are gambling when we make this decision.

    The death of citizens who defer and gamble wrong can help to balance the payments for citizens who take an early retirement. It’s an actuarial game, with Social Security selling deferment to make today’s budgets look healthier. Like a casino, the house holds the edge. If the government’s actuaries are wrong though, the government can change the rules on the future.

    I’m not sure I’ll need the extra money if I make it into my 90s. I do know I’ll need the Social Security benefits between 66-70.

    by Sharon — April 7, 2014

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