Five Steps to Succeed in The New Retirement Red Zone

I typically avoid using sports analogies; not everyone follows sports which means many sports analogies leave people secretly scratching their heads in confusion. 

The only one I have ever used with some consistency comes from gridiron football: the red zone.

The red zone refers to a position on the field where the offensive team is between the 20-yard line and the endzone. This position represents a higher statistical chance that the offensive team will score while simultaneously changing many of the tactics of play.

In this scenario, both teams will call different plays in the red zone in an attempt to punch it in for a score or, in the defensive case, keep the offense out of the endzone. 

Over my three and a half decades of advising clients, I’ve often used this football analogy with clients as they enter a unique period of their lives: the Retirement Red Zone.

As clients near retirement, the play calling begins to shift as the landscape has changed. This is when clients have a higher statistical chance of scoring (achieving their goals), but play calling (planning strategy) becomes more critical than ever. 

The Retirement Red Zone generally starts about 20 years before the projected date of your retirement. So, for example, if you intend to retire at 67, you’ll enter the red zone around 47.

For many of my clients in the past, by the time they hit this age, their kids had moved out, they’ve paid off most personal short-term debts associated with raising their kids, and they were able to get laser-focused on saving for their retirement.

It used to be an “all hands on deck” opportunity to save diligently and make up any lost ground over the years.

Fast forward to today, and the standard playbook has changed. Societal shifts have brought about unique issues that can throw off this plan of yesteryear.

For starters, many people are waiting until they are older to have or adopt children. That has shifted back the age that many are responsible for supporting their children.

I’m personally a great example of this. I married my wonderful wife when I was 38, we had kids a few years later, and today my kids are in their teens while I’m well into my 50’s. This means that I am simultaneously balancing saving for retirement while also funding my children’s lifestyle and soon, their college educations.

Another factor at play conflicting with the “Retirement Red Zone” is the increase in boomerang kids—a societal shift where more and more “older” young adults are moving back in with their parents, typically after being on their own for some time. This movement began to pick up steam after the Great Recession and has continued during and after the global pandemic.

Lastly, more of us are finding ourselves responsible for helping our aging parents, who may have failed to save enough for their retirement, coining us as the “Sandwich Generation,”; a term used to describe a generation who simultaneously cares for their parents while still supporting their children. 

Needless to say, it’s time to throw the traditional playbook out the window and focus on the tactical actions we can take under these new conditions.

 Five Steps for succeeding in the new Retirement Red Zone:

  1. Find peace where you are.
    For many who find themselves in the sandwich generation, caring for their parents and kids, saving sufficiently for retirement has likely been a challenge. This can cause feelings of doubt, anxiety, and shame around money. One of the first keys to take back control and punch through the end zone is to make peace with your current situation, rather than continuing to beat yourself up around the mistakes or misses of the past. Once you’ve realized that it is okay, you’ve done the best you could with the hand you were dealt, you can begin to release the negative emotions around your finances, allowing you to start anew.
  2. Take stock of your current situation.
    The next step is to assess the damage, or upside, of your current situation. For many, this is best done with the help of a CFP® professional, who’s been trained to assess and adjust varying types of financial situations. This step should include a detailed assessment of current retirement savings, debt obligations, cash flow, education savings, and more. The goal here is to thoroughly understand your current financial state, allowing you to move to step three.
  3. Craft your action plan.
    Once you’ve taken stock of your current financial situation, you can begin to craft an action plan unique to your needs. Of course, the exact details will vary situationally, but here are some potential actions:

    – Create a debt paydown strategy and mitigate new debt.
    – Design a monthly spending plan and identify opportunities to reduce cash flow constraints.
    – Increase retirement plan contributions to make up for lost time.
    – Adjust your investment portfolio more or less aggressively, depending on your needs, risk tolerance, and time until retirement.

    This step is another excellent opportunity to secure the help of a CFP® professional.

    A CFP® professional will help you spot planning opportunities you may not have recognized on your own and create a cohesive plan to reach your retirement goals while balancing your current responsibilities.
  1. Have open conversations.
    This is likely the simplest but most difficult step for those in the sandwich generation. It’s time to have open and honest conversations with both your parents and your children about what responsibilities you can and can’t undertake on their behalf. 

    This is a great time to talk openly with your parents about their financial situation, what they have versus what they need. This will help you identify the possible gap and discuss what you can provide. However, it’s essential to recognize that these financial conversations can quickly become emotionally charged, so do your best to approach this with a calm temperament. Don’t be afraid to set the conversation aside for another time if needed.

    Additionally, this is an excellent opportunity to talk with your children about money, though the exact conversations will vary by age and financial situation.

    Often, with older children or boomerangers, it will be a candid discussion about your competing priorities: securing your retirement versus providing for your adult children. Keep in mind that, in a way, choosing to prioritize your retirement over providing for adult children is actually to your children’s benefit. It means that you won’t need to call on them for help during your retirement years, breaking the cycle of the sandwich generation.

    For younger children or teens, this may be an opportunity to teach them some of the money lessons you’ve recently discovered, as well as discuss college plans. One of the best ways to teach kids about money is by modeling the desired behavior and creating a space for kids to try their hand at money, often through an allowance.

    When it comes to college, you’ll now have a clear understanding of what you plan to offer your children and can communicate that clearly to help manage their expectations.
  2. Review, revise, and re-commit.
    The final step: rinse and repeat. There is a common misconception in personal finance that a financial plan is a static, unchanging document. Instead, it is a living, breathing process, subject to change with the unexpected swings of life.

    For many, it helps to maintain an ongoing relationship with an experienced CFP® professional who can continuously spot opportunities amidst an ever-shifting landscape, make recommendations, and help you stay on track and accountable over time. 

I am here to help.

As someone with firsthand experience in the new Retirement Red Zone, I am here to help.

Through my work as a CFP® professional, I help clients take stock of their current situation, design an action plan that focuses on creating immediate impact, navigate the difficult conversations ahead, and continuously adjust the financial plan to account for inevitable change. 

If you’re interested in scheduling a complimentary consultation, please visit, and let’s discuss your unique situation.

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