Avoid these 3 Social Security mistakes (www.futurityfirst.com)

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Americans are an impatient bunch, at least when it comes to Social Security.

People who delay taking Social Security benefits will be rewarded with higher monthly payments, yet hardly anyone waits until 70, the age at which benefits are maximized. Many lock in reduced benefits by not waiting even until their full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67 for most people currently in the workforce. Some start at 62, locking in benefits as soon as they can.

Claiming benefits early is one of dozens of potential mistakes when it comes to Social Security. That should come as no surprise because the system is complex.

“The Social Security system has 2,728 core rules and thousands upon thousands of additional codicils” designed to clarify those rules, write the authors of Get What’s Yours, a new book on the topic. Here are three potential blunders.

Obsessing over the break-even point.

If you delay taking Social Security, the monthly benefit rises. Yet about 40% of participants begin around age 62, while fewer than 2% wait until 70. Some people need the money now or don’t think they will live long. Others wonder if Social Security will remain solvent. Still others fear getting shortchanged. They recognize that they would need to live a long time — often into their mid-80s — before receiving more money from the higher payments that come from delaying. This is a common Social Security break-even calculation, and some people pay too much attention to it.

“It’s very beguiling to think if you take benefits at 62 and invest them for eight years … you end up with a very nice pile of money, and it would take you a long time to earn that money back in the form of higher benefits that you would get if you waited until age 70,” Philip Moeller, co-author of Get What’s Yours, said in an interview that can be viewed at Morningstar.com.

But dying fairly early, and leaving some dollars on the table, might not be the biggest risk. A greater danger for most people, Moeller said, involves outliving one’s assets. “Don’t focus on the break-even date,” he and co-authors Laurence Kotlikoff and Paul Solman advise in their book. “Worry about the broke date — the date you can’t pay all your bills because you took benefits that were too low, too early.”

Failing to coordinate with your spouse.

One interesting feature of Social Security is that you might be eligible to receive benefits based on someone else’s work history — and they, potentially, can on yours. Joint planning thus becomes important, especially for spouses.

“You can collect spousal benefits instead of collecting on your own record,” said Boston law firm Margolis & Bloom in a report. “If your spouse earned considerably more than you, this can be an attractive choice.”

Married spouses thus should decide how each person should claim benefits. The exercise can get complicated, but it’s worth the effort. When married couples don’t carefully plan their strategies for claiming benefits, they could receive reduced payments.

For example, if one partner dies fairly soon after opting to claim early benefits, at a reduced dollar level, it can diminish the spouse’s survivor benefits.

According to Grimes, it can be wise for at least one spouse in a two-earner household to defer the receipt of regular retirement benefits. In that case, when the first spouse dies, the survivor would be able to collect a higher Social Security benefit. “Having one earner put off benefits until age 70 ensures that the surviving spouse collects the highest benefits possible,” he said.

Not realizing that you can change your mind.

Not every Social Security decision is set in stone. For example, people can do over, or withdraw, a decision to take benefits early, renewing their eligibility to qualify for higher monthly payments down the road.

Recipients who start benefits early have one year to change their minds. The drawback is that you must pay back any money already received. If you also have had Medicare premiums taken out of your Social Security benefits, you must repay those funds too, Moeller said.

A do-over (withdrawal) means you’re starting over, as if you never filed for benefits in the first place. For people who need short-term cash in the form of immediate Social Security benefits but then decide to do it over, “this essentially becomes a one-year, interest-free loan,” said Margolis & Bloom.

What if you can’t repay the benefits that you received after 12 months have elapsed? An option would be to suspend the receipt of further benefits so that you could start earning credits that would make you eligible for higher payments later. You can suspend benefits upon reaching full retirement age.

For example, said Margolis & Bloom, if you started benefits at 62 then suspend them at 66, you could build up delayed retirement credits from 66 to 70 that would qualify you for higher payments. Benefits rise by 8% a year from 66 to 70, so delaying over that stretch would result in a monthly payment that’s 32% larger.

The bottom line is, with Social Security, you have some flexibility. They’re among dozens of potentially helpful strategies available.

Wiles, Russ. “Avoid These 3 Social Security Mistakes.” Web log post. CNBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2015.

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From rents to haircuts, Americans feel price hikes (www.futurityfirst.com)

Apartment rents are up. So are prices for restaurant meals, haircuts, gym memberships and a cup of coffee.

For American consumers who have become used to flat or even falling prices for several years, an unfamiliar sight has emerged in many corners of the economy: Inflation is ticking up.

The price increases remain modest. And in many cases, they’re canceled out by price declines for other items that are keeping overall inflation historically low.

Yet the stepped-up price tags for a range of consumer items are the largest since the Great Recession ended six years ago. They actually reflect a healthier economy: Many businesses have finally grown confident enough to pass their own higher costs on to consumers without fear of losing customers. Employers have added nearly 5.6 million jobs the past two years, allowing more people to absorb higher prices.

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Signs of emergent inflation are a key reason the Federal Reserve, which is meeting this week, will likely raise interest rates from record lows later this year. Inflation has long trailed the Fed’s 2 percent target rate but is on track to return to that level in coming months.

“That should give the Fed a little more confidence that … they will meet their (inflation) objective,” said Laura Rosner, an economist at BNP Paribas.

In June, the price of haircuts jumped 1.6 percent, the biggest monthly jump in the 62 years that the government has tracked the data. Over the past year, they’ve surged 2.8 percent, the largest year-over-year gain since 2008.

That’s no surprise to Chrissie Crosby, a retired government worker in Alexandria, Virginia. She says her hair salon has started charging nearly $30 for a shampoo, blow dry and haircut, up from $22.

“It used to be a convenient place for a trim, because it was inexpensive, but it’s no longer very inexpensive,” she said.

Coffee prices jumped 6.1 percent in January from 12 months earlier, the most in nearly three years. Starbucks has responded by raising the price of a cup of coffee by between 5 cents and 20 cents.

And beef prices have soared nearly 11 percent in the past year, which has led Chipotle to raise prices for steak and its beef barbacoa by an average of about 30 cents per entree, the company says.

The biggest driver of inflation this year has been residential rents. They climbed 3.5 percent in June from a year earlier, the fifth straight month with an annual gain of that size.

Overall, consumers have yet to be hit by significant increases for everyday purchases. Inflation as measured by the consumer price index has barely risen in the past 12 months, mostly because cheaper gas has held down the index.

But prices are rising. If you exclude food and energy, which tend to fluctuate sharply, “core” inflation has risen 2.3 percent at an annual rate in the past three months. In April, the three-month annual pace was 2.6 percent, well above the Fed’s inflation target.

Economists expect the price increases to continue, in part because they’re occurring mostly in services, whose prices tend to be comparatively stable. Economists call these “sticky” prices. They include rent, insurance, haircuts, restaurant meals and utility bills.

Sticky prices are slow to change. Utilities typically must ask regulators to approve price increases, for example, and most restaurants don’t want to frequently reprint menus. But once prices in those categories do rise, they’re usually slow to change course.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta maintains an index of sticky prices, which has risen 3 percent at an annual rate in the past three months, the most since the recession ended.

Labor costs for many service-sector companies are rising, lifted by minimum wages in an increasing number of states. Chipotle just raised prices 10 percent in San Francisco partly because of that city’s minimum wage increase. Jack Hartung, the company’s chief financial officer, said Chipotle has seen “no reaction whatsoever” from customers.

By contrast, prices for goods in some cases keep falling. Clothing, furniture, and many appliances are cheaper than they were a year ago, a result of global competition that’s held down the costs of factory goods.

And gasoline and natural gas is much cheaper than they were last year. Through the first half of 2015, the average retail gasoline price is down 30 percent to $2.47 a gallon. Residential natural gas prices are down 9 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.

A big reason prices for services have risen is that they’re increasingly where Americans are spending money. Consumers spent just 32 cents of every dollar on goods in the first quarter of this year, down from nearly 34 cents two years ago. Over the same period, services spending rose to 67.6 cents from 66.

“People are finally getting back to the comforts they may have afforded prior to the recession, including splurging on haircuts and home cleaning services,” says Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation.

Still, for many families that remain squeezed by sluggish pay growth, even small price increases hurt. Average hourly earnings rose just 2 percent in June from a year earlier, well below the 3.5 percent pace typical of a healthy economy.

Jeremy Beck, a lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky, has noticed a jump in his water bill and said electricity costs were also rising. But he and his wife, Christine Ehrick, a professor at the University of Louisville, said the biggest problem has been flat wages.

“Neither of us have seen our pay increase much at all in the past few years,” Ehrick said.

“From Rents to Haircuts, Americans Feel Price Hikes.” Web log post. CNBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2015.

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For more information, contact our Recruiting Manager Allie Vossoughi at allievossoughi@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Thomas Shultz, Managing Director  at thomasshultz@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Director Nancy Monaco at nancymonaco@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Investment Director Tom Bugbee at thomasbugbee@ffig.com & 602-314-7580.

How to avoid the tax traps of restricted stock units (www.futurityfirst.com)

Restricted stock units are the shiny prize for countless employees in technology and other growing industries.

However, RSUs are taxed differently than stock options, and many employees who receive them simply don’t understand the serious implications.

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Stock options have a tax advantage because they are taxed when you exercise your option. RSUs, however, are taxed at the time they are vested, not when you sell.

As RSUs grew more popular over the past five years or so, we’ve seen a problem emerging with how they’re handled. Too many recipients insist on holding on to their RSUs, even after they vest. In doing so, they are falling into the trap of concentration risk—otherwise known as putting all your eggs in one basket.

In and of themselves, RSUs are a good, solid equity compensation vehicle. An RSU is a grant valued in terms of company stock, but company stock is not issued at the time of the grant. Once the units vest, the company distributes shares, or sometimes cash, equal to the their value. Unlike stock options, which are worthless if share prices dip below the option price, RSUs maintain an intrinsic value unless your company goes out of business.

The challenge with RSUs grows out of how to use them. For most recipients, the correct approach is to cash the units out once they vest and then use the proceeds to build a diversified investment portfolio.

“Many employees cling to their RSUs because they’re afraid of being ‘left out.’ They’re haunted by premonitions of their co-workers getting rich while they sit on the sidelines.”

Diversifying your holdings across complementary asset classes allows you to balance risk and reward so that you have the best chance of reaching investment goals without worrying about getting cleaned out. It’s standard practice among people who have become financially successful and want to stay that way.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep any of your company’s stock—far from it. It’s exciting to be an owner and not just an employee. The key is to surround that company stock with complementary investments, such as bonds and stocks in other industries.

But too few RSU recipients are doing that; many hold on to their units, at their peril. This is happening because of the misunderstanding of RSUs’ tax treatment.

We recently added a client who wanted to use the proceeds from his RSUs to help build a house. The client’s plan was to wait a year, sell the vested units and then start building. After a year, he explained, his RSUs would be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate—which is lower than the short-term capital gains rate.

The client was laboring under a common misperception. RSUs, in fact, are taxed as soon as they vest. Often, employers will hold back an amount of shares equivalent to the tax bill upon vesting. That tax bill is onerous, by the way: Depending on where you live, the Internal Revenue Service, along with your state of residence, could end up taking nearly 50 percent of your RSUs’ value. And there’s not much to be done about it.

Back to that client: We explained to him that not only did he not have to wait to dip into his vested stock, but that waiting could actually be counterproductive. Should the price of his company’s stock fall before he sells, he’d lose twice. First, his shares will have lost value, and second—because RSUs are taxed as soon as they vest—he’ll have paid taxes on their higher, original value.

A more common reason that employees hold on to their RSUs is the straightforward hope of growing richer. When I suggested to one 20-something client that he sell his RSUs and invest the proceeds in a diversified portfolio, he basically accused me of being a buzz kill.

“Why would I do that?” he asked. His tech company’s stock had been appreciating fast, he explained, and there was no reason to believe it would stop.

My answer: You can’t see the future. Like all companies, tech firms have long periods of flat or falling stock prices—and yes, they often go bust. Just look at late, great firms such as Pets.com, Webvan or Covad. And remember, recessions are a fact of life, and the havoc they can wreak on stock prices and on companies themselves is very real.

It’s natural to think that the company you work for is different. And maybe it is. But when you limit your investments to the stock of any one company, that’s really risky behavior.

If your company runs into trouble, not only will your stock crater but you might find yourself out of a job, as well. When your wealth is all in the form of your company’s stock, you’re not just putting all your eggs in one basket—you’re living in that basket, too.

Many employees cling to their RSUs because they’re afraid of being “left out.” They’re haunted by premonitions of their co-workers getting rich while they sit on the sidelines.

One way to deal with these kinds of jitters is to use a form of dollar-cost averaging. If your company is growing and its stock is rising, sell small portions of your RSUs at regular intervals and invest the proceeds in your diversified portfolio. That way, you’ll participate in at least part of your company’s gains while creating a solid financial foundation.

If RSUs have pushed you into the ranks of the wealthy, congratulations. But remember: You’ll need to make wise decisions in order to stay there.

Golkar, Bijan. “How to Avoid the Tax Traps of Restricted Stock Units.” Web log post. CNBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2015.

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For more information, contact our Recruiting Manager Allie Vossoughi at allievossoughi@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Thomas Shultz, Managing Director  at thomasshultz@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Director Nancy Monaco at nancymonaco@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Investment Director Tom Bugbee at thomasbugbee@ffig.com & 602-314-7580.

As kids near college, keep watchful eye on 529 plans (www.futurityfirst.com)

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Investors aren’t keen on surprises, especially when they’re getting out their checkbooks to write a series of very large checks for their children’s college education.

When you’re in the midst of choosing bedding and organizers with your child for their college dorm, it’s not the time to find out that your 529 college savings account has plummeted by 20 or 30 percent.

Unless you’re careful, risks could be lurking in your 529, say financial advisors. Many families experienced drops like this in the 2008 and 2009 period, just as they needed to pay for college, because they were not carefully monitoring the asset allocation of their accounts.

“People take for granted that the asset-allocation changes will be appropriate to their risk posture,” said Andrea Feirstein, founder of AKF Consulting Group, an advisor to 529 plan administrators in 32 states.

College savings plans come in three varieties: age-based funds, static asset-allocation funds and a free choice of funds.

Look under the hood

Age-based funds move along a glide path as children grow and near college age. These funds start with big allocations of equities and gradually taper their stock exposure.

Most start out with a high allocation toward stocks, 80 percent on average, though some invest completely in stocks for the first few years. About two-thirds of self-directed 529 assets are housed in age-based funds, according to research firm Strategic Insights.

Static asset-allocation funds ask investors to choose one risk profile—conservative, moderate or aggressive—and then invest the money in the appropriate mix of stocks and bonds, never veering from the allocation as children age.

Finally, 529 accounts can also be invested in individual funds, provided the particular program allows for it.

“One of the things people discovered in ’08 and ’09 was that even when their kid was 17 years old, their account had a 40 percent exposure to equities,” said Feirstein at AKF Consulting.

Investment advisors to the 529s have since tamped down on their equity exposure in the years before college. “Most the plans remodeled their asset allocation to stocks so that it’s somewhere between 0 and 20 percent in those last years,” Feirstein noted.

On average, the funds invest 14 percent of their assets in stocks for students who are age 18 and just 11 percent at age 19, according to Morningstar. However, there is a wide range among plans.

“There is no industry standard for the glide path,” said Paul Curley, Strategic Insights’ director of college savings research.

Not all glide paths are alike

Some funds use a progressive glide path, much like a target-date fund. They reduce a small percentage of their stock exposures each year. More common in 529s is to use fixed tracks, reducing bigger allocations of stocks at set points in time.

For example, in Kansas’s Learn Quest 529 program’s aggressive fund managed by American Century Investments, the stock allocation drops from 90 percent to 70 percent at age 7. At age 18, the allocation goes from 50 percent in stocks to none.

“That could lead to a permanent loss of capital if the markets plunged shortly before the beneficiary’s 18th birthday,” wrote the analysts in Morningstar’s recent “529 College-Savings Plan Landscape” report.

This is particularly worrisome now, said Deborah Fox, president of Fox College Funding, given the strong investment returns of recent years. “Anytime we’re in the latter half of a bull market, investors need to be careful and have a Plan B if things don’t go as planned,” she said.

Polyak, Ilana. “As Kids near College, Keep Watchful Eye on 529 Plans.” Web log post. CNBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2015.

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For more information, contact our Recruiting Manager Allie Vossoughi at allievossoughi@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Thomas Shultz, Managing Director  at thomasshultz@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Director Nancy Monaco at nancymonaco@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Investment Director Tom Bugbee at thomasbugbee@ffig.com & 602-314-7580.

Time for a retirement portfolio gut check? (www.futurityfirst.com)

It’s an anxious time to be a patient investor. The roller-coaster Chinese stock market as well as the ongoing debt crises in Greece and Puerto Rico make it difficult to feel like your retirement portfolio is on strong footing. Now may be a good opportunity to review your asset allocation and tolerance for risk, financial advisors say, especially if you haven’t done so recently.

It’s time for a “gut check,” said Craig Cowles, a certified financial planner and partner with Cardinal Wealth Advisors in Dallas. Answer these questions: Are you properly allocated between stocks, bonds and alternative assets in the first place? Have you rebalanced your portfolio—that counterintuitive process of selling winners and buying losers to maintain your desired asset mix—in the past year? Do you have enough cash on hand?

“Most of all though, don’t become irrational and use fear as the guide, as selling low will hurt you,” Cowles said. If you’re tempted to sell now, he added, you most likely “had too much risk that you were not comfortable with in the first place.” So it’s worth taking a hard look at your investments.

It’s important to put all the recent turmoil in the financial markets in perspective though. “The important thing to remember is that market volatility is always with us,” said Kevin Gahagan, a certified financial planner and partner at Mosaic Financial Partners in San Francisco. “Specific to Greece and China, [that means] ignoring the `noise’ currently surrounding the news of these events. In practical terms, for most investors, these two countries represent only 1 or 2 percent of their total portfolio—at most.”

The 10 largest diversified international funds by assets have less than 9 percent of their portfolios allocated to Chinese stocks and minusculeamounts to Greek equities, according to mutual fund research firm Morningstar. (See table below.) Morningstar and Google Finance offer free tools to help investors analyze the exposure to international markets.

To be sure, stocks of multinationals, regardless of where they are based, have exposure to China and, to a far lesser extent, to Greece and Puerto Rico. But investors should focus on what they can control. “We need to step back and see what is actionable and what is not and for most investors, I don’t see actionable items here except for looking to rebalance their portfolio with equities still near record highs,” said Charles Sachs, a certified financial planner with Private Wealth Counsel in Miami.

Rebalancing your portfolio comes with trade-offs. It can cut the risk of your portfolio and help you stick to your financial plan, but you may incur capital gains taxes from selling appreciated assets in taxable accounts as well as transaction costs to execute your strategy.

“Just as there is no universally optimal asset allocation, there is no universally optimal rebalancing strategy,” according to a 2010 study on the benefits of rebalancing by The Vanguard Group. “The only clear advantage as far as maintaining a portfolio’s risk-and-return characteristics is that a rebalanced portfolio more closely aligns with the characteristics of the target asset allocation than with a never-rebalanced portfolio. As our analysis shows, the risk-adjusted returns are not meaningfully different whether a portfolio is rebalanced monthly, quarterly, or annually.”

So if you were happy with your investment strategy before the recent volatility, you may decide not to make any changes at all. “Often the best action in times of turbulence is no action,” said Molly Bernet Balunek, a certified financial planner with Laurel Tree Advisors in Cleveland.

Anderson, Tom. “Time for a Retirement Portfolio Gut Check?” Web log post. CNBC. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.

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For more information, contact our Recruiting Manager Allie Vossoughi at allievossoughi@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Thomas Shultz, Managing Director  at thomasshultz@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Director Nancy Monaco at nancymonaco@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Investment Director Tom Bugbee at thomasbugbee@ffig.com & 602-314-7580.

It’s a Great Time for a Risk-Tolerance Reality Check (www.futurityfirst.com)

Financial advisers say clients often overestimate their tolerance for risk. But data suggest it’s really financial advisers who become more nervous than they expected when markets become volatile.

Advisers often underestimate their own stomach for risk significantly, by as much as 20 points (on a scale of 1 to 100), according to FinaMetrica, a firm that runs psychometric risk tolerance tests. The danger is that advisers can inadvertently push their perceived higher tolerance for risk onto clients when designing a portfolio, according to Tyler Nunnally, FinaMetrica’s U.S. strategist. The 800,000-plus tests FinaMetrica has analyzed show that most clients of advisers just slightly overestimate their comfort with investment risk.

There is something to advisers’ belief that their client’s risk tolerance seems to change with the markets. But Nunally argues that it’s not any change in actual risk tolerance, which he says is a stable trait. “There’s a perception that the market is less risky when it’s up and more risky when it’s down,” he says.

Whether risk tolerance is a fixed trait or a fluctuating state of mind, recent volatility in markets around the world makes now a good time to check your comfort with risk. While a wealth of free risk questionnaires are available, many are a waste of time, says adviser Curt Weil: “What was comfortable in December of 1999 was horrific in April of 2000.”

What Weil does to provide an objective reality check1 for clients is to simulate a decline of 50 percent in a portfolio and show a client how that would affect her ability to meet her life goals. After speaking with clients about how volatility is normal and should be expected, adviser Kevin Couper takes a similar approach to Weil’s, using a “worst-case” scenario that relives 2008 with a client’s current assets.

In the long run, the ideal portfolio mix is one that clients can live with across market cycles, regardless of short-term gyrations. But there’s this little thing called emotion, which can be hard to predict and control. And a greater exposure to equities may have snuck up on some investors who don’t rebalance regularly, so their risk may be higher than they realize when market volatility hits. 

Anyone willing to shell out $45 can take FinaMetrica’s 25-question test (or ask his or her adviser to spring for it). It asks such questions as, “If you had to choose between more job security, with a small pay increase, and less job security, with a big pay increase, which would you pick?” (Answers range from “Definitely more job security with a small pay increase” to “Definitely less job security with a big pay increase.”) Another: “When you think of the word ‘risk’ in a financial context, which of the following words come to mind first? Danger; uncertainty; opportunity, or thrill.”

A first practical step investors can take is to check that their exposure to stocks hasn’t grown beyond their comfort level. And separating one’s money into different buckets can help guard against getting too stressed in the face of market volatility. Money can be tied to short-, medium- and long-term goals, with each bucket having a different risk profile, says Weil. If the market’s swinging wildly and you know your immediate needs are covered in a short-term, conservatively invested bucket, you may feel more comfortable sticking with any higher-risk, higher-return investments in the long-term basket.

Another way to stop emotions from influencing your investing, as long as you have a smart long-term financial plan in place? Just take a vacation from checking your portfolio. That’ll help keep you focused on the long run—and maybe let you enjoy taking an actual break.

Wooley, Suzanne. “It’s a Great Time for a Risk-Tolerance Reality Check.” Web log post. Bloomberg. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2015.

FFIG grow your practice

For more information, contact our Recruiting Manager Allie Vossoughi at allievossoughi@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Thomas Shultz, Managing Director  at thomasshultz@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Director Nancy Monaco at nancymonaco@ffig.com & 602-314-7580, or Scottsdale Associate Managing Investment Director Tom Bugbee at thomasbugbee@ffig.com & 602-314-7580.

Thomas Bugbee

Futurity First Insurance Group

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