Financial health for golf course superintendents

David Morrow overcame crushing debt to begin to build a stronger financial future for his family. Here's what he learned.


Photo illustration of money with a piggy bank and financial statement
Earlier is better when it comes to financial planning, as the author found out. After racking up crippling debt early in his career, David Morrow took a long look at his family’s financial picture, swallowed his pride and ultimately put himself and his loved ones on secure footing. Photo by Adobe Stock

How many times have you thought about where you want to be in your career and how you want to get there? We all have and can lay it out in our heads easily. Now, how many times have you thought about what’s next? What happens when the inevitable happens and your career starts to head down the backstretch? No one likes to talk about it, but we need to.

Probably like so many who are reading this, I come from a generation that was told to go to college after high school. That was the natural progression: Go to school, get your degree, do your few years as an assistant and progress into a superintendent position. 

That was a nice fairy tale while it lasted. Unfortunately, we came into the business at a time when the golf industry contracted, and the economy took a downturn. Superintendent positions became fewer, and those that remained seemed to come and go, making achieving that goal seem unobtainable. 

After 13 years as an assistant at five different courses with plenty of experience and even a year in sales, I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. 

This story is all too familiar to so many of our generation. I don’t regret my years or where they led me, but I wish I had done things differently — especially with my money.

Mainly with my finances, I spent most of my 20s like too many people do — young, dumb and feeling like I was invincible. While I took advantage of my club’s 401(k), I was foolish enough to think that was all I had to do to secure my future. I didn’t look forward, and now here I am in my 40s looking down the barrel of my career knowing I’m on the back end. 

We joke with our peers that we will all work until we are dead, but do we really have to? The problem is that now I have a family to support. How do I begin to dig out of the hole I created?

Fairway at hole no. 14 at Wolferts Roost Country Club
A look down the fairway on hole No. 14 at Wolferts Roost Country Club in Albany, N.Y. Photos by David Morrow

Debilitating debt

My first step was just acknowledging I had a problem. That problem was debt. 

I had four credit cards that were all but maxed out, a car loan, insurance and a home loan, as well as other bills that always seemed to come. I was paying late, telling myself I was staying ahead. That was when I made the decision to fix our situation. We decided to move back to my wife’s hometown. We sold our home, which, if I had been honest with myself in the beginning, we couldn’t afford. We managed to make a good profit from the sale, so I took what we needed to purchase a new home and set that aside. With the rest, we reduced as much of our debt as we could. 

This next step was one of the hardest: My pride had to take a back seat as we fixed our situation. We — me, my wife, my son and two dogs — moved in with my in-laws, into an 8-foot-by-10-foot bedroom. We did that for almost a full year, and I can’t thank them enough for helping us during that time. We saved every penny — no eating out, coffee at home — and every cent went to paying off our debt. 

Debt is crushing, and now that I am on the other side of it, I never will allow us to return. Every cost is measured and weighed.

This time, when we looked for a home, we were honest and only looked at what we could afford. We settled on a fixer-upper to stay within our budget. It took me three months of work every day after time at the course to get our house ready to move in. 

There are still things to do, but I’m proud to say we made it our home without running ourselves into even more debt we couldn’t afford. 

During all this time, I had no significant raises or promotions. We acknowledged that if we wanted a secure future, we had to fix the root of the problems. I am no financial planner or coach; I simply want to help others who find themselves in a similar situation. 

David Morrow with his wife and young son
The author (center) with his wife, Bri, and son, Emmett. Photos by David Morrow

Lessons learned

After hours of researching and planning and watching countless videos trying to better my financial understanding, here is what I have found:

Acknowledge your problem. Without seeing the whole picture, you cannot start to work on it.

Stop borrowing. You know you can’t afford another bill, so don’t take one on. This means credit cards, loans, store cards, car loans — all of them.

Make a budget. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Simply list all your expenses and record what you earn each month. This is scary; know that going in. See what expenses are necessary and what can be cut. 

  • Car loan: Do you need a new vehicle, or can you get out of that payment and drive something less expensive?
  • Streaming services: Do you need them all?
  • Gym and other memberships: Cancel them if you don’t use them.
  • Groceries: Try online ordering to eliminate compulsion buys at the store.

Eliminate extra expenses. Bring lunch, make coffee, check your insurance rates, check your cellphone bill.

Sell things you’re not using. Toys, boats, bikes, ATVs … we all accumulate them, and they all cost. Also look at old clothes, computers and things that still have value, just not to you.

Create a plan to pay off the debt. I suggest a debt-snowball approach because that worked for me. The basic idea is to start with your smallest debt and pay that off, then move to the next smallest, adding what you used to pay on the previous debt to the next, on and on until your debts are paid. The most efficient way is to pay off your highest-interest debts first and work your way down. The downside to this is it can take longer to pay off those debts because they also tend to be the largest. This can lead to a feeling of defeat and ultimately giving up. Don’t give up.

Create an emergency fund. This is the one that everyone says to do, and it always seems impossible. But without debt, you will be amazed at how fast it can grow. And once it does, you will be flabbergasted at how good it feels. You’ll have no concerns about paying bills by autopay. Faced with a medical emergency? No big deal; you can pay that. It’s the ultimate financial freedom from that anchor of debt.

Start really saving for retirement. Even though this is the main goal of the whole experience, it is also the last step. You will never really get to this point if you’re struggling to pay your bills. This is when you can start putting the maximum you can afford into your retirement. Don’t have a retirement plan? Start one, the sooner the better.

Hole No. 5 at Wolferts Roost CC
Hole No. 5 at Wolferts Roost CC

Research retirement

This is where your research begins. I do not know all the advantages of each of these or what would work best for you and your family. Research each of these retirement strategies and take advantage of the tax breaks of those that are appropriate and decide how you want your future to look:

  • Roth IRA
  • 401(k)
  • Regular IRA
  • Certificate of deposit
  • Stocks
  • Bonds

I can’t stress this enough: Research.

Do what is best for you and your family. The key to retirement is saving and compound interest, and the sooner you can begin, the sooner you will see gains. I still don’t know if I will gain enough savings that I can ever truly retire, but I am taking every opportunity I can to make that happen. 

At this point, I suggest another budget breakdown to decide what you need to survive and what can be saved. Every raise I get goes to savings. Every side job I do goes to it. Every dividend I get from my stocks goes right back to it. I no longer dip into savings for an extra expense. If there is something I want, I save for it and buy it outright. 

I have only two credit cards now, and neither carries a balance at month’s end — not because I don’t use them, but because as soon as the bill comes, it is paid in full.

Once I was debt-free and had built my emergency fund, I switched all my bills over to my credit cards, and now I get rewards for all my expenses. That adds up to an extra few thousand dollars in rewards. I only suggest doing that once you are debt-free and know exactly what your monthly expenses are.

The path to financial freedom is never the same for everyone, but I hope some of this might help others who felt as trapped as I did. It is not easy, and hard choices have to be made. But the outcome is well worth it, and I hope that you all can find it. Remember to do what is best for you and yours. Small steps in the right direction are all that it takes to get you on the right track. 

Best of luck.

Morrow on the golf course with two medium-size dogs
Morrow and his dogs — Magik (left) and Wally.

David Morrow has been the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Wolferts Roost Country Club in Albany, N.Y., since 2020. He is a 16-year member of GCSAA

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