Years ago, I was the victim of a sudden hit-and-run. The fallout kept me in poverty for years for 4 reasons.

Sarah Martinez and Shaw and her husband Ian, pictured in front of the car they share.

When I was 20, I was the victim of a hit-and-run that totaled my car and left me to rely on local buses.
Not having a car limited my educational and professional opportunities and kept me in poverty.
Getting married changed my situation, but I wish I’d been more prepared for financial disaster back then.
Read more from Personal Finance Insider.

When I was 20 years old, I was the victim of a hit-and-run at a busy intersection. The car hit the front, driver-side corner of my tiny Chevy Cavalier. Even though the impact was hard enough to deploy my air bags, the other car simply kept going. 

When the dust from the air bags cleared, I was alone in the center of the intersection. No other drivers stopped to help, or to act as a witness. After a moment of shock, I drove my limping car into a gas station on the corner. 

Fortunately, I was physically fine other than some bruising from the airbag and seatbelt. But my car was not. A cop at the gas station missed the accident itself but saw my smoking car pull in. 

After taking a report, he offered to escort me and my car with his lights on to a nearby friend’s house. But, he warned me that the other driver was not likely to be caught.  

This one event would domino for years afterward, shaped major decisions, affected my ability to get jobs, and helped keep me in poverty. Here are 4 ways that I got financially stuck after my car was totaled.

1. I lived paycheck-to-paycheck and had no emergency funds 

I was young with little education, and completely on my own. Everything I had went to bills, and there was no room in my budget to save for anything like an emergency fund. With so little left to save for a new car, it seemed pointless to even try. 

Even if I could have saved enough in a timely manner, I didn’t have the income to take out a loan and make monthly payments either. 

I had to resign myself to not having a car, and did not know when I would have one again. I wouldn’t have gas or insurance to pay anymore — but now I was paying for a monthly bus pass. 

2. Liability insurance doesn’t cover things like hit-and-runs

I had liability insurance, but that only covered damages to the other party if I were at fault in an accident. It didn’t cover my own damages, even though I wasn’t at fault.

Replacing the airbags in my 15-year-old car, not to mention repairing the damage to the engine and body, would have cost more than the car was worth — and far more than I could afford. It was a total loss. I sold it to a junkyard for $200. 

3. Using public transit can consume your whole day

I lived in a mid-sized city in Colorado at the time, which like most other American cities of its size, had poor public transit.

Traveling distances of only a few short miles ate up literally hours of my day. Between waiting for the one bus that came to my stop per hour, switching buses, waiting for the connecting bus, and finally arriving at my destination, a lot of time was dedicated just to getting to work.

The bus schedule, which stopped at my workplace at the bottom of every hour, necessitated that I either be 30 minutes early to work, or 30 minutes late. Because I couldn’t clock in early, I would sit in the break room, unpaid, and eat breakfast with the one or two others who took the same bus.

If I needed to go to a doctor’s appointment, I couldn’t just take a long lunch, I needed to take half the day off to account for the bus ride. 

4. Limited options for new jobs, education, and networking

I applied for better paying jobs, but I had to make sure they were on the bus route. I hoped to find a job within walking distance of my apartment, but that limited my options considerably

Even then, most of the jobs I was qualified for would not pay much more than the one I had — not to mention the time I would have to take off work to ride the bus to interviews.

I thought about going back to school, but this was years ago when completely-online programs at legitimate institutions were much harder to come by. Because I didn’t have a car, I would not have time to make it by bus from my job to an evening class on any campus. 

And in any case, going back to school only meant that I might be able to get a better job — in two, or maybe four years. I couldn’t wait that long.

As for my social life, it was difficult to have one when the buses stopped running after 7 p.m. Needing to ask for rides to every gathering was embarrassing. I didn’t go out much if I couldn’t walk to the location.  

How I got unstuck, and what I would’ve done differently

With age and experience, I can think of a couple ways I may have been able to shake some solution loose — but I’m still not entirely sure how I would have gotten out of that mess alone. 

The only thing that changed was my luck: I got a boyfriend, and he had a car. When we were dating, he gave me rides to different places that I needed to get to. 

When we got serious and eventually married, we shared it, taking turns driving and dropping the other off at work. Though many people would consider this an inconvenience, it was life changing for me.

I went to school as soon as I could, now that I had some means of personal transportation. I would have gone earlier, and been better off financially earlier, if I had had one asset that many take for granted — a car. 

It’s easy to say you would have done things differently in hindsight, but it would have been much easier for me to have gotten a new, better-paying job while I still had reliable transportation, which I could have prioritized while I still had the car. A better job could have meant an emergency fund and better car insurance, which would have helped a lot. 

We take for granted the opportunities a car affords, and may not always be prepared for a car-related emergency. An accident like mine can happen any time, to anyone. If you are low-income, I urge you to take steps to protect your ability to navigate your city, as bouncing back from bad luck can be much more difficult than preparing for it.

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