A new effort to improve the finances of area families will focus on affordable banking.

Thursday morning, representatives of the United Way, local governments and the region's financial institutions announced Bank On Roanoke Valley during a news conference at the Roanoke Special Events Center.

The initial goal of the program is to help 1000 people open free or low-cost bank accounts. Most of the banks and credit unions in the Roanoke Valley are now on board.

Supporters say the program will help people avoid the check-cashing fees and high interest loans that cost many families more than $1000 a year.

"By getting them in the banking system," said Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill, "they can start putting that money in their pockets instead and really begin to build financial stability."

When Connie Stanley heard about the program, the Valley Bank executive thought of a former customer she encouraged to open a savings account.

"He came in to tell me that for the first time in his life he was going to get a vehicle and he was going to buy a used pickup truck," Stanley said. "And then he sent me a dozen roses. So when we first heard about Bank On, his face was the very first thing I recalled."

Erin Beard has a bank account, but the recent high school graduate hopes to take advantage of the free financial education classes that Bank On Roanoke Valley will also offer.

"Don't really know what I'm doing yet at all with finances and bank accounts and credit cards," Beard said in an interview, "so it's awesome to have a website or someone to talk to and classes to go to to help me. I did not know the Roanoke Valley had that, and this is awesome. "

The Bank On Roanoke Valley partners are offering free or low-cost checking accounts, free online banking, no-fee check cashing and unlimited transactions. Most banks and credit unions in the Roanoke Valley are taking part, so anyone who is interested can visit their local branch and ask about Bank On qualified accounts.