Donating this year? Uncle Sam needs your help

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- You've probably heard about the country's giant debt load - $12 trillion and rising.

Did you know you can help reduce it?

How much would you contribute to pay down the nation's debt?
  • Less than $100
  • More than $100
  • My estate, when I die
  • You've got to be kidding

Under a little-known law enacted in 1961, Uncle Sam accepts tax-deductible contributions to pay down the country's debt.

Not that the Treasury Department does much to publicize the program.

You can find it under the header "Accepting Gifts" in the U.S. Code. Or, if you're not an avid reader of dusty legal books, you can check the FAQ section on the Web site of the Bureau of Public Debt, an agency within Treasury. Or flip to page 91 of the IRS' 2009 Instruction Booklet for Form 1040.

Contributions made are typically small -- under $100. But there have been a few humdingers over the years.

The largest single gift ever made was in 1992 for $3.5 million, said Mckayla Braden, a spokesperson for the Bureau of the Public Debt.

For fiscal year 2009, all donations totaled just over $3 million. That's well more than what was donated in any single year in the decade prior. But it's far less than the nearly $21 million collected in 1994.

The money credited to the "Gifts to Reduce the Public Debt" account in theory reduces the amount of money the government has to borrow to finance its debt. But the dent is not deep or lasting.

"We might have to finance a tiny bit less that week," Braden said.

The nuts and bolts

So who are the folks who send Uncle Sam money of their own volition?

"Usually someone dies and leaves a gift. And many contribute regularly," Braden said. "On average, we get five donations a week."

Sometimes, she said, a large donation is made by an estate but is paid out over a number of years.

The names and addresses of the donors are not released. And blessedly, unlike most charities that reward you for giving by bombarding you with solicitations for more money, Uncle Sam will acknowledge your gift but then never bother you again.

There are two ways to give. One is to send a check directly to the Bureau of Public Debt, an agency within the Treasury Department. The address: Attn: Dept G, Bureau of the Public Debt, P.O. Box 2188, Parkersburg, WV 26106-2188.

The other is to include a check -- separate from any tax payment you make - with your federal income tax return.

Hate writing checks? You soon may be able to donate online. "We are going to make it very easy in the future to make gifts to reduce the public debt through Pay.gov on a regular basis," Braden said. (See correction.)

Would you give?

CNNMoney.com's video team took to the streets of New York to ask random passers-by if they were aware of the program. No one was.

When asked if they'd contribute now that they know, the majority said that wouldn't be happening.

One woman put it this way: "They can use my tax dollars to do that and work it out." One man was a little more blunt. "Hell no. Hell no."

But others weren't so put off.

"I think I could give $10 to $20. And if everyone could do that it would make a good dent in the debt," another woman said. Another man figured he could "help the government out" with a hundred bucks.

Of course, with the national debt at $12 trillion, it would take more than a few $100 contributions to get back to even -- 120 billion of them, in fact.

Some lawmakers say 'institutional insurrection' is needed for Congress to deal with the debt. Here's what they mean.

- CNNMoney.com's Ian Orefice and CNN's Ross Helman contributed to this report.

Correction: Due to incorrect information from the Bureau of the Public Debt, the original version of this article included the wrong online payment site. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,982.59 22.02 0.13%
Nasdaq 4,444.91 -4.65 -0.10%
S&P 500 1,978.91 0.57 0.03%
Treasuries 2.49 0.02 0.89%
Data as of 10:45pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Apple Inc 99.02 1.35 1.38%
Facebook Inc 74.92 -0.27 -0.36%
Bank of America Corp... 15.50 -0.09 -0.58%
Dollar Tree Inc 54.87 -0.08 -0.15%
Family Dollar Stores... 75.74 15.08 24.86%
Data as of 4:03pm ET

Sections

Herbalife shares tumble after the maker of nutritional supplements reports earnings that fall short of analysts' estimates. More

New annual report from U.S. government shows the long-term prognosis for Medicare has improved thanks to slower health spending, while the outlook for Social Security remains unchanged. More

Online dating site OkCupid found its users were more likely to have conversations when it told them they were more compatible than in reality. More

Actor-founded This Bar Saves Lives had Hollywood connections, but learned Start-Up 101 the hard way. More

Steve Mason, a pastor from California, inherited more than $100,000 in student loan debt when his 27-year-old daughter died suddenly in 2009. With interest and late penalties, the debt has since ballooned to $200,000. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.