Uncle Sam Needs You To Help Pay Down The Debt

Want to help the U.S. pay down its national debt? The Treasury Department has a program for you. There's even an online form to make it easy. And it turns out, a surprising number of Americans mail in checks, for a few dollars or a lot more, just because they feel like it.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

As of today, the U.S. government debt is nearly $13 trillion. If you're worried about that and feeling generous, you can do something. You can write the government a check, or starting this year you can go online and pay by credit card. David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein with our Planet Money team tried it out.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Okay. So, I'm at this website, pay.gov. I'm going to type in my name.

(Soundbite of typing)

GOLDSTEIN: Pay by credit card. Okay. How much should I give?

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Let's see - the debt is $13 trillion, divide that by 300 million people in the United States. Your share, Jacob, should be $42,000.

GOLDSTEIN: Right. I'm going to give 10 bucks.

KESTENBAUM: All right.

GOLDSTEIN: Okay. Okay. Done.

KESTENBAUM: It turns out a possibly surprising number of people actually make donations to help pay down the national debt. This fiscal year so far, over 500 people have donated more than $1.6 million.

GOLDSTEIN: Even in 2008, when the economy fell apart, people gave more than $2 million.

KESTENBAUM: So we wanted to find out more and we talked to Dan Tangherlini. His title is actually chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Mr. DAN TANGHERLINI (Chief Financial Officer, U.S. Department of Treasury): Apparently it started back in 1961. In fact, a public law had to be passed. Before this time, there was actually no legal authority or framework to accept gifts of any sort to the federal government.

GOLDSTEIN: For privacy reasons, Tangherlini can't tell us who is donating, but we filed a Freedom of Information Act request and we did get the amounts of individual donations over the last five years.

Mr. TANGHERLINI: Well, so the average gift is less than a thousand dollars. And the current national debt is about $13 trillion.

GOLDSTEIN: Sort of awesome, right? It's like talking about the molecule in the universe or something.

Mr. TANGHERLINI: Right. It's a distinctly small fraction of the overall amount.

GOLDSTEIN: Here are some details from the numbers we got. There are a lot of small donations. A hundred and twenty people gave one penny each.

KESTENBAUM: And around 700 people gave, like you, Jacob, $10 or less.

GOLDSTEIN: But some people gave real money. There are donations of $10,000, donations of $100,000.

KESTENBAUM: And last year there was a donation of $1.5 million.

GOLDSTEIN: If that was you, and you're listening right now, please let us know.

KESTENBAUM: We're working on a story about what would happen if everyone paid their share. So if you've given any money, send us an email: planetmoney@npr.org.

I'm David Kestenbaum.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein, NPR News.

GREENE: For a graphic that shows the size of donations, you can go to NPR.org/Money.

Now, helping to pay down the national debt is one way to spend your cash, but our Planet Money team also blogged this week about a guy who found something else to do with money - $250 million of it, to be exact. He's buying a hipster icon.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Pabst Blue Ribbon, what'll you have, Pabst Blue Ribbon...

GREENE: That's right, Pabst Blue Ribbon, known in classier establishments across the nation as PBR. The cheap beer has become a favorite among hip young folks. You can see them in the bars - people with a certain fondness for skinny jeans and ironic facial hair like the beer - oh, and me too.

If the deal goes through, PBR will be owned by C. Dean Metropoulos. It's the same guy who bought the Vlasic Pickles and Bumble Bee Tuna brand.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified People: (Singing) What'll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon, what'll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Smoother, smoother, smoother flavor, zest and sparkle millions favor. Taste that smoother, smoother flavor, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Finest beer, sir, anywhere. Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. What'll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon.

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