It's mostly checks for $10 or $15, but one man sent real gold, and an 84-year-old Minnesota woman has chipped in a total of $15,235 to help pay off the national debt. A few benevolent souls even tucked a little something extra in with their tax returns.

The Minnesotan, retired librarian Gudrun Hertsgaard of Minneapolis, makes $5,000 in charitable donations each year, of which $3,000 goes to the U.S. Treasury."I work on all my friends to do it, only they kind of laugh at me," she said. "When it gets to their pocketbook, they won't cough it up."

Since 1961, Americans have sent the Treasury $56.8 million to help put the nation back into the black. That sounds generous, but it would cover the interest on the $5.5 trillion national debt for about an hour and a half.

And contributions - ranging from inheritance checks to proceeds from a car wash - have been waning in recent years. Some worry that expectations of a balanced federal budget this year for the first time in nearly three decades have caused people to mistakenly believe the national debt has been erased.

Not only is the debt still here, it's growing.

People have always been able to send the government money, but not until 1961 did Congress allow them to earmark contributions for the national debt. Since the 1982 tax year, the Internal Revenue Service has included instructions in its tax booklet on how to do it.

On page 29 of this year's tax guide, taxpayers are advised to write separate checks payable to the "Bureau of the Public Debt." Even if taxpayers simply want to forfeit their refunds, they need to write separate checks.

In fiscal 1996, 366 Americans slipped checks totaling $85,378 to reduce the federal debt inside their tax returns. That was down from the 3,570 taxpayers who sent in $347,700 in fiscal 1983.

Most contributions to the debt come in separately from tax forms.

"A couple years ago, somebody actually sent in some gold. We went to a metals dealer, got it appraised and sold it. It was a couple hundred dollars' worth," said Peter Hollenbach, a spokesman for the Bureau of the Public Debt in Washington.

A Lithuanian immigrant sent in a five-figure check.

"The man just wanted to show his appreciation for the freedom and democracy he's appreciated since he was living here," Hollenbach said.

When Minnie Vogel died in 1984, she left $153,000 to retire the debt to "show my appreciation and love in helping my country in this small way." After a four-year legal battle over whether her home state of Kentucky was entitled to inheritance taxes, the state got $30,000, the Treasury a little more than $100,000.