Consumer borrowing rises


Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.

Americans cut back on using their credit cards in July for the second straight month, while taking on more debt to buy cars and attend school. The decline in credit card use suggests consumers remain cautious.

Consumers increased their borrowing $10.4 billion in July from June to a record high of $2.85 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Monday. That followed a gain of $11.9 billion in June.

A category that includes auto loans and student loans increased $12.3 billion in July to a record $2 trillion. But a measure consumers' credit card debt fell $1.8 billion to roughly $850 billion.

July's pattern of consumers' borrowing habits illustrated trends that have surfaced in the post-recession economy: Americans are using credit for their most urgent needs, while foregoing debt for discretionary purchases.

The auto- and student-loan category is up 8.1 percent from a year ago and has risen in every month but one since May 2010. But credit card debt has barely changed in the past year and is nearly 17 percent below its peak hit in July 2008.

Slow but steady job growth and small wage gains have made many Americans more reluctant to charge goods and services to their plastic. That could hold back consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

At the same time, the weak economy is sending more people back to school. The Federal Reserve's consumer credit report does not separate student loans and auto loans. But the Federal Reserve Bank of New York quarterly report on consumer credit shows student loan debt has been the biggest driver of borrowing since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009.

The government reported that employers added 169,000 jobs in August but 74,000 fewer jobs in June and July than previously reported.

The unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent, but lowest in nearly five years. But the rate fell because more Americans stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.

The overall economy grew at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the April-June quarter.

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