WASHINGTON – Americans borrowed more money in April for the seventh straight month, but they cut back on using their credit cards.
Consumer borrowing rose by nearly $7.2 billion, fueled by greater demand for school and auto loans, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday. A category that measures credit card use fell for the second time in three months. It has risen only twice since August 2008, the height of the financial crisis.
The 3.1 percent overall increase pushed consumer borrowing to a seasonally adjusted annual level of $2.43 trillion, just above the nearly four-year low of $2.39 trillion hit in September.
The report includes auto loans, student loans and credit cards, but excludes mortgages and loans tied to real estate. The Fed will give a more complete picture of Americans' debt on Thursday when it issues its quarterly report on household net worth.
Households began borrowing less and saving more to cope with the recession, which ended in June 2009. Credit card use has plummeted nearly 19 percent over the past 20 months and it has dropped 5 percent over the past year.
Overall borrowing has increased in recent months. But analysts say the reason for that is also a reflection of the weak economy: the gains have been driven by more people borrowing money to attend school — many of whom are out of work.
High unemployment, steep gas prices and a weakening housing market have also forced people to resist reaching for their plastic.
"When you take out student loans, you're still seeing credit card use, and borrowing overall, falling," said Paul Dales, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics. "That's a sign about how people view the economy."
Most economists say borrowing will increase this year. But they don't expect consumers to increase their debt in the way they did during the housing boom.
During that time, Americans felt wealthier because of soaring home values. When home prices fell, they cut back on borrowing. And they slashed further after job losses mounted and many people struggled to get their debt under control.