Last Updated:November 23 @ 09:22 pm

US consumers cut back on credit card use

By Christopher S. Rugaber

WASHINGTON (AP) - Americans cut back on credit card use in June, a sign that high unemployment and slow growth have made some more cautious about spending.

Still, total consumer borrowing increased as many kept taking out loans to buy cars and attend school.

Consumer borrowing rose by $6.5 billion in June from May to total $2.58 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday. That's just below the all-time high reached in July 2008.

Auto and student loans rose by $10.2 billion to $1.71 trillion in June.

Credit card debt fell $3.7 billion to $865 billion. That's only 1.6 percent above the post-recession low reached in April 2011.

Americans have been relying less on credit cards since the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession.

At the same time, student loan debt has steadily increased. It has risen 54 percent since mid-2008 to total $902 billion as of March this year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Student loans now accounts for roughly 35 percent of all consumer debt, up from less than a quarter four years ago. That makes it the biggest source of consumer debt outside of mortgages.

The increase partly reflects high unemployment, which has led many Americans to seek better education and skills in a more competitive labor market.

"We are probably witnessing a shift in consumers' attitudes towards debt," said Paul Edelstein, an economist at IHS Global Insight. "Households may be willing to take on debt to pay for cars and education... . But other forms of consumption will come increasingly from current incomes."

Overall, Americans have been steadily paring debt since the financial crisis. Household debt, including mortgages and home equity lines of credit, has declined for 16 straight quarters to $12.9 trillion in March, according to the Fed. That's down from $13.8 trillion in March 2008.

Some of that debt has been removed by defaults, such as foreclosures.

A Commerce Department report last week showed that consumers are more frugal. They spent no more in June than they did in May, while their incomes rose at the fastest pace in three months.

The flat pace of spending was likely because hiring has been weak and confidence low. Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the most in five months. But hiring for most of this year hasn't been enough to lower the unemployment rate. The rate ticked up to 8.3 percent in July from 8.2 percent in June.

Consumer confidence increased in July for the first time in five months, the Conference Board said. But it remains well below healthy levels.

The economy is growing too slowly to boost confidence or hiring. It expanded at a 1.5 percent annual pace in the April-June quarter, down from 1.9 percent in the first quarter and 4.1 percent in the final three months of 2011.

Unless job growth picks up, consumer spending could weaken more and drag down economic growth further.

The Federal Reserve's borrowing report covers auto loans, student loans and credit cards. It excludes mortgages, home equity loans and other loans tied to real estate.

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