By MARTIN CRUTSINGERWASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ U.S. consumers increased their spending in December at a slower pace, while their income grew by the largest amount in eight years. Income surged because companies rushed to pay dividends before income taxes increased on high-earners. The Commerce Department said Thursday that consumer spending rose 0.2 percent last month. That's slightly slower than the 0.4 percent increase in November. Income jumped 2.6 percent in December from November, the biggest gain since December 2004. The main driver of the increase was dividend payments, which companies accelerated to beat the January rise in income tax rates. Wages and salaries grew 0.6 percent. Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, is expected to slow this year. That's because consumers are receiving less take-home pay starting this month because of an increase in Social Security taxes. Analysts predict the January report will show slower income growth because most bonuses and dividends were paid out in December. The increase in payroll taxes already hurt consumer confidence this month. And consumers will have less money to spend at a precarious time. The economy unexpectedly shrank in the October-December quarter at an annual rate of 0.1 percent, the government said Wednesday. The contraction was largely driven by a steep cut in defense spending. Still, the dip was a reminder of the economy's vulnerability as automatic cuts in government spending loom. Still, Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, predicts the economy will begin growing again in the January-March quarter. He notes that modest hiring will keep consumers spending enough to keep the economy afloat. He predicts consumer spending will grow at a lackluster 1 percent rate in the first quarter, down from a 2.2 percent rise in consumer spending in the October-December quarter. The December increase in income and slower growth in spending pushed the saving rate to 6.5 percent of after-tax income. That's up from 4.1 percent in November and the highest savings rate since May 2009. It's likely to come down again in January, when income falls back.