WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ U.S. consumers have stepped up borrowing in recent months, mostly to attend school and buy cars. They have been more cautious about using their credit cards, a trend that likely continued in February as Americans adjusted to paying higher taxes. Economists forecast that consumer borrowing rose $16 billion in February, according to a survey by FactSet. That would nearly match January's pace and push total borrowing to a record high. The Federal Reserve will release the report at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time Friday. In January, consumers increased their borrowing $16.2 billion from December to a seasonally adjusted record of $2.8 trillion. A category that covers student loans and auto loans grew by $16 billion following an $18.3 billion gain in December. But a measure of credit card debt grew only $106.1 million in January. The credit report doesn't separate auto loans from student loans. But according to quarterly data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt has been the biggest driver of borrowing since the recession ended in June 2009. It reached $966 billion in last year's fourth quarter, up $10 billion from the third quarter. Since the recession, consumers have grown leery of using plastic. Credit card debt remains 17.2 percent below the peak set in June 2008. Analysts believe consumers will stay cautious with their plastic this year, largely because of the tax increase. In January, Social Security taxes rose on nearly all Americans who draw a paycheck. The increase leaves a person earning $50,000 with about $1,000 less to spend in 2013. A household with two high-paid workers will have up to $4,500 less. Despite the increase, consumers have kept spending. In February, consumer spending rose 0.7 percent, the biggest gain in five months. Americans were able to spend more because their income jumped 1.1 percent.
The gains led economists to predict stronger economic growth at the start of the year. Consumer spending drives roughly 70 percent of economic growth.One reason the tax increases haven't deterred consumers is the job market has improved in recent months. Employers added an average of 200,000 jobs a month from November through February. That's nearly double the average from last spring. The gains helped lower the unemployment rate in February to a four-year low of 7.7 percent. On Friday, the government will issue the March employment report. Economists forecast that the economy added 195,000 jobs last month, a healthy figure but below February's total of 236,000. The unemployment rate is expected to be unchanged. Most economists predict the economy grew from January through March at an annual rate of about 3 percent. That would be a vast improvement from the previous quarter, when slower restocking and steep defense cuts held economic growth to an annual rate of just 0.4 percent. 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.