Consumers step up credit card use

WASHINGTON — Americans are putting more money on their credit cards after more than two years of cutting back, a sign of more confidence in the economy.

WASHINGTON — Americans are putting more money on their credit cards after more than two years of cutting back, a sign of more confidence in the economy.

The first increase in credit card use in 27 months helped boost overall consumer borrowing 3 per cent in December, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $2.41 trillion. It was the third straight monthly gain.

Borrowing in the category that includes credit cards rose 3.5 per cent. Borrowing on auto loans increased 2.8 per cent.

Even with the December gains, consumer borrowing is just 0.7 per cent higher than the more than three-year low hit in September. It is 6.6 per cent below the high set in July 2008.

Households began borrowing less and saving more after the country fell into a recession in December 2007. The decline in borrowing has dampened growth because consumer spending accounts for 70 per cent of total economic activity.

Economists believe consumers this year will gradually borrow more money. However, they don’t expect Americans will borrow at the pace seen in the middle of the last decade. Soaring home prices made households feel wealthier than they were, and that encouraged them to borrow and spend more.

Analysts had expected a rise in total borrowing in December, reflecting strength in auto loans. But they didn’t anticipate a rise in credit card debt. Both auto sales and overall retail sales showed increases in December. Retailers closed out their best holiday shopping season in four years.