WASHINGTON -- Americans boosted their borrowing in August by the largest amount in three months with strong gains in the category that covers auto and student loans and in credit card debt.
Total consumer borrowing increased $18.1 billion in August compared to July, the Federal Reserve reported Friday. In July, consumer borrowing had fallen for the first time in nearly a year.
The rebound in August along with a separate report that showed the nation's unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September were viewed as encouraging signs for an economy that has been struggling in recent months.
The August borrowing gains reflected a $4.2 billion increase in borrowing on credit cards and a $13.9 billion increase in auto and student loans.
Gregory Daco, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, said he looked for the low interest rates generated by the Federal Reserve's latest bond buying program to spur further gains in consumer credit in coming months.
"Some consumers with healthy finances are making more use of credit to buy autos and retail goods," Daco said.
Retail sales rose in August, in part because consumers bought more cars and trucks. However, they were cautious elsewhere, as rising gas prices left them less to spend in other areas.
Activity through August left total consumer debt at $2.73 trillion, putting it 5.5 percent above the pre-recession peak for credit hit in July 2008.
Consumers have been using credit cards much less since the 2008 credit crisis. Four years ago, Americans had $1.03 trillion in credit card debt, an all-time high. In August, that figure was 17 percent lower.
During the same period, student loan debt has increased dramatically. The category that includes auto and student loans, along with other loans for items such as boats, has jumped to a level 20.3 percent higher than July 2008.
In the April-June quarter, student loans totaled $914 billion, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That is a nearly 50 percent increase from the July-September quarter of 2008.
Much of the increase in student loans is because of high unemployment, which has led many Americans to go back to school in hopes of improving their education and skills in a more competitive labor market.
American finances have been improving. In a separate quarterly report, the Fed said last month that a jump in the stock market and rising home prices are bringing Americans closer to regaining the wealth they lost in the recession.
In the severe 2007-2009 recession, Americans lost nearly a quarter of their wealth, from a pre-recession peak of $67.4 trillion in the fall of 2007. Household wealth plummeted to $51.2 trillion in early 2009. But as of the April-June quarter, household net worth has risen to $62.7 trillion. The net worth figure is the difference between assets and liabilities such as mortgages and other loans.
While the Fed's quarterly report covers all household debt, the Fed's monthly consumer credit report covers only loans not backed by real estate, excluding mortgages and home equity loans.