WASHINGTON — Americans borrowed more in February to buy cars and attend school, but were more careful with their credit cards.
The Federal Reserve said Friday that consumer borrowing rose $18.2 billion in February from January. That’s up from a gain of $12.7 billion in the previous month.
The increase brought total borrowing to a seasonally adjusted $2.8 trillion. That’s up from $2.78 trillion in January and a new record.
Nearly all of the gains were in a category that covers student and auto loans. That grew by $17.6 billion, up from $11.1 billion in January.
Consumers stayed cautious with their credit card debt in February. That category increased just $533 million after a gain of $1.7 billion 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.
On the other hand, consumers have been more reluctant to run up big credit card bills since the recession ended. 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 are still boosting their 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.
One reason the tax increases haven’t deterred consumers is the job market kept improving through February.
But in March, employers pulled back sharply on hiring. They added just 88,000 net jobs, the smallest gain in nine months and less than half the monthly average since September.