WASHINGTON – Americans cut back on using their credit cards in July for the second straight month, while taking on more debt to buy cars and attend school. The decline in credit card use suggests consumers remain cautious, a trend that could hold back economic growth.
Consumers increased their borrowing $10.4 billion in July from June to a record high of $2.85 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Monday. That followed a gain of $11.9 billion in June.
A category that includes auto loans and student loans increased $12.3 billion in July to a record $2 trillion. But a measure of consumers’ credit card debt fell $1.8 billion to roughly $850 billion. That followed an even larger $3.7 billion decline in the credit card category in June.
July’s pattern of consumers’ borrowing habits illustrated trends that have surfaced in the post-recession economy: Americans are using credit for their most urgent needs, while forgoing debt for discretionary purchases.
The auto and student loan category is up 8.1 percent from a year ago and has risen in every month but one since May 2010. But credit card debt has barely changed in the past year and is nearly 17 percent below its peak hit in July 2008 – seven months after the Great Recession began.
Slow but steady job growth and small wage gains have made many Americans more reluctant to charge goods and services to their plastic. That could hold back consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity. Americans may also be hesitant to take on more high-interest debt because of higher Social Security taxes.