WASHINGTON — Americans put more on their credit cards in May than in any single month since November, 2007. But overall credit card use is still well below where it was just before the Great Recession began.
The Federal Reserve said Monday that consumer borrowing rose by $17.1 billion in May from April.
The increase drove total borrowing to a seasonally adjusted $2.57 trillion. That's just below the all-time high of $2.58 trillion reached in July, 2008, seven months after the recession began.
Borrowing has increased steadily over the last two years. But most of the gain has been driven by auto and student loans. The category that measures activity in those loans increased by $9.1 billion in May to a record $1.7 trillion
A measure of credit card debt jumped by $8 billion in May. But the overall level rose to just $870 billion, only 2.2 percent above the low point hit in April, 2011. The category that includes credit card debt had totaled more than $1 trillion before and shortly after the recession began.
Consumers cut their credit card borrowing during the recession and have been posting only modest gains over the last year.
In May Americans reached for their credit cards as the job market slumped and consumer confidence tumbled. That could be a sign that more people are struggling to make payments and are taking on more high-interest debt.
Some economists believe the economy could get a boost in the second half from lower gas prices, which have been dropping sharply since April.
More borrowing is generally viewed as a healthy sign for the economy. It suggests consumers are gaining confidence and growing more comfortable taking on debt.
But it can also mean that more people are having trouble finding jobs and are deciding to go back to school. Student loan debt has been rising sharply.
Households began borrowing less and saving more when the recession began and unemployment surged. Although the expectation is that consumers are ready to resume borrowing, they are not expected to pile on debt as they did during the housing boom of the last decade.
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.