Total consumer borrowing rose $21.4 billion in March, the Federal Reserve said Monday. That's the seventh straight monthly increase and the largest since November 2001.
A measure of auto and student loans increased by $16.2 billion. A separate gauge of mostly credit card debt rose $5.2 billion after declining in January and February.
The increase pushed total borrowing up to a seasonally adjusted $2.54 trillion. That's slightly below the all-time high of $2.58 trillion reached in July 2008, eight months after the Great Recession began.
After hitting that peak, consumers cut back on borrowing sharply for more than two straight years. They began taking on more debt again in the fall of 2010 and have stepped up borrowing in recent months.
The steady rise in borrowing is generally considered a good sign for the economy. It suggests consumers are more confident and comfortable taking on more debt.
Analysts said stronger hiring since last fall has encouraged more Americans to borrow more.
But another reason for the increase was a big surge in student loans. Paul Edelstein, director of financial economics at IHS Global Insight, said that could reflect an effort to take out loans in advance of a scheduled jump in rates this July.
Cooper Howes, an economist at Barclays Capital, said he expects the trend in consumer borrowing to continue in coming months as the economy improves. Still, he said the increase in student loan debt could reflect some people are having trouble finding jobs and are opting to go back to school.
"We expect that student loan growth will continue to push the level of consumer credit higher and we look for (credit card debt) to expand as banks become more willing to lend," Howes said.
The overall economy grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the January-March quarter, helped by the strongest growth in consumer spending since late 2010. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.
Still, job growth has slowed sharply in the past two months, while wages have lagged inflation. That has raised concerns that consumers might pull back on spending later this year.
Employers added just 115,000 jobs in April, the government said Friday. That followed the creation of 154,000 jobs in March. From December through February, the economy added an average of 252,000 jobs per month.
With weaker income growth, U.S. households haves spent more while saving less. The savings rate was 3.8 percent of after-tax income in March, nearly a full percentage point below the 4.7 percent where it had been three months before. For all of 2011, the savings rate declined to 4.7 percent of after-tax income, compared to 5.3 percent in 2010.
Households began borrowing less and saving more when the recession began and unemployment surged. While the expectation is that consumers are ready to resume borrowing, they are not expected to load up on debt the way 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.