Consumer credit jumped $17.8 billion to $2.51 trillion in January, according to the Federal Reserve's G.19 report on consumer credit released Wednesday. Analysts in a Reuters poll expected a $10 billion increase.
Revolving credit, 98% of which is credit card debt, decreased $2.9 billion while non-revolving credit increased $20.7 billion, the largest amount since November 2001, when credit was surging in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Non-revolving credit includes auto loans and student loans made by the government, but not mortgages.
The full report is a generally positive sign for the economy as consumers borrowed money to purchase cars and attend school. Credit has now grown for five straight months, which economists see as a sign households are less uneasy about taking on debt as the labor market slowly heals from the 2007-2009 recession.
Still, the marked decline in credit card usage shows consumers may be skittish regarding their income outlook.
"Households remain reluctant to use credit cards and that has contributed to the slower growth rate in consumer spending over the recovery," Nomura Securities economist Ellen Zentner said in a note to clients.