Surprise jump in consumer borrowing

Fed report shows Americans' personal debt increased by $15.3 billion in March.

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By Kenneth Musante, CNNMoney.com staff writer

This summer, I plan to…
  • Take a vacation
  • Cut back on my summer travel
  • Get used to "staycations"

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Americans' personal debt took a huge leap in March, according to a report from the Federal Reserve released Wednesday.

The total debt held by individuals rose $15.3 billion from the prior month, to $2.6 trillion. Analysts polled by Briefing.com had expected personal debt to rise by only $6 billion.

The category of debt that includes credit cards, referred to as "revolving credit," rose by $6.3 billion, while the category that includes fixed-payment loans, such as student and car loans, jumped $9 billion.

The government report excludes mortgages and home equity loans.

The rise in consumer borrowing could be a good sign for the economy in the short-term, since people are still spending money, said Sean Maher, associate economist with Moody's Economy.com, but it could cause problems further down the line.

"We really haven't seen a pullback yet," said Maher, but if consumers continue to rack up debt, "it could make it harder to sustain spending."

Since the end of 2007, "revolving credit" had been grown significantly faster than fixed-rate debt, a sign that Americans have been relying more on their credit cards.

According to Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, Americans have had to go into debt to maintain their existing lifestyles.

Last week, the Commerce Department said that personal spending rose higher than expected in March due to the rising costs of necessities such as food and fuel - even as personal income growth across the country slowed.

However, with the latest government report, personal deficit spending appears to have shifted.

"It could be that the consumer has tapped out his existing line of credit, so he may be turning to loan companies and taking out what he thinks is a short-term loan," said Cunningham. To top of page

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