The government said that borrowing on credit cards, auto loans and other forms of consumer debt rose by 3 percent in 2005, down from rates above 4 percent in the previous three years and a 7.7 percent surge in 2001. It was the smallest increase since a 1 percent rise in 1992.
Consumer borrowing ended the year on an up note, rising at an annual rate of 1.9 percent in December following a weak 0.3 percent rate of increase in November and a plunge of 4 percent in October, a decline that reflected a big drop in auto sales.
Some analysts attributed the slowdown to the fact that consumers are beginning to feel a bit pinched with consumer debt at record levels and interest rates rising because of a campaign by the Federal Reserve to slow borrowing to cool the economy and keeping inflation under control.
The government reported last week that consumers last year spent all they earned and then some, pushing the personal savings rate into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent.
The savings rate has only been negative for a full year twice before, in 1932 and 1933, when Americans were struggling with huge job layoffs during the Great Depression.
The Fed report showed that the increase last year in credit card debt and other types of revolving credit was just 2.6 percent, the smallest in 23 years.
Analysts said some of that slowdown reflected that fact that Americans have stepped up borrowing through home equity loans rather than increasing credit card debt.
The increase in auto loans and other types of nonrevolving debt was 3.2 percent last year, the smallest rise since a decline of 1.24 percent in 1992.
For December, credit card debt and other revolving debt fell by 1.4 percent at an annual rate while auto loans and other types of nonrevolving debt rose at a rate of 3.8 percent, reflecting a rebound in auto sales during the month.
The 1.9 percent rate of growth in consumer credit for December translated into an annual increase of $3.35 billion, pushing total consumer debt to an annual level of $2.161 trillion.
That was slightly below the all-time high of $2.164 trillion set in September, a level that reflected large car sales during the summer months as automakers offered attractive sales incentives.
By Martin Crutsinger