FILE - In this Friday, May 7, 2021 file photo, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley graduates sit social distanced in the early morning sunrise during their commencement ceremony in Edinburg, Texas. U.S. consumer borrowing rose by $18.6 billion in April 2021, fueled by a big rise in auto and student loans that offset a drop in credit card use. (Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP)/The Monitor via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. consumer borrowing rose by $18.6 billion in April, fueled by a big rise in auto and student loans that offset a drop in credit card use.

The April gain reported Monday by the Federal Reserve was the third straight month of strong increases in consumer borrowing. It followed a similar $18.6 billion increase in March.

The latest increase reflected a $20.6 billion increase in the Fed's category that covers auto and student loans. It was the biggest increase in those loans since a $22.7 billion rise in June 2020.

The category that covers credit cards saw a decline of $2 billion. Credit card borrowing is down 12.2% since hitting a peak in February 2020 right before the pandemic struck with force, shutting down businesses and resulting in the loss of 22 million jobs.

Since that time, credit card use has only posted increases in three months as consumers cut back on their spending in favor of building up savings.

Nancy Vanden Houten, senior economist at Oxford Economics, noted that despite a rebound in consumer spending fueled by stimulus checks and an economy reopening after pandemic lockdowns, consumers are still reluctant to use their credit cards.

“We expect growth in consumer credit will accelerate in the second half of 2021 as consumers dust off their credit cards, and reopenings and better health conditions incentivize stronger outlays," she said.

Consumer borrowing is followed closely for signals it can send about households' willingness to finance consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity.

Total borrowing in the Fed's monthly report stood $4.24 trillion in April, 0.4% above the pre-pandemic peak of $4.22 trillion set in February 2020.

The Fed's monthly borrowing report does not cover home mortgages or any other loans secured by real estate such as home equity loans.