Americans stepped up borrowing in January to buy more cars and attend school, a reflection of their growing confidence in the economy.

The Federal Reserve says consumer borrowing rose by $17.8 billion in January after similar gains in December and November.

Total consumer borrowing has climbed back steadily to a seasonally adjusted $2.5 trillion. That nearly matches the pre-recession borrowing level and represents the largest three-month gain in a decade.

Economists say an improved job outlook has given many Americans the confidence to spend and borrow.

The January gain was driven by a $20.7 billion increase in a category that mostly measures demand for auto and student loans. It was the biggest increase for that category since November 2001. Borrowing on credit cards fell $2.9 billion in January after four months of gains.

One major reason for the higher lending is an improved job market. The unemployment rate in the United States fell to 8.3 per cent in January, the lowest in three years. The economy has averaged a gain of 200,000 jobs per month between November and January.

A sustained period of higher job creation could increase consumer spending, which in turn would boost the overall economy.

Higher borrowing rates also show financial institutions are willing to issue loans. The credit crisis in 2008 forced many banks to limit their outstanding loans, and consumers with good credit found it difficult to borrow.

With files from CBC News