Consumer spending increased in February for the eighth straight month, but much of the gain came from steadily rising gas prices and higher grocery bills.
Spending by shoppers, which makes up about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, rose by 0.7 percent in February according to Commerce Department figures released on Monday.
The $9.5 billion increase represents largest jump since October.
"Spending was up 0.7 percent, which is somewhat impressive," said Chris Christopher, economist at IHS Global Insight. "But when you adjust for inflation, it was only up 0.3 percent, a good chunk of the increase in spending was due to increasing food and food prices," he explained, adding that gas prices had been rising since October last year, even before the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa caused oil prices to spike.
The increase in food and fuel prices pushed inflation up 0.4 percent, according to the Commerce Department's index.
The government figures released Monday also revealed incomes rose slightly last month, climbing 0.3 percent. Federal figures show the economy added total of 192,000 jobs in February, the most in nearly a year. The unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent last month, the lowest since April 2009.
Overall, the personal income data suggest the recovery is on track, said Constance Hunter, chief economist at Aladdin Capital, but two key obstacles remain: rising food and energy prices and the unstable housing market.
Rising oil prices could have consumers facing tough choices about running their businesses and getting to work, said Hunter. While the housing market represents a smaller part of the overall economy than it did before the housing crash, it remains a big part part of most individual Americans' net worth. "[Real estate] defines the way people think about spending," said Hunter, adding that spending will stay hobbled until the housing market recovers.
Battered by rising prices, and continued instability, U.S. consumers already appear to be growing nervous. This is despite several positive economic signs at the end of last year, when the economy grew more quickly than previously estimated as businesses maintained fairly solid spending and restocked shelves to meet rising demand.
On Friday, the Commerce Department revised its projections for gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter of 2010, to 3.1 percent from 2.8 percent.