WASHINGTON — Consumers, a key force shaping the economic recovery, were more restrained in February, increasing their spending by only 0.2 percent.

The over-the-month increase reported by the Commerce Department Friday came after consumers boosted spending by 0.5 percent in January, according to revised figures. That was slightly stronger than the 0.4 percent first estimated a month ago.

"People are continuing to spend, though they are not breaking down the doors to the malls," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.

Even though the increase in spending in February fell short of the 0.5 percent rise that economists were forecasting, consumers have been keeping their wallets and pocketbooks sufficiently open to move along the economy's recovery, analysts say.

And, they say that tax refunds arriving in mailboxes during the spring and extra cash coming from home-mortgage refinancings may give consumers an incentive to spend more, juicing up economic growth.

Americans' incomes, meanwhile, rose by a solid 0.4 percent in February, following a 0.3 percent increase the month before. Income growth — an important factor in people's ability to spend in the months ahead — was slightly better in February than the 0.3 percent increase that economists had been predicting.

The income and spending figures are not adjusted for price changes.

"Consumers took a bit of a respite in February but are likely to be more active spenders in the spring," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group.

Economists said they were heartened that consumer confidence improved a bit in March as measured by a University of Michigan index. If consumers feel better about the economy, they may be more willing to spend, economists said.

According to those who had seen the release, the final University of Michigan consumer sentiment index for March stood at 95.8, up from 94.1 in the preliminary estimate and 94.4 in February. The report is released only to subscribers.

Consumer spending accounts for roughly two-thirds of all economic activity in the United States. That's why consumer behavior plays an important role in determining how vigorous the unfolding economic recovery will be.

In February, consumers trimmed spending on big-ticket "durable" goods, such as cars and appliances, by 0.2 percent, which was an improvement compared with the 3.2 percent spending cut reported for January.

Spending on "nondurables," such as food and clothes, inched up by 0.1 percent in February, down from a 1.8 percent jump the month before. Spending on services rose by 0.4 percent last month, following a 0.6 percent increase in January.

Hoffman said rising energy prices probably made consumers feel less inclined to treat themselves in February. "People are spending more money to fill up their gas tanks and to heat their homes, and that robbed some of their discretionary spending," he said.