Despite fears of weaker consumer spending in January due to a post-holiday "hangover," consumer sentiment has risen this month to reach its highest level since February of last year, according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment. Released Friday, the index climbed from 69.9 points at the end of December to reach 74, far exceeding the 71.5 points projected in a survey of economists by Bloomberg. Analysts cite lower gas prices and improvements in the job market as driving this month's uptick. However, high consumer debt - particularly in the student loan category - and ripple effects from the economic crisis in Europe threaten to bring the index down in coming months. "You get better job growth, people hear about it and you get better sentiment and better spending," Maury Harris, chief economist at UBS Securities in New York, told Bloomberg. Spending this month "may not be quite as strong as the fourth quarter, but I still think you have an acceptable year in consumer spending." Earlier this week, the Commerce Department reported a mere 0.1 percent rise in retail sales for December.