WASHINGTON - Growth in consumer spending slowed to a crawl in September as shoppers worried about a deepening housing downturn and rising energy prices.

Meanwhile, a key gauge of manufacturing activity slipped close to recession levels last month.

The Commerce Department said yesterday that consumer spending rose 0.3 percent in September. It was the smallest rise in three months, and was lower than the 0.4 percent increase analysts had expected.

The new report appeared to conflict with a figure released Wednesday showing strong growth in consumer spending. But that was for the whole third quarter; yesterday's report covered September only, providing a more recent snapshot of the economy's direction. The period of maximum danger is the current quarter and the first three months of next year, many economists say.

"Consumers are becoming increasingly cautious because of the recession in housing, rising gasoline prices, and a somewhat softer job market," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.

A key problem for spending is falling home prices in many parts of the country, he said. That means consumers can no longer pull equity out of their homes by refinancing their mortgages.

The Commerce report also said personal incomes rose 0.4 percent in September, in line with expectations.

Additionally, the department said, the savings rate rose to 0.9 percent in September, the largest since March. Analysts said that indicated households are trying to save more now that they can't refinance to get their hands on extra cash.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group based in Arizona, said its manufacturing index had dipped to 50.9 in October for a fourth straight decline. Any reading lower than 50 indicates that the manufacturing portion of the economy is in recession.

Two additional reports yesterday focused on jobs:

The number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits fell by a larger-than-expected 6,000 last week to 327,000.

Job cuts announced by U.S. employers fell in October to 63,114 from 71,739 in September, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Analysts predict that unemployment will rise as employers increase layoffs and scale back hiring. The October unemployment report will be released today.