When choosing between one debt or another, American consumers are more likely to make a payment on their auto loans before sending in checks for mortgages and credit cards, TransUnion said. 

The credit reporting bureau made that conclusion after finalizing its payment hierarchy study from 2011.

The trend started four years ago and continues with many consumers prioritizing debt payments in the slow economy. 

A preference to pay off auto loans is driven primarily by every consumer's need for a car to get to work and fear that a vehicle can be repossessed rather easily.

For its report, TransUnion studied the payment patterns of four million consumers who had at least one open auto loan, a bank card and a mortgage payment.

About 39% of the consumers studied were delinquent on mortgages while still current on auto loans and credit cards.

Another 17.3% were delinquent on credit cards while still paying on auto loans and mortgages and 9.5% remained delinquent on auto payments while current on credit cards and mortgages.

The report concluded, "[T]he study found that the hierarchy reversal had become even more widespread, with the percentage of consumers who are delinquent on their mortgages and current on their credit cards rising to as high as 7.4% in Q3 2010 from 4.3% in Q1 2008. The statistic ended 2011 at 6.9%. Conversely, the percentage of consumers who are delinquent on their credit cards and current on their mortgages decreased from 4.1% in Q1 2008 to 3.0% Q4 2010 and has further declined to 2.7% as of Q4 2011."

The trend of paying off auto loans before other debt occurred in all 50 states, but was less pronounced in states like Texas where home values remained relatively stable.

A sampling from Texas shows 15% of consumers were delinquent on an auto loan, while still current on credit cards and mortgages. On the flip side, 34% were delinquent on a mortgage while still paying on a credit card and an auto loan.

"A few reasons why auto loans have become the preferred payment to make include the need for an auto to get to work or look for employment, and the fact that an auto loan is not a revolving loan -- the impact of repossession is greater than the loss of a credit card," said Ezra Becker, vice president of research and consulting in TransUnion's financial services business unit. "In addition, consumers may have equity in their autos after several years of payments that they are looking to preserve -- which is no longer the case for most homes. In fact, negative equity has become increasingly common for homes, which may further contribute to the shift in payment preference to auto loans."

TransUnion said the latest data is an update to the original payment hierarchy study released in 2010. The organization said the study examined 30-day credit card and mortgage delinquency data between the third quarter of 2006 and the fourth quarter of 2011.