CANBERRA, AAP – Financially-stressed Australians who dipped into their superannuation early during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic mostly used the money to cover their rent, mortgage, debts or household expenses.

A total of $36.4 billion was withdrawn by 3.5 million people who lost work, had their hours cut or received welfare benefits.

The federal government scheme let people withdraw up to $20,000 from their superannuation accounts in two lots last year.

Australian Institute of Families Studies surveys found about two-thirds of people, or 64 per cent, used at least some of the money for household expenses such as groceries and utilities.

Rent or mortgage payments accounted for 45 per cent of spending and debt repayments 40 per cent.

“I had to withdraw some of my super early because of bills being late due to not enough work,” a 55-year-old woman told the survey.

Another described how her sole-provider husband was made redundant.

“I accessed super to pay for pregnancy and baby-related items. To take care of toddler expenses and preparing for new baby,” the 35-year-old said.

On average, the amount of super accessed across the first and second withdrawals came to $7728 and $7536, respectively.

The average total for 1.4 million people who dipped into their super twice was $17,441.

Men accounted for 56 per cent of successful applicants, while 87 per cent of people were Australian residents.

The majority of approved requests, or 78 per cent, came from NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Funds also went towards home and vehicle maintenance or repairs, renovation costs, clothing and footwear, white goods, helping friends or family, and paying school or other education fees.

The institute garnered 12,172 responses from its two surveys between May and June as well as November and December last year.

Overall, 75 per cent of responses from households that accessed super indicated at least some of it was used to alleviate financial distress.

Almost everyone also took other financial measures, such as cutting down on both essential and non-essential spending.