Canadians are being urged to give up their credit cards for one day every week, in a campaign to reduce personal debt and lighten fees for small businesses.

Credit Free Fridays is to begin this week, backed by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and debt crusader Gail Vaz-Oxlade.

Vaz-Oxlade, a personal finance guru, says credit card debt is responsible for much of the “crushing heartbreak of debt” faced by Canadians.

Credit card debt totalled close to $74 billion Canada-wide in November 2012, more than $2,000 per capita.

The Credit Free Friday campaign urges consumers to pay with their debit card or cash, a habit that can force you to consider the financial impact of each purchase.

"Just because you have a $5,000 limit on your credit card, doesn't mean you can afford to rack up that kind of debt," said Vaz-Oxlade. "When you pay with debit or cash, you know that you can only spend what you have.”

Vaz-Oxlade recently hosted CBC’s The Current and talked to young Canadians who got in trouble with debt.

One of the Canadians she spoke to was Bridget Casey, a Calgary blogger. Through her blog Money After Graduation, she told the story of how she paid off $21,000 in student loans in just 22 months as well as her credit card debt.

Casey had a job as a waitress and said she put her tips directly toward her debt, but she also had to give up a lot of spending.

“Saying no to things is the worst. That’s when you realize what a burden debt is, is when it keeps you from doing things that you want to do,” Casey said.

“A lot of people are out of touch with their debt because they still have available credit.”

Statistics Canada reported last month that the average Canadian now has approximately $27,000 in consumer debt, not including mortgages.

For small businesses, the cost of credit card fees has been an escalating problem. Last month’s throne speech promised action on those fees, including disclosure to consumers of exactly how high they are, but nothing is likely to be done ahead of the all-important holiday spending season.

In an interview with CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange, CFIB president Dan Kelly admitted merchants have only limited interest in seeing Canadians spend less. They're participating in the campaign as a way of educating consumers about the hidden costs of credit cards.

"What consumers don’t know is that two to 3.5 per cent of the sale every time the card is used goes to the credit card company or the bank. If we can shift even a little bit of that, once a week, get consumers to use a debit card instead of a credit card for payment, it could really help," he said.

"If consumers pay with money that they have, if they pay with their Interac debit card it’s five cents a transaction  rather than say $5 on a $200 purchase," he added. 

The fees are higher for the gold and premium cards that are now so popular with consumers, but merchants cannot pass those fees on to consumers in the form of a surcharge, courts have ruled.

"Small businesses are finding it increasingly challenging to absorb the high fees they are charged by the credit card companies and banks," Kelly said. "Very few consumers know that five to seven billion dollars each year in credit card processing fees is embedded in the cost of everything they buy.”