What is a CPA vs CMA? Candidates looking for careers in accounting often wonder what the difference is between a CPA and a CMA. While both have to do with accounting and have credentials an accountant should possess, the CPA and CMA are very different.
They each have their education, certification requirements, and career possibilities. Aspiring accountants are uncertain about which credential best suits their career goals should learn about the CPA and CMA as much as possible.
CPA vs CMA Overview
A CPA is a Certified Public Accountant who works in public or private accounting. CPAs must have a license in all states. These accounting professionals can conduct audits, sign tax and regulatory filings, certify financial statements, and file tax returns. To earn the CPA license, they must pass the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Uniform CPA Exam.
A CMA is a Certified Management Accountant. This professional certification is granted by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) after individuals pass the CMA exam. Many CMAs are experts in basic financial accounting methodologies and strategic management and help make financial decisions that benefit the entire company. It is a globally recognized certification in financial and strategic management.
|Description||state license||professional certification|
|Organization||American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)||Institutes of Management Accountants (IMA)|
Both the CPA and CMA require an undergraduate degree. A candidate must have a bachelor’s degree in accounting to work as a CPA. The CPA certification requires a student complete at least 150 semester hours of college work. Since the bachelor’s only offers about 120 hours, the individual must complete at least 30 graduate credits. So, many accounting students with career aspirations to be CPAs earn master’s degrees. Additionally, to obtain a CPA the candidate must pass a 4-part Uniform CPA Examination after they complete 150 hours.
To earn a CMA certification, the candidate must also have a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, or business. CMAs do not need to complete the additional 30 credit hours. To be certified as a CMA, the individual must pass a two-part CMA exam and complete two years of experience working in managerial accounting. The candidate must also be a member of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).
|category||CPA Requirements||CMA Requirements|
|Education||bachelor’s degree in Accounting plus 30 credit hours of additional coursework||non-specific bachelor’s degree|
|Experience||1-2 years of working under a CPA||2 years of work experience in management accounting or financial management|
|Continuing Education||40 hours per year||30 hours per year|
Requirements for CPA and CMA Exams
Is the CPA or CMA exam harder? It depends. Before taking the certification exam, CPAs must meet all education requirements. However, CMAs can take their exam while they complete their education. But, there are other differences between the CPA and CMA exams.
Passing the CPA exam requires mastery of four sections that take eight hours to complete. The sections are Auditing & Attestation (AUD), Business Environment & Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). CPA exams use the Continuous Testing model and applicants may take the test throughout the year.
CMA exams include two parts and take four hours to complete. The two sections include Financial Planning, Performance & Analytics, and Strategic Financial Management.
Is the CMA harder than the CPA exam? Most people estimate the exam difficulty based on its pass rate. The CMA pass rate is currently 50%, and the CPA exam pass rate is just over 54%. So, the CMA exam has a slightly lower pass rate. These numbers may indicate that the CMA exam difficulty is greater than the CPA exam.
Most prospective accounting students looking to advance their careers want to know which of these tests is harder. Pass rates may indicate one test is more complicated than the other. Or, they may show that students are better prepared to take the exam because they learned the appropriate information.
The length of time spent taking tests is shorter for the CMA. The CPA exam is sixteen hours across four sections. The CMA exam has two parts, and the total testing time is eight hours. So, testing time is twice as long for the CPA exams.
Time to Complete Testing
Candidates have eighteen months to pass the CPA exam. First, however, they must complete the education requirements before registering to sit for the exam. The 18-month clock starts when they take the exam’s first part. The time CMA candidates have to complete the exam starts when they enter the CMA degree program. Then, candidates have three years to pass the exam.
Your Test Choice
Regardless of which career path you choose, students who begin with the end in mind do better overall. Individuals who enroll in test prep courses and start to study for the exams ahead of time have better scores and pass rates. So, don’t choose a program by the test. Choose the path best for you, and then prepare for the test. Exam preparation is essential for passing any standardized test.
The CPA application fees, exam costs, and licensing fees are around $1,500. In comparison, the CMA exam cost and certification fees are approximately $1,000. Neither the CMA nor CPA exam cost includes the cost of a review course. Additionally, CMA candidates must also have an IMA membership. Also, there is an entrance fee and a registration fee for each CMA exam part.
|Exam Parts||4 part exam||2 part exam|
|Exam Length||16 hours||8 hours|
|Exam Difficulty||Pass rate ~54%||Pass rate ~50%|
|Exam Topics||Corporate Governance|
Economic Concepts & Analysis
Ethics & General Principles
Financial Statement Accounts
Entity Federal Taxation
Individual Federal Taxation
|Planning, Budgeting & Forecasting|
Financial Statement Analysis
CPA Exam Format
The CPA exam is four parts. Below are the learning foundations covered on the exam.
- BEC: Business Environment & Concepts
- FAR: Financial Accounting & Reporting
- AUD: Audit & Attestation
- REG: Regulation
1. Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
BEC topics include macro and microeconomics with the below competencies.
- 17–27% – Corporate Governance
- 17–27% – Economic Concepts and Analysis
- 11–21% – Financial Management
- 15–25% – Information Technology
- 15–25% – Operations Management
2. Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
FAR is the longest CPA exam section and covers the competencies below.
- 25–35% – Standard-Setting, Conceptual Framework, and Financial Reporting
- 30–40% – Financial Statement Accounts
- 20–30% – Transactions
- 5–15% – Local and State Governments
3. Auditing (AUD)
The AUD section covers auditing and assurance services of the competencies below.
- 15–25% – Professional Responsibilities, Ethics, and General Principles
- 20–30% – Assessing Risk and Developing a Planned Response
- 30–40% – Performing Further Procedures and Obtaining Evidence
- 15–25% – Forming Conclusions and Reporting
4. Regulation (REG)
REG does not cover accounting topics. This section covers the below topics related to ethics, law, and regulation.
- 10–20% – Professional Responsibilities, Ethics, and Federal Tax Procedures
- 10–20% – Business Law
- 12–22% – Property Transaction Federal Taxation
- 15–25% – Individual Federal Taxation
- 28–38% – Entity Federal Taxation
CMA Exam Format
There are several exam differences between the two tests. The CMA has two sections.
- Part One: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
- Part Two: Strategic Financial Management
1. Part One
The Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics section covers the below six competencies.
- Cost Management – 15%
- Internal Controls – 15%
- Technology and Analytics – 15%
- External Financial Reporting Decisions – 15%
- Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting – 20%
- Performance Management – 20%
2. Part Two
Performance Management covers the below six competencies.
- Risk Management – 10%
- Investment Decisions – 10%
- Professional Ethics – 15%
- Financial Statement Analysis – 20%
- Corporate Finance – 20%
- Decision Analysis – 25%
CPA and CMA Syllabus Overlaps
Approximately 30 to 35 percent of the CPA and CMA content overlaps. The table below details the overlaps in the syllabus in detail.
|CPA Syllabus||Overlap with CMA Part 1 Syllabus|
|FAR and REG (Tax Implications)||External Financial Reporting Decisions (15%)|
|BEC||Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting (30%)|
|BEC||Performance Management (20%)|
|BEC||Cost Management (20%)|
|AUD||Internal Controls (15%)|
|CPA Syllabus||Overlap with CMA Part 2 Syllabus|
|FAR and AUD (Analytical Review)||Financial Statement Analysis (25%)|
|BEC||Corporate Finance (20%)|
|BEC||Decision Analysis (20%)|
|BEC and possibly AUD (Audit Risk)||Risk Management (10%)|
|BEC||Investment Decisions (15%)|
|AUD||Professional Ethics (10%)|
CMA vs CPA Career Differences
The main difference between CPAs and Certified Management Accountants is that a licensed CPA generally works as an accountant either in an accounting firm or as an independent accountant. The CMA is good for the individual who wants to work in financial, asset, or performance management, which generally involves working in corporate finance.
Public accounting typically includes accounting and tax services, consulting, and auditing services. Below are some common career paths for CPAs.
- Public Accountant / Public Accounting
- Tax Accountant
- Forensic Accountant / Forensic Accounting
- Financial Planner / Financial Manager
- Internal Auditor
- External Auditor
- IRS Agent
In-demand jobs for individuals with a CMA certification include risk management, performance management, cost management, and financial analysis. Below are some common career paths for CMAs.
- Cost Accountant
- Financial Risk Manager
- Corporate Controller
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Accounting Manager
- Vice President of Finance
- Other C-suite executive positions
CMA vs CPA Salary Comparison
So, what is the salary difference between a CPA and a CMA? This is not an equal comparison, so let’s start with a basic accountant’s salary for reference. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median annual salary for accountants is $77,250.
Who earns more, a CMA or CPA? First, salaries vary based on experience, education, and also geographic area. Many considerations impact how much you can earn as a CMA versus how much you can make as a CPA. Below is a list of how much people with accounting credentials earn.
- CMA salaries average around $97,000 a year (Payscale)
- a CPA earns an average of $70,896 a year (Payscale)
- People with both a CMA and CPA earn an average of $101,000 a year
Payscale reports that the average salary for a CMA is around $97,000 annually.
|Job Title||Payscale Salary Range|
|Chief Financial Officer (CFO)||$89k – $242k|
|Corporate Controller||$78k – $154k|
|Financial Controller||$66k – $130k|
|Senior Financial Analyst||$68k – $107k|
|Finance Director||$78k – $185k|
|Financial Analyst||$49k – $92k|
|Senior Accountant||$58k – $95k|
Payscale reports an entry-level Certified Public Accountant with less than one year of experience earns around $56,000. Early career CPAs with 1 to 4 years of experience earn approximately $61,000.
Certified Public Accountants with 5 to 9 years experience make about $72,000. Experienced CPAs with 10 to 19 years of experience earn an average of $87,000. Finally, late-career CPAs with 20 years or more years of experience earn $98,000 or more.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts accounting jobs to grow by 6 percent between 2021 and 2031. The choice to work as a CMA or a CPA boils down to where the individual wants to work and what type of accounting they wish to do. Both certified public and management accountants are excellent positions that will continue to be in demand.
Which One is Better?
It would be virtually impossible to state which credential is better than the other because they both have much to offer. While one requires less education or training, the other provides a broader range of career opportunities for an accounting professional.
CMAs manage accounts while CPAs offer advice on investments, prepare financial statements and ensure the company or individual complies with financial regulations. A CPA may work in a managerial position, but the CMA is specifically a management position. It’s all a matter of personal or professional choice.
Earning Both a CPA and a CMA
The CPA designation is better if you want to work in taxation or auditing. However, individuals interested in management accounting may find the CMA a better fit. But if you want to maximize your career prospects, there is no reason you can’t earn both!
Dual certification has many advantages that differentiate accounting professionals from their colleagues. First, they have the knowledge to serve clients better. Employers value expertise, and dual certification can pave the path to management and career advancement.
Professionals with both the CMA credential and CPA credential earn a higher salary. Additionally, because the exams have overlapping content, it is easier to prepare for the tests.
No matter what credential you earn, an accounting career is an excellent choice for your future. Accounting offers a positive job outlook and great pay.
Other Certifications, Licenses, and Exams
The CMA and CPA are the most widely recognized certifications. However, these are only some of the ones available. Depending on your interests and areas of expertise, many other certificates help you set yourself apart as a professional.
If the CMA CPA designations are not a good fit for your goals, you may want to explore a related professional certification. Below are additional career paths and accounting certifications you may want to consider.
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA® CFA Institute)
- Financial Risk Manager (FRM®)
- Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
- Enrolled Agent (EA)
- Project Management Professional (PMP)
Why Choose a Career in Accounting?
They say money makes the world go around. Well, it also creates a lot of jobs! Careers in Accounting are popular for several reasons. First, the profession pays well and also offers job stability and security. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports accountants in the US earn a median annual salary of $77,250. This pay is well above the median wage of all occupations nationwide. Additionally, demand for jobs in accounting in the years to come. For example, the BLS expects accounting jobs to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, with 1.5 million employment by 2031.
Another reason accounting is popular is the range of different jobs graduates have. Accounting is stigmatized as a dull profession. But any job can be tedious or fun. And in fact, this field offers a lot of flexibility for job location and type of job. Many Accountants work for themselves and open their own offices. Others work for large accounting firms or choose from many other positions. Most government agencies, hospitals, corporations, and non-profits have an accountant or accounting department on staff. Auditing is the branch of accounting that focuses on identifying errors and discrepancies in financial records. Accountants also work as auditors to find financial mismanagement. And many individuals with an accounting background also work in the financial sector. All these roles are essential to the country’s overall economic health.
Organizations for professional accountants in both public and management accounting offer many resources. They have information for students as well as practicing professionals. Below are a few of the most important professional organizations for accountants.
- Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA)
- National Society of Accountants (NSA)
- American Institute of CPAs (AICPA)
- National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA)
- Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)
- Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation (ACAT)
- Association of Government Accountants (AGA)
- Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA)
- Global Academy of Finance and Management (GAFM)
- ISACA (ISACA)
- Top 25 Most Affordable Accelerated Master’s in Accounting Online
- How Do I Become a CPA?
- Masters in Mathematics Jobs and Career Outlook
- Most Affordable Accelerated Master’s in Forensic Accounting Online
- What is a Statistician?
- What is an Actuary?