When you work in the finance and accounting industry, you hear a lot of talk about financial certifications. You see those three- and four-letter designations in ads for job openings, hear them in interviews, and perhaps even see them suggested as growth goals on your performance reviews.
But you also know from talking with your colleagues that financial certifications require a big investment, both in time and money. Studying and sitting for some exams can take one or two years. And when you add up the money you spend on review courses and study guides, along with the exam fees, you’re looking at $1,000, at minimum, and even up to $3,000 or more.
Are financial certifications worth getting?
The short answer: Yes. Having a “CPA” or “CFA” behind your name can get you a promotion, a salary bump, or even that new job you covet at a Fortune 500 company.
According to the Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance, having specialized certifications can put you at the higher end of the compensation tables.
Find the list of in-demand certifications, salary data for more than 190 accounting and finance jobs, and customized wage ranges at the Salary Center.
When it comes to deciding which credentials you should pursue, you need to consider which one (or ones) will give you the best return on investment. That often depends on several things:
- Your career goals — Do you want to go into management, for instance, or become an internal auditor?
- Your resources — How much time and money are you able to give to the process, now and to maintain the designation?
- Your eligibility — What are your education and experience levels?
Here’s a detailed rundown of four of the most prestigious financial certifications to help you decide which one is right for you:
1. Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
The CPA designation is considered the granddaddy of accounting certifications. It’s been around the longest and was originally conceived as a designation for public accountants. Now, however, all types of finance professionals in the U.S. get the certification to show their prowess in management accounting, financial accounting, corporate finance and strategic planning, audit, general business, and taxation. A CPA designation also gives the holder the statutory right to sign audit reports and issue audit opinions. It’s the most well-known financial certification and, arguably, the most prestigious and most difficult to get.
Granted by: American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA); exam and license requirements vary state by state
Estimated cost: $2,000-$3,000
Prerequisites: Five years of higher education, a minimum number of continuing education credits in business and accounting (typically about 150), and verified relevant experience
Exam requirements: Four levels; can be taken in any order
Time to certification: Passing the CPA exam usually takes a year; most state boards require one year of accounting experience before you get the license
Ongoing requirements? Yes; continuing professional education (CPE) credits required vary by state
Who should get it? The CPA designation is a very versatile one; CPAs work in public accounting, management accounting, governmental accounting, taxation, financial advisory, compliance and other consultant roles. It’s highly valued throughout the accounting industry, and some companies even require it for managerial jobs. If you know you want to make your career in accounting and have the time and money to invest, the CPA is a good certification to pursue.
Read All You Need to Know About the CPA — and Then Some, and these personal accounts:
- How to Become a CPA in Nine Months Like I Did
- How I Became a CPA at 17
- 5 Ways to Fail at the CPA (Like I Did)
2. Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
Professionals in institutional money management and stock analysis are often the ones shooting for the CFA designation. Those who hold this financial certification are experts in accounting, economics, portfolio management, securities analysis, and ethical and professional standards.
Granted by: The CFA Institute, a non-profit based in the U.S.
Estimated cost: $2,500
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and four years of relevant experience
Exam requirements: Three levels, with a total exam time of 18 hours; you must pass one level before you move to the next
Time to certification: It can be completed in 18 months, but most people take more than two years to complete the process
Ongoing requirements? A recommended 20 hours of CPE credits, which can be accomplished with online courses, with at least two hours of standards, regulatory and ethics education
Who should get it? It’s the certification of choice in the investment community and has become a must-have for security analysts and asset managers. Finance professionals who are (or aim to become) equity analysts, fund managers or hedge fund managers will also find the CFA useful, as will anyone who hopes to reach the CFO or senior finance manager levels. If you are pursuing a career in audit, however, it won’t be particularly useful to you.
3. Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
As the title suggests, this financial certification focuses on management accounting — in other words, providing executives with financial information that will help a company resolve problems and make decisions. The CMA designation is often required for CFOs, controllers and finance managers. The exam covers more practical knowledge, such as the types of skills accountants and finance professionals use on a day-to-day basis.
Granted by: The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)
Estimated cost: $1,000-$2,000
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and two consecutive years in financial management or management accounting
Exam requirements: Two levels, with a total exam time of eight hours
Time to certification: Typically one to two years
Ongoing requirements: 30 hours of CPE credits
Who should get it? Any accountant who is considering working in the corporate sector, particularly in large, multinational companies, should seriously consider getting a CMA. Many accountants choose to get both the CPA and the CMA, as there is considerable overlap in the exam topics, and the CMA is often considered a more practical application of the theoretical concepts tested in the CPA exams.
4. Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
The CIA designation is the only globally recognized certification in the internal audit and compliance industry. As such, the CIA exam focuses almost entirely on internal audit topics, such as internal controls and risk management, auditing processes, fraud risk and controls, governance and business controls, and tools and techniques for conducting audit engagements.
Estimated cost: $1,500
Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree and two years of internal audit experience (but a master’s degree can substitute for one year of experience)
Exam requirements: Three levels, with a total exam time of 6.5 hours
Time to certification: Typically a year to 18 months
Ongoing requirements? CPE credits are required; the number depends on your work status
Who should get it? The CIA is really only useful to internal auditors. It’s particularly important for those who would like to become managers or chief audit executives.
Other certifications worth considering
These financial certifications aren't as high-profile as the four detailed above, but they’re worth considering, as well:
- Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) — This designation is for management accountants who combine business strategy with financial analysis to help companies grow and perform efficiently. This certification is valuable for financial professionals who would like to expand their career beyond the finance department.
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) — This is the internationally recognized certification that demonstrates expertise in information systems audit, controls and security. It’s useful for any internal auditor, but especially for those who specialize in the growing field of IT risk management.
- Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) — This designation shows cutting-edge knowledge, skills and education in the detection of financial fraud, another growing field fueled by the financial crisis and laws like Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank.
The world of financial certifications can be confusing, with new designations popping up all the time. But for a view from the top, these are a few that finance and accounting professionals can bank on when it comes to getting raises, promotions and prestigious new positions.