CPA vs. CMA: Which Finance Certification Is Right for You?

Accounting and finance professionals face tough decisions every day. One is this: CPA vs. CMA. Yes, that's whether to pursue a CPA (certified public accountant) license versus a CMA (certified management accountant) finance certification. Both provide their own benefits, so when it comes to deciding which to pursue, it’s not a matter of which one is better.

It’s a matter of which is better for you. (Sometimes, the answer may be both.)

Here’s a quick, side-by-side "CPA vs. CMA" summary to help you evaluate the options when exploring which finance certification is best:

Take a look at the CPA certification

Are compliance and regulation in your wheelhouse? Do you find you focus on taxes, financial reporting, audits and customer-facing areas in your accounting and finance jobs? Finally, do you find your client base consists of individuals and businesses? If so, a CPA may be your best finance certification. The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) represents the CPA profession and develops the CPA exam, which allows qualified individuals to become licensed U.S. CPAs.

  • What you’ll need: A bachelor’s degree (with a minimum of accounting coursework) and one to two years of experience under the supervision of a licensed CPA. These requirements vary from state to state.

  • Exam pass rate: Around 50 percent

  • Maintenance: Completion of various levels of continuing professional development — usually 40 hours annually, but it depends on your state — in order to keep your licensure.

  • Cost: Exam, application and licensure fees combined with review courses and an ethics exam (obligatory in some states) can be as high as $3,000.  

  • Perks: According to the Robert Half's Salary Guide for accounting and finance jobs, CPA is still the most desired designation, including for corporate accounting positions. Employees holding this certification operate under a higher standard of guidelines and principles.

Compare the CMA certification  

If you find your personal interests or your comfort zone lands you solely in the realm of corporate finance and accounting, you may consider a CMA finance certification. While the CPA designation is a state license, the CMA is a globally recognized credential. This is especially valuable to professionals interested in enhancing their abilities to analyze an organization’s financial condition and make strategic business decisions based on what they find.

  • What you’ll need: IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) membership, a bachelor’s degree and two continuous years of management accounting or financial management. These requirements can be fulfilled seven years before or after passing the CMA exam. 

  • Exam pass rate: Approximately 50 percent in the U.S., although it’s lower worldwide.  

  • Maintenance: You’ll need to take 30 hours of certified professional education each year. Two of those will need to be in ethics.

  • Cost: Standard fees including IMA membership and entrance and exam fees run about $1,250

  • Perks: Holding a CMA shows employers you have a head for business, as well as numbers.

CPA vs. CMA: Examine the effects on salary

Each finance certification offers salary rewards. According to Robert Half's latest Salary Guide for Accounting and Financeprofessionals with an industry-recognized designation can expect starting salary offers 5 to 10 percent above the market average.

As also noted in the guide, there are a number of other valued certifications, including the chartered global management accountant (CGMA) from the AICPA, certified internal auditor (CIA) from The Institute of Internal Auditors, and certified payroll professional from the American Payroll Association.

Whatever you ultimately choose, obtaining a CPA or CMA certification — or both — will be a solid investment in your career. Good luck and happy studying!

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Editor's note: This post was published in 2014 and updated recently to reflect current information.