Financial Certifications that Deliver the Best ROI

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When you work in the finance and accounting industry, you hear a lot of talk about different 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 review.

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 between one and 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 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 latest Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance from Robert Half, in-demand credentials can add 5 to 15 percent to the overall pay for finance and accounting professionals — who have an average starting salary, by the way, that’s expected to rise 3.7 percent in 2017.  

Compare salary ranges for more than 400 positions, from bookkeeper to internal auditor to CFO at small, midsized and large companies.


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It’s a bit more involved when it comes to deciding which financial certifications you should pursue. If you’re deciding between a few of them, 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:

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.

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, 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.

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.

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:

  • The Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) 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.

  • The Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) 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.

  • The Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) 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 these are a few that finance and accounting professionals can bank on when it comes to getting raises, promotions and prestigious new positions.


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