CPA vs CMA: the difference between CPA and CMA
An accounting career isn't just about crunching numbers; it's about choosing a path that resonates with your personal and professional aspirations. An advanced designation or certification can help you fulfill those aspirations, but you need to choose the one that aligns with where you want to go. For example, becoming a Certified Management Accountant (CMA) may lead you through the strategic inner workings of a corporation, while becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) may open more varied opportunities in tax, auditing, or finance. But how do you choose a CMA vs CPA?
Understanding which option is right for you is the first step toward a successful, fulfilling career. This guide provides an in-depth comparison of a CPA license and CMA certification, from the requirements to earn the designation to the earning potential so you can make an informed choice.
What you'll learn
Read ahead or use the table of contents to jump to a section.
- Why earn an accounting designation?
- Defining the designations: CMA vs CPA:
- Know the requirements
- Passing the exams
- Designation cost
- Charting your career path
- Salary outlook
- Making the choice
You're probably working toward your bachelor's degree, or you already hold one (or a higher degree). Isn't that enough? While you can certainly have a successful career with only a degree, earning a certification or CPA license shows you have more advanced knowledge and skills that help you stand out from other accountants.
More importantly, you may need a CMA certification or CPA license to pursue your goals. For example, a CPA license is mandatory if you want to open your own firm or work in public accounting acting on behalf of clients.
Before deciding which path to take, CMA vs CPA, you should understand exactly what they are and how they differ.
What is a CPA?
A CPA is an accounting professional who has met their state CPA licensing requirements and demonstrates the competence and knowledge to provide diverse financial services to individuals, businesses, and organizations. They may also serve as an independent third party for tax preparation, filing reports, or reviewing financial data.
A CPA license opens the door to working in various sectors, including public accounting, financial services, government, and corporate finance. Your work can include tax assistance, auditing, financial accounting, advisory services, and management consulting.
What is a CMA?
A CMA is an accounting professional who has demonstrated skill and expertise in financial accounting and strategic management. They focus more on the strategy side of organizational management and corporate finance. While individual state Boards of Accountancy grant the CPA license, the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) grants the CMA certification, which is also a global designation.
Having a CMA certification provides more opportunities to work in forecasting, strategy, and even decision-making at the executive level.
|Differences between the CPA license and CMA certification
|American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
State or Jurisdiction Board of Accountancy
|Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)
Dependent on your state or jurisdiction:
Set by the IMA
Consists of four individual exams, each contains between 50-80 multiple choice questions and 6-8 task based simulations
Must score at least 75 out of a possible 100 on each exam.
Consists of two exams, each consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions and two essays.
Must score at least a 360 out of a possible 500 on each exam
|Fees and costs are around $2,000, depending on your state.
|Fees and costs are between $1,190 and $1,600 depending on whether you're a student, educator, or professional
|Exam pass rate
|Between 45% and 61%, depending on the section
|50% for both sections
|Depends on the state and your area of practice, but generally around 40 hours per year
|30 hours per year
Earning a CPA license and CMA certification both require you to meet the "Three E's": education, experience, and passing the exam. However, they're different within each designation. First, let's compare the education and experience requirements to become a CMA vs a CPA.
Because the Institute of Management Accountants is a private organization offering a global designation, the CMA requirements are the same no matter where you live.
- Membership: You must have an active membership with the IMA.
- Education: A bachelor's degree or higher from an accredited university or college or an international equivalent
- Experience: Two consecutive years of experience in management accounting or financial management, not including internships or a training position
It's important to note that the CPA requirements vary from state to state, so we highly recommend you check your jurisdiction for the specifics. But there are universal education and experience minimums.
- Education: All CPAs must have a minimum of 150 college hours and hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. Each state determines specific accounting concentration and course requirements.
- Experience: All CPAs must have accounting employment experience outside of an internship. Again, each state sets their requirement for the amount of hours and type of work.
You need to pass the CMA Exam and CPA Exam to earn the respective designation, but the exams themselves are very different.
The CPA Exam
The CPA Exam is a four-section exam consisting of three Core sections that every candidate must take. You must also choose one of three Discipline sections focusing on more specialized knowledge.
|Core sections (must pass all three)
Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
Financial Analysis and Reporting (FAR)
Taxation and Regulation (REG)
|Discipline Sections (must choose and pass one)
|Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR)
|Information Systems and Controls (ISC)
|Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP)
The CPA Exam format is a bit different than the CMA Exam. Each exam section consists of five parts (or testlets):
- 50 to 80 multiple-choice questions, depending on the section, divided over two testlets
- Up to eight task-based simulations, depending on the section, divided over three testlets
Depending on your state, you will have between 18 and 36 months to pass all four sections of the CPA Exam from when you pass your first section. Nearly all states have adopted NASBA's recommendation of a 30-month time frame.
CPA Exam scores are based on a scale from 0 to 99, and you must score a minimum of 75 to pass each section. Your score is not based on a percentage of correct answers. Instead, the calculation is based on both whether you answered questions correctly and the relative difficulty of each question.
The CMA Exam
|Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
|Planning, budgeting and finance
|External financial reporting decisions
|Technology and analytics
|Part Two: Strategic Financial Management
|Financial statement analysis
Both parts of the exam are four hours long and consist of 100 multiple-choice questions and two essay questions. Each part is scored from 0 to 500, and you must score 360 or more to pass. Also, you must pass both parts within three years of entering the program, or you will forfeit the part you did pass.
The cost is another element to consider when deciding between the CMA vs CPA. While the benefits of earning either designation outweigh the upfront costs, it's still important to know so you can plan and budget.
CMA certification costs include:
- Membership: between $49 and $295, depending on whether you're a student, educator, or professional
- CMA entrance fee: between $210 and $225
- CMA Exam fee: between $370 and $495 per part
CPA Exam costs vary by state, but include:
- Initial eligibility application: between $100 and $200
- Registration fee: between $100 and $400 per section
- CPA Exam fee: $344.80 per section
It's important to note that you will need to pay the CPA or CMA exam fee each time you take a section of the exam. If you don't pass a section and need to retake it, you will need to pay the exam fee again.
What career paths are available to you once you earn your CPA license or CMA certification? While there isn't a set path, more options and opportunities are available, depending on which designation you choose.
The most common CPA careers include working in tax preparation and planning, internal and external audit, and providing advisory services within a public accounting firm, government agency, corporation or business, nonprofit, or you may even open your own CPA firm. The most common roles include:
- Corporate accountant
- Tax accountant
- Financial advisor
- Forensic accountant
Depending on your experience, having a CPA license can help you move into more senior or executive roles in your career, including a controller or CFO.
Because a CMA certification is more focused on managerial accounting, you are more likely to work in a corporate or business setting in with a role in strategy, analytics, and forecasting. Common CMA career paths include:
- Financial risk manager
- Cost accountant
- Financial analyst
- Managerial accountant
- Senior accountant
Like a CPA, having a CMA certification can also help you move into executive roles, including a corporate controller or CFO.
We understand that earning potential plays a significant role in your career choices. Let's look at the income averages for a CPA vs a CMA.
CPA average salary
CPA salary depends on geography, professional experience, and the job itself. Keeping that in mind, CPA starting salaries are typically between 10 and 15 percent higher than non-CPA accountants1, and the average CPA salary is around $96,7522.
CMA average salary
Like a CPA, a CMA salary also depends on geography, experience, and the role, but CMAs report a 19 percent higher median salary than their non-certified peers3. The average salary is approximately $118,122, as they often specialize in financial leadership and drive business success through strategy.
There isn't a right or wrong answer. Choosing between a CMA certification or a CPA license is not a straightforward decision, as both can lead to fulfilling and lucrative careers. When making your choice, consider the following:
- Interests and skills: Which option aligns with your passions and strengths?
- Long-term goals: What professional roles do you aspire to? Do you see yourself in public accounting, corporate finance, or leadership positions?
- Industry demands: Reseach the industry you wish to work in; certain sectors may favor one designation over the other.
- Flexibility: Does the CPA or CMA offer the flexibility you may need in a dynamic job market?
- Geography: The importance of each designation can vary by region, so consider local market needs.
Regardless of whether you choose the accounting CMA vs CPA, achieving an accounting certification will help you stand out for your first job as well as for your next promotion.
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