For accounting and finance professionals, choosing between earning their CPA (Certified Public Accountant) license or pursuing CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certification is a significant decision, as it can set the trajectory of your career. A person who gets a CPA license typically works as a public accountant (generally tax and auditing), while a person who gets a CMA certification often works as a management accountant but may work in a wide range of other fields.
Let’s explore some of the differences and nuances of the CMA vs CPA.
What is the Difference between a CPA and a CMA?
Both the CPA and CMA provide their unique benefits, and it’s not a matter of one credential being better than the other, but a matter of which one is better for your career and interests.
The CPA is a U.S. license, while the CMA is a globally recognized certification.
The CPA is most appropriate for professionals seeking to work in public accounting. CMA certification is more appropriate for professionals seeking management and decision-making roles, often in private corporations.
What is a CPA?
Certified Public Accountants, or CPAs, are licensed by their individual state’s board of accountancy after passing the Uniform CPA Exam, administered by the AICPA. These professionals are authorized to conduct audits at Federal and State levels and can also sign tax and regulatory filings.
Passing the CPA Exam requires demonstrating mastery across four sections, specifically Auditing & Attestation (AUD), Business Environment & Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG).
What is a CMA?
Certified Management Accountants, regularly called CMAs, have significant expertise in not only basic financial accounting methodologies but also strategic management and business decision-making skills.
CMA certification is granted by the IMA after passing the CMA exam, including two parts: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics and Strategic Financial Management.
Key Differences between CPA vs CMA at a Glance
|The Exam||4-part exam totaling 16 hours of testing||2-part exam totaling 8 hours of testing|
|Annual Continuing Education||40 hours||30 hours|
|Experience Requirements||2 years under licensed CPA||2 years of Financial Management or Cost Accounting|
CPA vs CMA Careers
Job opportunities for both CMAs and CPAs are many, varied, and lucrative.
CPAs, for example, may work in a consulting firm or regional or local firms as an accountant or a financial advisor. Three common job opportunities for a CPA are public accountant, internal auditor or management accountant.
The CMA certification has a more international scope and prepares you to work in large corporations or companies with complex operations. Companies like 3M, Alcoa, AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing, and Cargill regularly hire CMAs, both in the U.S. and abroad. Common jobs for CMA-holders are cost accountant, financial risk manager, consultant and C-suite executives.
CPA vs CMA Salaries
According to industry data, a CPA earns 15% more in salary that a non-CPA accountant. However, CMA certification translates to a 63% premium in compensation over professionals without a CMA. Typically, a late-career CMA-holder does earn more than a CPA. You should also take into consideration work/life balance and job satisfaction when mapping out your accounting or finance career.
CPA vs CMA Exam Difficulty
To earn your CPA, you will need to sit for 16 hours of examinations across the four sections. The CMA exam, by comparison has two parts, with a total time of eight hours of testing. Even so, the CMA exam has a slightly lower pass rate, at roughly 45% passing the two parts, collectively, while half (~50%) or better pass each section of the CPA Exam.
All CMA candidates have three years to pass both parts of the exam. The time period will begin with the date of your entry into the CMA program. For CPA, you have 18 months to pass all four parts of the CPA Exam. The clock starts for the CPA Exam on the date you sit for and pass your first exam part.
CPA vs CMA Cost
The costs of earning a CPA license differs by state, but in general you can expect the total cost—not including a review course—to approach $1,500 with all the application fees, exam fees, and licensing fees.
For a professional pursuing CMA certification, the cost is approximately $1,000 with all the fees included. Again, this does not include the cost of a review course for studying.
Both the CPA and CMA bring additional fees when a candidate fails and needs to retake an exam section or part.
CPA vs CMA Requirements
When it comes to the requirements for eligibility, again both the CPA and CMA are similar in scope. The CPA requires a candidate to have two years of public accounting experience. Additionally, all states require at least a bachelor’s degree but many also require the candidate to hold a graduate degree (or the equivalent). Finally, after licensure, a CPA is required to complete 40 hours of Continuing Education each year.
CMA eligibility requires two years of financial management or management accounting experience. Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree or a related professional certification. Finally, 30 hours of Continuing Education are required each year to maintain certification.
Why Choose? Earn Both Your CPA and CMA
One of the first career decisions accounting students and professionals make is whether to pursue their CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or CMA (Certified Management Accountant)—but who said you have to choose one or the other? Particularly for CPAs, dual certification can be immensely rewarding. Here are a few reasons why:
- Differentiate from your colleagues
- Command an even higher salary
- Better serve your clients and add value to your employer
- Pave a path to management
- Prepare for both exams efficiently with overlapping content
The CPA and CMA Exams Overlap
Prepare for your exams more efficiently and benefit from the content overlap between the CPA and CMA exams. Here’s how you can strategically schedule and sequence your study plan to align with the topics tested on both exams.
The table below illustrates the alignment in content areas between the CPA and CMA exams.
|CMA Part 1 Topics||Where it Appears in CPA Exam|
|External Financial Reporting Decisions (15%)||FAR and REG (Tax Implications)|
|Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting (30%)||BEC|
|Performance Management (20%)||BEC|
|Cost Management (20%)||BEC|
|Internal Controls (15%)||AUD|
|CMA Part 2 Topics||Where it Appears in CPA Exam|
|Financial Statement Analysis (25%)||FAR and AUD (Analytical Review)|
|Corporate Finance (20%)||BEC|
|Decision Analysis (20%)||BEC|
|Risk Management (10%)||BEC and possibly AUD (Audit Risk)|
|Investment Decisions (15%)||BEC|
|Professional Ethics (10%)||AUD|
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Have a background in and passion for accounting? Lucrative, rewarding opportunities with companies of all types and sizes await you as a Certified Public Accountant—but first, you must pass the CPA Exam in order to obtain your CPA license.
Deciding and planning to take the CPA Exam can be a daunting task as the CPA Exam includes four separate sections totaling 16 hours, and requires a great deal of input even before you get to studying. Let us walk you through the process of taking the CPA Exam in our free eBook, Your Essential Guide to the CPA Exam.
Considering a career in Management Accounting? In this free download, you’ll also get Wiley’s popular Free eBook: Your Essential Guide to the CMA Exam that features everything you need to know about taking the CMA exam and offers some great tips on how to get started toward becoming a CMA.