Planning a career: CMA vs CPA credential

By Jack Castonguay

cpa vs cma

Building a career in accounting is more like hopping on a subway than walking a straight road. Along the way, you will take different lines, and routes will intersect and diverge. Multiple career pathways are ahead, and a recognized credential is the ticket for going as far as you want and reaching your destination of choice.  

In the accounting world, the best-known credential is the Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which opens doors to careers in public accounting and every type and size of business. The Certified Management Accountant (CMA) is another option, typically acquired by accountants looking for management and strategic decision skills.  

Which credential is right for you? The answer depends on your career aspirations.  

CMA vs. CPA: What’s the difference? 

The time, effort and expense needed to earn a CMA or CPA offer ROI in the form of career advancement, job satisfaction and higher pay. But first, there’s the question about which credential to pursue. Each credential offers different characteristics. First, it’s important to remember that the CPA is a U.S. license, while the CMA is a globally recognized certification.  

From there, making the right decision positions you for future success.  

Benefits of becoming a CPA  

Earn your Certified Public Accountant, and you open career doors by acquiring the most recognized credential in the industry. If you’re looking for advancement in a public accounting firm, the CPA is a requirement.  

As a CPA, you are licensed by your state’s board of accountancy after passing the Uniform CPA Exam, administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). With that credential in hand, you are authorized to conduct audit levels and can sign tax and regulatory filings. Jobs typically open to you include public accountant, internal auditor, financial manager and controller. 

Benefits of becoming a CMA 

CMA stands for Certified Management Accountant, so you get the gist. The CMA takes your skills beyond basic financial accounting methodologies by honing your managing and strategic decision-making capabilities.  

Granted by IMA (Institute of Management Accountants), the CMA focuses more sharply on higher-level operations and finance, preparing holders to work in large organizations with complex operations. CMAs find themselves in demand with the biggest names in U.S. and global commerce, including 3M, Alcoa, AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing and Cargill. 

CPA vs. CMA: Accountant careers and salaries 

CPA salaries 

The name says it all: Certified Public Accountant. For professionals seeking careers in public accounting, this is the most appropriate credential. It is also versatile – an asset useful in everything from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies.  

The field of public accounting typically encompasses accounting and tax services, auditing and other attestation services, and consulting services. 

 Of course, you can be an accountant without being a CPA, but CPAs earn 15% higher salaries, on average, than non-CPA accountants. Add a CPA license to your graduate degree, and your salary can rise by 15% annually, for a significant difference in earnings.  

 Of course, your earnings depend on many factors, such as the size of the firm, whether you’re in public or private accounting and your level of experience. But according to AICPA Salary Insights 2019, the average salary of a U.S.-based CPA based is $122,000 a year, and that doesn’t include bonuses. It’s a big jump from the average starting salary of $40,000 to $57,000 for accountants. Earn your CPA, and write your own ticket.  

CMA salaries 

The CMA is appropriate if you hope to work in corporations, not-for-profits, government, education, partnerships and other business entities. 

CMAs find themselves in demand in areas such as performance management, cost management, risk management, financial analysis and decision-making support. The CMA can carry a heavy load of ambition, taking you all the way up to CFO or other C-suite positions.  

The CMA certification translates to a 63% premium in compensation over professionals without a CMA. Once again, salary can be affected by your age, education level, experience and industry, but the CMA is a winner. According to the IMA’s 2020 Global Salary Survey, CMAs in the U.S. make $115,000 a year, compared to non-CMAs making about $87,000. That’s a 32% difference, proving the worth of earning that CMA. 

CMA vs. CPA Exam cost and requirements 

The rewards of earning a CPA or CMA exam make all the studying and testing worthwhile. Requirements differ for each exam, so consider the contrasts. 

CPA Exam 

To earn your CPA, you will need to sit for 16 hours of tests in the CPA Exam’s four sections – Auditing & Attestation (AUD), Business Environment & Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR) and Regulation (REG). 

Keep these important points in mind: 

  • Only about 50% of people taking each section pass. 
  • After you pass the first section, you have 18 months to pass the other three sections. 
  • This is an investment in your future, which is a gentle way of saying that there are costs involved. Costs vary by state, but with application, exam and licensing fees, expect the total cost to approach $1,500 (not including the cost of a review course, like Surgent CPA Review). 

CMA Exam 

The CMA Exam consists of two parts totaling eight hours of testing. Important points to consider include: 

  • The pass rate is even lower than the CPA Exam, at about 45% for each part. 
  • CMA candidates have three years to pass both parts of the exam, which sounds nice, but the clock starts as soon as you enter the CMA program, not when you take the test. 
  • Earning a CMA certification, including all fees, costs about $1,300, before accounting for a review course.  

CMA vs. CPA: Which credential is right for you? 

Salary and exam requirements certainly weigh into the decision, but in the end, the most important question is: Where do I see myself in five or 10 years? You bring strengths and weaknesses to the table. Perhaps you also bring experience that has exposed you to career possibilities and introduced you to the things you enjoy, or not, in the job.  

Overlay your career goals with these considerations, and the choice becomes clear: 

  • The versatile CPA credential opens doors to a wide range of options. Maybe you aren’t exactly sure what you want to do, but you know that it’s time to move ahead. If you want to advance your accounting career, the CPA credential would be a better fit. 
  • The CPA credential applies to public accounting. It’s suitable for work in a varied environment with different companies. 
  • The CMA credential is great if you have a strategic mindset, enjoy making decisions for yourself and see yourself in management. 
  • The CMA credential also is better if you are a whiz at analyzing and interpreting information. 

CMA vs. CPA: Surgent provides tools to earn your credential 

Whether you’re a beginning accountant or a veteran at a crossroads, the choice of CMA vs. CPA can determine the direction of your career. The decision hinges on the differences between the two. The right answer is the one that best matches your talents, strengths and goals.  

Regardless of which exam you choose, you don’t have to do it alone, and it doesn’t have to consume as much time as you fear. Surgent CPA Review and Surgent CMA Review offer the best exam reviews available, with AI-powered, customized learning that helps you study smarter and pass faster.  

Isn’t it time to earn the credential you deserve? Get started today, and discover how Surgent sets you up for success.