Are They Different?

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CPA Exam Basics

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Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and Certified Management Accountants (CMAs) are both certified accountants and more highly regarded than regular accountants. On a basic level, a CPA is responsible for taxes and audits, while a CMA is in charge of management accounting. Choosing the right path is one of the most difficult decisions an aspiring accountant must make. There are some key differences between a CPA and a CMA, which we will discuss here.

What exactly are CPA and CMA?

CPAs and CMAs are accounting professionals who specialize in different areas of accounting. While a CPA handles taxes and audits, a CMA focuses on management accounting. Both the CPA and CMA qualifications are gained by passing an examination, but only the CPA is required to be licensed. To become a CPA, you must complete 150 credit hours of an undergraduate program, and pass the CPA exam administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

A CMA, on the other hand, is an accounting expert who specializes in budget or asset management, as the name implies. A CMA holds the skills needed to make financial decisions for an organization that are primarily management-focused. To become a CMA, you need a bachelor's degree in either business, accounting, or economics, and become a member of The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).

Now, let's understand the differences between a CPA and a CMA in depth.

What is the difference between a CPA and a CMA?

Read the chart below to learn the key differences between CPA and CMA to make an informed choice for your career goals.

Differences between CPA and CMA
Section CPA CMA
Council American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA®) Institute of Management Accountants (IMA®)
Exam Pattern 4 Exams:
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  • Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR)
  • Audit & Attestation (AUD)
  • Regulation (REG)
2 Exams:
  • Part I-Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
  • Part II-Strategic Financial Management
Timeframe Must be completed within 1.5 years (18 months) Must be completed within 3 years (36 months)
Exam Fees (approx.)
  • $1,500 (Depends on the jurisdiction)
  • $1,000
Topics to Cover
  • Corporate Governance
  • Economic Concepts and Analysis
  • Professional Responsibilities
  • Ethics & General Principles
  • Financial Statement Accounts
  • Entity Federal Taxation
  • Individual Federal Taxation
  • Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting
  • Performance Management
  • Internal Controls
  • Cost Management
  • Decision Analysis
  • Professional Ethics
  • Financial Statement Analysis
Pass Rate % ~ 50% as of 2021 ~ 45% as of 2021
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CPA vs CMA Exam

Passing the exams is the most challenging part of obtaining either a CPA or CMA license. Each organizing body carefully details the content of each set of exams (the AICPA for CPAs and the IMA for CMAs). Although the difficulty of the CPA or CMA exam is subjective, the exam format and objectives are some of the major differences between the two. Let's look at these differences between the CPA and CMA exams as outlined by the IMA and AICPA.

Note: If you do not pass the CPA exam within the 18-month timeframe, you will be required to retake previously passed tests that occur beyond the 18-month term.
Source: AICPA

CPA and CMA Syllabus Overlaps

You can expect approximately a 30–35% overlap between the CPA and CMA syllabuses.

  • CPA Exam sections FAR and REG and Part 1 of the CMA exam, involve external financial reporting.
  • CPA Exam BEC section and CMA Part 1 share planning, budgeting, and forecasting, performance management, and cost management in common.
  • Internal controls are addressed in both the CMA exam Part 1 and the CPA Exam AUD section.

Let’s understand the overlaps in the syllabus in detail from the table below:

CPA Syllabus Overlap with CMA Part 1 Syllabus
FAR and REG (Tax Implications) External Financial Reporting Decisions (15%)
BEC Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting (30%)
BEC Performance Management (20%)
BEC Cost Management (20%)
AUD Internal Controls (15%)
CPA Syllabus Overlap with CMA Part 2 Syllabus
FAR and AUD (Analytical Review) Financial Statement Analysis (25%)
BEC Corporate Finance (20%)
BEC Decision Analysis (20%)
BEC and possibly AUD (Audit Risk) Risk Management (10%)
BEC Investment Decisions (15%)
AUD Professional Ethics (10%)

Furthermore, holding both the CPA and the CMA requires continuing professional education (CPE) hours. CPA credits are points that professionals receive for participating in specialized activity. Candidates can meet CPE requirements for both qualifications by completing a range of continuing education courses.

CPA vs CMA Exam Difficulty

Determining whether a CPA or CMA is easier depends on your skillset, preferences, and exam preparation. But, to attain a CPA, you must complete 16 hours of exams spread across four sections of the examination. In comparison, the CMA exam is divided into two parts, with a total timeframe of eight hours.

Historically, the CMA exam has a slightly lower pass rate of around 45% for Part 1, Part 2 combined, compared to close to 50% for the combined CPA exam.

Candidates for the CMA have three years to pass both parts of the exam. The clock starts ticking from the date you were accepted into the CMA program. For the CPA exam, however, you have 18 months to pass all four parts from the time you take the first exam.

CPA vs CMA Exam Cost

CPA certification costs around $1,500 on average, which includes exam fees, application expenses, and license fees. The CMA certification, on the other hand, costs around $1,000, including all expenses. Here are other costs associated to the CPA Exam that you should aware of:

2022 CPA Exam Fees 2022 Related CPA Exam Costs
Application Fees $30-200
Examination Fees $700-950
CPA Exam Retake Fee $50-200
CPA Review Course $1200-3600
Total $1780-4950

To understand all the costs involved in a CPA exam plus the licensure, read our A-Z guide on CPA Costs and Fees.

CPA vs CMA Requirements

If you want to become a CPA, plan on investing eight-plus years to get there. To begin, you'll need 150 hours of undergraduate credits, which is equivalent to a bachelor's degree and sometimes a Master’s degree. If your state requires work experience, it will take an additional two years. Given the extremely low first-time pass rate for the CPA exam (across the four sections), which is roughly around 45-63%, the AICPA lets you pass all four exams once you've passed your first within a timeframe of 18 months. CPA requirements often vary by state or jurisdiction. For example, in Nebraska, the state requires you to have a prior work experience of at least 4000 hours to be eligible for licensure. To learn more about the state-specific requirements, read about every state’s requirements for CPA licensure.

In comparison, becoming a CMA can take nine-plus years. To become a CMA, you must first get a bachelor's degree, which may take three to four years. Next is the mandatory two-year work requirement, which can be an internship or a part-time job you can do while in college. Given the difficulty of the CMA exam and the low first-time pass rate, the IMA allows CMA candidates a three-year exam window. As a result, CMA tests typically take longer to pass, which may impact a candidate's morale.

Pay Grade Differences

Certified Public Accountants earn 10-15% more than non-certified ones. Salaries can be higher than average in industries experiencing a lot of growth, like financial technology or software. As a CPA, you can work in auditing, taxation, quality assurance, or advisory services for the top accounting firms, like the Big Four, well-known global companies, or smaller local firms. In recent years, certain industries, like hospitality, healthcare, and EdTech have been growing and looking to hire CPAs.

On the other hand, getting the CMA certification can provide you with numerous options in both the regional and global markets. It will help you improve your financial, accounting, and management skills, which will enhance your job opportunities and help you stand out from the pack.

A CPA's average compensation throughout the course of their career is around $120,000, while a CMA's typical salary is around $100,000. According to the AICPA's survey, the average newly licensed CPA in the United States earns $66,000 annually. However, with 20 years of expertise, one can expect more than $160,000.

CPA Average Salaries from entry-level to experienced

Licensed CPA Salaries
Tax Services 25% 50% 75% 95%
Senior Manager / Director $114,250 $137,500 $165,000 $217,000
Manager $88,500 $107,000 $127,000 $167,750
Senior $62,000 $73,250 $87,250 $115,500
1 to 3 Years $49,000 $59,750 $70,500 $93,500
Up to 1 Year $40,500 $49,000 $57,250 $75,750
Audit/Assurance Services 25% 50% 75% 95%
Senior Manager / Director $112,500 $134,750 $161,000 $212,000
Manager $76,250 $93,500 $110,000 $145,250
Senior $54,250 $66,750 $78,500 $103,500
1 to 3 Years $45,000 $54,550 $64,250 $82,250
Up to 1 Year $40,500 $49,000 $57,750 $76,500

CPA Average Salary by profession

Designation Average Salary
Financial Analyst $83,660
Management Accountant $60,968
Senior Accountant $69,372
Cost Accountant $57,382
Financial Risk Manager $102,325
Corporate Controller $101,370
Chief Financial Officer (CFO) $137,121

Why CPA Might Be A Better Choice?

So, now that you know the major differences between a CPA and a CMA, it's time to make a choice. What you choose will depend on a number of factors and can also be determined by your preferences. However, in our opinion, getting a CPA would be a better choice for an accounting professional. Here’s why:

Raised Entry Barrier

The AICPA and NASBA have advocated for a common CPA prerequisite in all states—the so-called "3E" CPA requirements need 150 credit hours with a focus on accounting, as well as one to two years of experience validated by an active CPA licensee. Because the entry barrier is so high, becoming a CPA is a prestige that few can obtain, making the qualification extremely valuable.

Suitable for All Accounting Positions

The CPA credential is highly recognized, and you can earn it no matter where you work in finance and accounting, whether in public or non-public accounting. The CMA, on the other hand, is solely useful for individuals who want to work and stay in the corporate world.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Not necessarily. CPA is a better choice than CMA because CPA offers you an in-depth knowledge of public accounting, which helps you get jobs in the public and private sector, while CMA pretty much limits you to the corporate world.
The pay scale of a candidate usually boils down to their skillset and years of experience. However, a CPA’s average compensation throughout the course of their career is around $120,000, while a CMA’s typical salary is around $100,000. So, a CPA earns more than a CMA.
If you get a CMA certification after becoming CPA licensed, at most it will help you gain knowledge in the field of management accounting, and costing in general. However, since CPA certification covers most of the accounting principles and practices, some of which are redundant with the CMA course, it can be avoided.
The decision to become a Certified Management Accountant (CMA) or not is based on the preferences and interests you have in your professional life. However, a CMA earns 31% (median payscale) more than a non-certified accountant. So, yes, it is worth it as it can help boost your career.

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What’s the difference between a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and a CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certification?

It’s one of the most common questions we hear, and it’s usually followed by, “Which certification will get me further along in my career?”. Let’s take a closer look.

What is a CMA?

A CMA has expertise in financial accounting and strategic management, allowing them to make business decisions for their employer based on financial information.

What is a CPA?

A CPA is uniquely qualified as an accounting expert and performs/signs audits, most often representing companies during IRS audits.

Both certifications require a bachelor’s degree, work experience, and passing a licensing exam. Both certifications are respected and present unique opportunities for the licensed, but the CPA certification is generally regarded as the more difficult and prestigious of the two.

The decision to pursue either a CMA certification or CPA certification is ultimately a decision on what career path is the best fit for you. If you are more inclined to manage people and provide business counsel in the private sector, you’re likely to pursue a CMA certification. If you’re interested in the raw data and prefer to prepare in-depth analysis and reporting, you’re likely to pursue a CPA certification.

Those are general descriptors, and you should consult with professors, advisors, mentors, and work superiors to figure out the right path for your situation. Here are a few more factors to consider:

Exam Length

  • CMA: 2-part exam
  • CPA:  4-part exam

Exam Cost

  • CMA:  ~$650 (varies by state)
  • CPA :  ~$775 (varies by state)

Exam Pass Rate

  • CMA: 43%
  • CPA: 50%

Continuing Professional Education Requirement (CPE)

  • CMA: 30 hours per year
  • CPA: 40 hours per year

Experience requirements to become fully licensed

  • CMA: 2 years
  • CPA: 1-2 years (varies by state)

Average starting salary

  • CMA: $61,000
  • CPA: $66,000

Average salary

  • CMA: $102,500
  • CPA: $119,000

Both certifications require a bachelor’s degree, work experience, and passing a licensing exam. Both certifications are respected and present unique opportunities for the licensed, but the CPA certification is generally regarded as the more difficult and prestigious of the two.

Having either certification will give you a leg up on your competition — particularly in the recruiting and interviewing stages of your first job search as well as future promotions.

But it’s important to remember that your path is up to you. Whether you decide to become a CMA or a CPA, it’s your character, values, and work ethic that will determine your value. 

We feel it’s our obligation to remind you that most people outside of the accounting industry know are most familiar with the CPA certification. Although they might not know what the acronym stands for, they understand that it accompanies highly motivated, reliable experts in the accounting field. The CMA certification comes with less familiarity and prestige. In addition, in our experience, most employers:

  • Prefer a CPA over a CMA
  • Pay more for a CPA over a CMA (as seen above)
  • Require a CPA more often than they require a CMA

Obtaining the CPA license is more difficult and takes more time, but you can see that it’s worth it. That said, do your research and go with the certification will serve your career best. Both certifications are worthy pursuits, and if you’d like to obtain both, we say go for it!

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