CMA vs CPA – Which Track Is the Right One for You?

As a CMA, I am frequently asked about CMA vs CPA. Unsurprisingly, there tends to be quite a bit of confusion over the two accounting designations.

Even more so when it comes to answering the question: Which of these certifications is right for me?

Both the CPA and CMA certifications will help to maximize your competitiveness and earning potential, but they also both require a significant investment of time, effort, and money.

Because of this, your decision should take into account how multiple factors will best suit you (including exam structure and difficulty, experience requirements, the affordability of maintaining a certification, et cetera) and ultimately which certification will be most rewarding for your personal career goals.

To help you make an informed decision about which certification is best for you, I decided to share in my personal experience with deciding to become CMA certified by breaking down the key differences and advantages between the two designations.

CMA vs CPA Requirements

The CMA and CPA exam requirements differ slightly, and may affect which designation you’ll be able to obtain.

To help differentiate the two designations I have provided a chart below to show the differing requirements:

 CMACPA
Number of Parts24
Exam Cost
and Related Fees
Estimated total cost:
$1,345


IMA Membership:
$39-$245
(varies by the type
of membership)


CMA Entrance Fee:
$188-$250
($188 for students only)

Exam Registration:
$622-$830
($415/part, or
$311/part for students)
Estimated total cost:
$1,500


Application:
$50 to $200
(varies by state)

Exam:
$833.60
($208.40/section)

Exam Registration:
$300
(varies by state)

CPA Ethics Exam:
$150 – $200
(not required for all states)
Testing WindowsJanuary - February
May - June
September - October
January - February
April - May
July - August
October - November
Average Pass Rate
on First Try
40%48%
Continuing Education
Requirements
30 hours/yearaprox. 40 hours/year
(depending on the state)
Experience
Requirements
2 years of
Financial Management
typically, 1-2 years
under the supervision
of a licensed CPA,
but varies depending
on state
CMACPA

As you can see, both exam fees are comparable. However, there are some differences between how to become a CPA and how to become a CMA.

Additional investments such as those made in preparation for the exams and then to fulfill continuing education requirements are also expenses to take into account:

Between investments in exam preparation, exam costs, license fee (about $150), and continuing education, the total CPA exam cost is estimated to be between $2,000 and $3,000. If you are interested in taking the CPA exam, make sure to check out our article explaining the best CPA Exam Courses.

Between investments in exam preparation, IMA membership fees ($230 annually), exam costs, and continuing education, expenses for the CMA are estimated at $2,700. Additionally, you will have to invest in continuing education.

These investments are something to take into consideration when making your decision.

Another reason for my own choice was the experience requirements. After obtaining my CMA credential, I worked as a Corporate Controller. This position allowed me to fulfill the financial management experience requirement for the CMAs.

If I chose the CPA, I would have needed to find another job where I could work under a CPA for a year or two, and that wasn’t an option I was interested in.

You may similarly find yourself in a position more naturally suited to meeting either CMA vs CPA requirements. The experience that you currently have could contribute to your decision on which certification will make the most sense for your next step.

Another factor that you may take into consideration is the number of exam parts and difference in exam difficulty. Originally the CMA exam was a four-part exam just like the CPA. That was until the IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) decided to condense the exam into only two parts. In large part to this decision, the exams became much more difficult because each part of the exam had to cover more content.

Although this change was a deterrent to many, one of the reasons I chose to become a CMA was the fact that the CMA exam had been condensed into two parts. You may find the ability to complete the CMA exams in just two parts most appealing like I did. On the other hand, you may be more concerned with the difficulty of the more condensed CMA exams vs the CPA’s four-part exams. This choice is up to you.

CMA vs CPA Exam Content & Difficulty

Both exams are designed to test candidates’ knowledge of the core strengths of each designation, with the CMA’s focus being on business analysis/strategy and corporate financial management while the CPA focuses on taxes, compliance, financial reporting, and audit.

As far as testing goes, here are the topics covered in each of the the CMA and CPA exam parts:

CMA Exam PartsCPA Exam Parts
Part 1: Financial Planning,
Performance, and Analytics
BEC: Business Environment
& Concepts
Part 2: Strategic
Financial Management
FAR: Financial Accounting
& Reporting
AUD: Audit & Attestation
REG: Regulation

Although the CMA exam covers fewer topics than the CPA exam, the common experience is that both exams still have equally challenging material. Since the CPA exam covers more topics, this could require more study time.

However, the fewer topics within the CMA exam have a narrower focus and therefore require a deeper knowledge of the material. Neither of the exams are objectively more difficult than the other. It instead comes down to the experience and knowledge of the individual.

Since I was already working in management accounting, it was fitting for me to obtain the CMA rather than the CPA. Between the above core differences and the fact that I prefer to work in private accounting, the CMA made more sense for me personally.

Depending on your own personal experience and interests, the topics covered may factor into your own perceptions of exam difficulty as well.

You can find great online test prep courses for both the CMA exam and the CPA exam. Check out our CPA exam course review comparison guide for a comparison of the top four courses from Wiley, Surgent, Rogers, and Gleim.

CMA vs CPA Salary

The presence of a CPA or CMA certification indicates both increased expertise and commitment. This will position you as more competitive in the eyes of employers and grant you higher salary rewards.

According to the most recent CMA Salary Survey conducted by the IMA, it was found that respondents holding a CMA certification reported a 31% higher median total compensation than those holding neither certification.

Respondents holding only a CPA earn only 22% higher median total compensation than their non-certified peers.

On average, those holding their CMA certification earn $113,000 while certified CPAs earn $105,903.

If you take a look at the table below you can see that CMAs consistently earn more than their CPA counterparts at nearly every age range.

CMA vs CPA – Which is Right for You?

Ultimately, the designation that is the best for you is the one that will take your career to where you want it to be. The main difference between a CPA and CMA is the CMA’s focus on combining financial accounting with strategic management.

The addition of management skills enables CMAs to make strategic business decisions based on financial information.

The CPA’s core strengths are in taxes, compliance, reporting, and audit, while the CMA’s are in business analysis, strategy, and corporate financial management.

This is where it becomes important to reflect on your own interests and where you want to see your career path leading, as the most practical difference between the CPA and CMA is how they lead to different industry roles.

For example, a CPA may be more likely to have a position at a public accounting firm, while a CMA may be more likely to have a position within a private company.

Learning about taxes and performing audits did not appeal to me personally. However, I do have many colleagues who enjoy working in both of those fields. The trick is deciphering which certification is best suited for you by understanding which areas in accounting or finance you can see yourself working in.

More importantly, you want to choose a path that allows you to work in an area you truly enjoy. It is important to take some time to self reflect and really think of which areas you excel at and enjoy.

Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll know which designation is best suited for you.

Getting Started

Whichever designation you choose, it will be one of the best investments you’ll ever make for your career. Certified professionals command higher salaries, respect from peers, and are more likely to receive a promotion.

For more information on how I can help you pass the CMA exam on the first try, check out my highly successful online training program

Comment below and share which designation you’ll go for and why. I’d like to hear from you!

Cheers,

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