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

cma vs cpa

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

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

CMA

CPA

Number of Parts 2 4
Exam Fees $900 (may vary) $873.20 (may vary)
Testing Windows Jan, Feb, May, June, Sept, Oct Jan, Feb, Apr, May, July, Aug, Oct, Nov
Average Pass Rate on First Try 35% 48%
Continuing Education Requirements 30 hours/year Approximately 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

As you can see, both exam fees are comparable. However, 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, expenses for the CPA are estimated between $2,000 and $3,000.

Between investments in exam preparation, IMA membership fees ($245 annually), exam costs, annual maintenance fees ($30), and continuing education, expenses for the CMA are estimated around $2,000. 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 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 Parts

CPA Exam Parts

Part 1: Financial Reporting, Planning, Performance and Control BEC: Business Environment & Concepts
Part 2: Financial Decision Making 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.

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.

Salaries for CPAs and CMAs are fairly comparable, although the CPA’s average slightly higher. However, there are many factors such as a job title, years of experience, industry, and age that have a direct impact on how much CPAs and CMAs earn.

Below you can see how some of these factors can affect salary on average, according to a 2011 salary survey conducted by the IMA (Institute of Management Accountants).

Age

No CPA or CMA

CMA

CPA

19-29 $52,124 $59,812 $60,417
30-39 $79,246 $93,495 $85,052
40-49 $104,278 $118,553 $108,956
50-59 $104,072 $119,591 $120,777
60 and over $108,409 $106,334 $128,767
All $95,823 $111,037 $115,052

The most important takeaway from this chart is that obtaining a certification (either CMA or CPA) is more financially advantageous than choosing not to obtain either designation.

With a CPA or CMA certification, you will earn around $10,000+ more per year than you would without these credentials. They both come with ample opportunity for career and salary growth.

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

If you’re leaning towards the CPA, Crush the CPA Exam is the most comprehensive and up-to-date resource you will find online.

The founder, Bryce, is the most helpful CPA I know and can help you crush the CPA Exam on your first try! However, if you are interested in the CMA, I can help answer any questions and provide further information if you need it.

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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