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Top 5 Accounting and Finance Certifications to Get Ahead

Kim Lindros
Kim Lindros

If you want to take the next step in your career, these accounting and finance certifications might be just what you need.

Nearly every public and private business entity – across all levels of government, small and large businesses, and certainly major accounting firms (KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and so on) – hires financial professionals.

Demand for accounting and finance jobs shifts with the state of the economy. As the economy grows, so does the need for accounting and financial management services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 6% employment growth for accountants and auditors through 2028, which is average for occupations in general.

A career in accounting and finance pays off. LinkedIn estimates the median salary for intermediate-level accountants in the U.S. is $53,000, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a higher median of $70,500. Financial managers fare much better, with median salaries of $98,000 and $127,990, respectively. You'll learn about salaries tied to specific certifications throughout this article.

In addition to relevant education and experience, a certification can propel your career forward, and it serves as a point of justification for negotiating a salary bump with your current employer or considering a new job offer.

Top 5 accounting and finance certifications

The following table lists top accounting or finance certifications and the number of open positions on a single day that call for the certification specifically or for experience with the subject matter. This isn't a scientific analysis in which every job description is examined, just an overall glance at search numbers. 

Job site search results

CertificationSimply HiredLinkedIn JobsTotal
Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM)289438727
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)1,6293,1034,732
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)21,04625,16447,239
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)3,2466,78010,026
Enrolled Agent (EA)1,4684,7486,126

The following sections provide details of these popular accounting and finance certifications, as well as other credentials you might find worthy to pursue.

Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM)

Those interested in government accounting, financial reporting, auditing, and budgeting at the local, state or federal level should consider the CGFM, offered by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA).

To achieve the CGFM, candidates must have a bachelor's degree and at least two years of professional experience in government financial management. They must also pass three CGFM exams: Governmental Environment (GE); Governmental Accounting, Financial Reporting and Budgeting (GAFRB); and Governmental Financial Management and Control (GFMC).

Each exam costs $125. Candidates must also pay an application fee, which is $70 for AGA members, $33 for student members and $99 for nonmembers.

Those who have obtained their CGFM can expect a salary of about $98,000, with the high end around $140,000, according to LinkedIn Salary.

Certified Management Accountant

The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) is the membership organization behind the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), which aims at management accountants and financial professionals.

Regarding the difference between a CMA and other accounting-related professionals, IMA explains that CMAs understand the "why" behind numbers, not just the "what." That means a CMA's role may involve analysis and reporting of monthly financials, forecasts, and the annual budget, as well as input for strategic planning.

A CMA certification can be lucrative. IMA's 2019 Global Salary Survey reports the median total compensation for CMAs is 31% higher in the Americas than for their peers without the designation. The study found that the overall median base salary in 2018 was $94,000, with an overall median total compensation of $102,000.

To achieve the CMA, you must have a current IMA membership, a bachelor's degree or an approved accounting certification, two years of relevant work experience, and a passing score on the two-part CMA exam. The first part of the exam covers financial reporting, planning, performance management and analytics. The second part focuses on financial strategy and decision-making. IMA charges $245 for a Professional membership, an entrance fee of $250, and $415 for each exam part. (A discount is available to students and academic members, and a limited number of scholarships is available each year.)

Note: The latest two-part CMA exam went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Review the exam structure and FAQs to ensure you're adequately prepared.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

The creme de la creme of accounting certifications is the Certified Public Accountant. A CPA works for a public or private sector organization, or as a consultant. CPAs can handle a variety of tasks, such as financial records maintenance, oversight of corporate finances and budgets, tax preparation, and financial planning. Some CPAs earn additional certifications and engage in more specialized activities, such as serving as an internal auditor of financial records, applying forensic accounting techniques to detect financial crimes, and acting as a fraud examiner.

Each state ‒ and several jurisdictions ‒ certify and license CPAs through their boards of accountancy, which means you'll need to research requirements for your locale. A typical minimum requirement is a bachelor's degree with courses in general accounting, cost accounting and the like. and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) CPA Exam page are good starting points.

The typical CPA salary is about $73,000, based on salaries reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics ($70,500) and LinkedIn Salary ($77,300). The Association of International Certified Professional Accountants indicates the average salary for CPAs with significant experience is about $120,000.

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

The CFA Institute offers the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) certification, geared toward investment and portfolio managers, corporate finance advisors, and analysts.

Candidates for the CFA need an international passport for ID purposes and a bachelor's degree or equivalent, four years of investment decision-making work experience, or a combination of education and experience. Earning the CFA requires passing three exams – levels I, II and III – which are offered every June. (The Level I exam is also offered in December.) The Level I exam focuses on knowledge and comprehension of investment tools. The Level II exam tests a candidate's application and analysis of asset valuation. The Level III exam tests for portfolio management skills.

The CFA Institute charges a one-time program enrollment fee of $450 and $1,000 for each exam. Early registrants pay $700 per exam.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates $127,990 as the median salary for financial managers. However, cash bonuses, profit sharing and commissions can increase total compensation to over $300,000.

Enrolled Agent (EA)

Tax professionals may be interested in earning the Enrolled Agent (EA) credential. Created by the IRS, the EA credential identifies people who are qualified to represent U.S. taxpayers in personal and business tax situations, such as collections and appeals. A certified EA typically has a lot of experience in tax preparation for a wide variety of federal and state tax returns. The EA is the highest credential you can achieve through the IRS.

To become an EA, you must have worked for the IRS for at least five years, in which you interpreted tax code, or pass the three-part Special Enrollment Exam (SEE). You must also obtain a Preparer Tax Identification Number, pass a background check, adhere to ethical standards, and complete 72 hours of continuing education every three years. Each part of the SEE exam costs $184.97, and candidates must pay a $67 fee to apply for enrollment.

Treasury Department Circular No. 230 is the go-to source for official information on what EAs do and how to become one. The National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA) offers information that's easier to digest as well as training resources.

The salary for Enrolled Agents varies widely by location in the U.S. According to LinkedIn Salary, the range is $29,489 to $75,576. That's in line with several other sources, coming to an average salary of about $53,000.

What else?

Another worthy certification in the accounting and finance realm is the Certified Bookkeeper (CB) by the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers. The Institute of Internal Auditors is well known for its Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) certification, but it also offers the Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA) and Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP), among a few other credentials.

In addition to providing CPA exam information and resources, the AICPA offers several certifications of its own, including the Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV), Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF), Certified in Entity and Intangible Valuations (CEIV), Certified in the Valuation of Financial Instruments (CVFI), and Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designations.

Higher-level and specialty certifications of note are the Certified Chief Accountant (CCA), Financial Risk Manager (FRM), Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA), Master Analyst in Financial Forensics (MAFF) and CAIA Charterholder.

Frequently asked questions

Which are the easiest and hardest accounting certifications to obtain?

All of the featured certifications in this article have rigorous requirements.

The CFA requires a bachelor's degree (at minimum) and four years of experience in addition to two exams. It takes four or more years, on average, to complete the CFA program, with candidates logging over 300 study hours per exam level.

Most CPAs have earned a bachelor's degree, and several pursue an MBA with a specialization in accounting or a master's in accountancy. The licensing exam varies by state but is typically multipart and spread over two days.

The CGFM and CMA require a bachelor's degree or accounting certificate and a minimum of two years of professional experience in addition to passing three exams.

The EA requires five years of experience or a passing score on the three-part Special Enrollment Exam.

How long does it take to get an accounting certification?

Depending on the certification, you should expect to study 150 to 300 hours for the exam.

Which accounting certification is most valuable?

Many people consider the CPA the most valuable certification because of its versatility and general demand by employers and clients (for CPA consultants). Based on typical salary, CGFM, CMA, and CFA certification holders and seasoned CPAs have the highest earning potential, with salaries over $100,000 that can easily climb above $140,000 with experience, bonuses and so on.

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Kim Lindros
Kim Lindros Contributing Writer
Kim Lindros is a full-time content developer who writes about security, technology and business. She spent nearly 10 years in tech support and as a network administrator before transitioning to tech publishing. With a background in project management, she has run large multifunction teams to produce entire book series, online curricula and on-ground training classes. She has also contributed to several books on Windows technologies and applications, and IT certification.