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Top 5 Accounting and Finance Certifications to Get Ahead

Kim Lindros
Kim Lindros
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated May 20, 2022

Looking to advance your career? These accounting and finance certifications can give you a leg up on the competition.

Nearly every public and private business entity – across all levels of government, small and large businesses, and major accounting firms (KPMG, EY, Deloitte, PwC) – hires finance professionals.

Demand for accounting and finance jobs shifts with the economy. As the economy grows, so does the need for accounting and financial management services. To improve their accounting skills, knowledge, credibility and job prospects, many financial and accounting professionals earn specializations in various accounting niches. We’ll explore five of the most popular accounting and finance certifications and how they’ll benefit finance professionals. 

What are accounting and finance certifications?

There are several different accounting and finance certification types. One of the most well known is the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification. CPAs specialize in auditing, compliance, taxes, forensic accounting, fraud examinations and more. Another popular finance certification is the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification, which leans toward financial analysis.

Other lesser-known certifications include certified bank auditor, certified fraud examiner, certified information systems auditor, certified internal auditor and enrolled agent. However, CPA is the most sought-after certification, as many accountants’ careers will plateau early on without one.

Did you know?Did you know? Accounting and finance professionals are usually familiar with several of the best accounting software solutions integral to various business types.

What are the benefits of being certified?

Certifications indicate specialized knowledge, which can help clients hire the right accountant for their needs. According to the Institute of Financial Consultants, current financial certifications can also help accomplish the following:

  • Enhance professional reputations.
  • Support continued professional development.
  • Demonstrate a high level of commitment to the field.
  • Validate skills and knowledge.
  • Communicate credibility.
  • Increase opportunities for career advancement and increased earnings.
  • Differentiate candidates in a competitive job market.

Certifications also have benefits that extend to the public, the financial industry and employers. Certifications can help businesses do the following:

  • Standardize practices.
  • Increase cooperation between organizations in the same discipline.
  • Provide the means for self-regulation.
  • Increase employee competence.
  • Identify quality service providers.
  • Provide the means to establish an ethical code.
  • Establish customers’ confidence in employees.
  • Make employment decisions.

Did you know?Did you know? As firms recruit new employees for accounting and financing jobs, certifications immediately demonstrate potential hires’ areas of specialized knowledge.

Top 5 accounting and finance certifications

We’ll take an in-depth look at five of the most popular and valuable accounting and finance certifications, along with some additional credentials you may be interested in pursuing.

1. Certified Government Financial Manager

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

To get a CGFM certification, 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)
  • Governmental Financial Management and Control (GFMC)

Each exam costs $125. Candidates must also pay an application fee of $80 for AGA members, $36 for student members and $109 for nonmembers.

According to LinkedIn Salary, those who have obtained their CGFM certification typically earn about $98,000, with the high end around $140,000.

2. Certified Management Accountant

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

Regarding what differentiates a CMA from other accounting-related professionals, the IMA explains that CMAs understand the “why” behind numbers, not just the “what.” That means a CMA’s role may involve analyzing and reporting monthly financials, forecasts and the annual budget, as well as providing strategic planning input.

A CMA certification can be lucrative. IMA’s 2021 Global Salary Survey reports that the median total compensation for CMAs is 58% higher than it is for those without the designation. The study found that the overall median base salary in 2021 was $110,000, with an overall median total compensation of $124,000.

To achieve the CMA designation, you must have the following:

  • Current IMA membership
  • A bachelor’s degree or an approved accounting certification
  • Two years of relevant work experience
  • A passing score on the two-part CMA exam

The first part of the CMA exam covers financial reporting, planning, performance management and analytics. The second part focuses on financial strategy and decision-making. 

The IMA charges $275 for a Professional membership, an entrance fee of $280 (for professional members) and $460 for each exam part. (A discount is available to students and academic members, and a limited number of scholarships is available each year.)

TipTip: The latest two-part CMA exam went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Review the CMA exam structure and FAQs to prepare.

3. Certified Public Accountant

The creme de la creme of accounting certifications is the Certified Public Accountant (CPA). CPAs can work for public- or private-sector organizations or as consultants. CPAs can handle various tasks, such as financial records maintenance, corporate finance, budget oversight, tax preparation, and financial planning. 

Some CPAs earn additional certifications and engage in more specialized activities, including serving as an internal financial records auditor, 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, so you’ll need to research the requirements of your locale. A typical minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree with courses in general accounting, cost accounting and more. AccountingEdu.org and the Association of International Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) CPA Exam page are good starting points to determine the requirements you’ll need to meet.

The typical CPA salary is about $73,000, based on salaries reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The AICPA indicates that the average salary for CPAs with significant experience is about $120,000.

Did you know?Did you know? Small businesses hire CPAs so they can spend less time worrying about taxes, save money by taking advantage of deductions, keep finances up to date, and stay in good standing with the IRS.

4. Chartered Financial Analyst

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

Candidates for the CFA designation must have the following: 

  • A passport for ID purposes
  • A bachelor’s degree or equivalent
  • Four years of investment decision-making work experience
  • Or a combination of education and experience

Earning the CFA designation 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 a standard registration fee of $1,000 for each exam. Early registrants pay $700 per exam.

The BLS listed the median salary for financial managers as $134,180 in 2020.

5. Enrolled Agent

Tax professionals may be interested in earning the Enrolled Agent (EA) credential. Created by the IRS, the EA credential identifies people 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 interpreting the tax code, or you must pass the three-part Special Enrollment Exam (SEE). 

You must also do the following:

  • Obtain a Preparer Tax Identification Number
  • Pass a background check
  • Adhere to ethical standards
  • Complete 72 hours of continuing education every three years

Each part of the SEE costs $185, and candidates must pay a $67 fee to apply for enrollment.

The National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA) offers more information and training resources for becoming an EA.

The salary for EAs varies widely by location in the U.S. According to LinkedIn Salary, the range is $30,000 to $65,000. 

Did you know?Did you know? Like financial certifications, marketing certifications can help professionals advance their marketing careers and display specialized knowledge.

Other finance and accounting certifications to consider

  • Certified bookkeeper: The Certified Bookkeeper (CB) certification comes from the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers. This certification can help you achieve more high-level bookkeeper positions.
  • Institute of Internal Auditors certifications: 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) certification and Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP) certification, among a few other credentials.
  • AICPA certifications: 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.

These are some higher-level and specialty certifications of note:

  • Certified Chief Accountant (CCA)
  • Financial Risk Manager (FRM)
  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
  • Certified Valuation Analyst (CVA)
  • Master Analyst in Financial Forensics (MAFF)
  • CAIA Charterholder

Financial certification FAQs

Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions on financial or accounting certifications.

Which are the easiest and most difficult accounting certifications to obtain?

All of the featured certifications here have rigorous requirements. 

  • CFA: The CFA designation 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 more than 300 study hours per exam level.
  • CPA: Most CPAs have earned a bachelor’s degree, and several pursue an MBA with a specialization in accounting or a master’s degree in accountancy. The licensing exam varies by state but is typically spread over two days.
  • CGFM and CMA: The CGFM and CMA designations require a bachelor’s degree or accounting certificate and a minimum of two years of professional experience in addition to passing three exams.
  • EA: The EA designation requires five years of experience or a passing score on the three-part SEE.

How long does it take to get an accounting certification?

Depending on the certification, you should expect to study between 150 and 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). 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.

Where do you find the right certification for you?

Certifications are usually connected to specializations in the accounting and financial fields. When looking into which certifications might be right for you, first consider which areas of finance and accounting interest you. Courses are available across all the various certifications in colleges and other educational institutions.

What are the benefits of being certified as opposed to not being certified?

Certifications indicate a high level of commitment and skill, helping people expand their finance and accounting career opportunities. Certifications can also lead to more internal promotions, as many professionals without their CPA certification hit a professional plateau. When a financial professional is certified, clients feel more confident in an institution’s or accounting firm’s ability to manage their money.

Sean Peek contributed to the writing and research in this article.

Image Credit:

fizkes / Getty Images

Kim Lindros
Kim Lindros
business.com 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.