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.
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.
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:
Certifications also have benefits that extend to the public, the financial industry and employers. Certifications can help businesses do the following:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
These are some higher-level and specialty certifications of note:
Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions on financial or accounting certifications.
All of the featured certifications here have rigorous requirements.
Depending on the certification, you should expect to study between 150 and 300 hours for the exam.
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.
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.
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.