Advance your career with one of these essential accounting or finance certifications.
Nearly every public and private business entity – across all levels of government, small to large businesses, and certainly major accounting firms (KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and so on) – hire financial professionals.
The great news is that accounting and finance jobs are in demand, and are expected to continue an upward trajectory for several years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 10% employment growth for accountants and auditors through 2026, which is above average for occupations in general.
Plus, a career in accounting and finance pays off. LinkedIn estimates the median salary for intermediate-level accountants in the U.S. is $52,000, with Glassdoor reporting a slightly higher median of $56,560. (Both sites indicate about $74,000 at the higher end of the scale.) Financial managers fare much better, with median salaries of $97,000 and $100,535, respectively.
In addition to relevant education and experience, a certification can propel your career forward, and it serves as a point of justification when negotiating a salary bump with your current employer or considering a new job offer.
Top 5 accounting and finance certifications, by the numbers
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 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
|Certification||Simply Hired||LinkedIn Jobs||Total|
|Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM)||237||400||637|
|Certified Management Accountant (CMA)||615||882||1,497|
|Certified Public Accountant (CPA)||10,702||2,664||13,366|
|Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)||1,869||2,559||4,428|
|Enrolled Agent (EA)||349||300||649|
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-level 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, and candidates must pay an application fee ($70 for AGA members, $33 for student members and $99 for nonmembers).
Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
IMA, short for the Institute of Management Accountants, 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 into strategic planning.
A CMA certification can be lucrative. IMA's 2019 Global Salary Survey reports the median income for CMAs is 31% higher in the U.S. than for their peers without the designation.
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 and control. The second part focuses on financial decision-making. IMA charges $245 for a Professional-level membership, an entrance fee of $250, and each exam part costs $415. (A discount is available to students and academic members, and a limited number of scholarships is available each year.) [Take Dr. John's CM course on Udemy.]
Note: If you plan to sit for the two-part CMA exam on or after January 1, 2020, review the new 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, or CPA. A CPA works for a public or private sector organization, or as a consultant, and can handle a variety of tasks, such as maintaining and auditing financial records, overseeing finances and budgets, preparing taxes, and providing financial plans.
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. Typically, a minimum requirement is a bachelor's degree with courses in general accounting, cost accounting and the like. A few good starting points are the AccountingEdu.org site and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) CPA Exam page.
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
Candidates for the CFA need an international passport for ID purposes, as well as a bachelor's degree or equivalent, four years of professional 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 CFA Institute charges a one-time program enrollment fee of $450 and $950 for each exam.
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. 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.
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.
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 Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA), Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) and Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF).
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) and the Master Analyst in Financial Forensics (MAFF).
Finally, SAP offers Certified Application Associate credentials for Financial Accounting and Management Accounting on various SAP applications. To see all certifications, go to the SAP Certification Validities page and search for "accounting."