CMA vs CPA: Detailed comparison- Which one should you pick?

Choosing a career path in accounting often involves choosing between CMA and CPA certifications. Both credentials offer distinct advantages and open various career paths. However, knowing which to choose among these two career paths in accounting can be daunting; this is where this post comes in handy.

Having spent months comparing both certifications, I have compiled a comprehensive review of CMA and CPA. In this post, you get to know what these two terms in accounting mean, their differences, and comparisons to help you decide which path best suits your career goals.

What is CMA?

Certified Management Accountants (CMAs) are the financial wizards behind the scenes of a company. They use their accounting expertise to analyze data, forecast performance, and translate numbers into actionable insights. CMAs are like strategic business partners, helping companies make informed budgeting, cost management, and profitability decisions.

Here’s what CMAs excel at:

Financial planning and analysis: CMAs are masters at creating financial models, forecasting future performance, and identifying areas for cost savings.

Management accounting: They dive deep into a company’s operations, analyzing costs, profitability, and efficiency.

Strategic decision-making: CMAs use their financial knowledge to help companies make informed decisions about investments, pricing, and resource allocation.

What is CPA?

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) are the gatekeepers of financial integrity. They ensure a company’s financial statements are accurate and compliant with regulations. CPAs often work in public accounting firms, auditing companies, and providing tax advice.

Here’s where CPAs shine:

Auditing: CPAs independently assess a company’s financial records to ensure accuracy and compliance with accounting standards.

Tax accounting: They specialize in complex tax laws and regulations, helping businesses minimize their tax burden and navigate tax filing.

Financial reporting: CPAs prepare and review financial statements, ensuring they accurately reflect a company’s financial health.

Key Disparities Between CMA and CPA

CMA and CPA share some disparities in fees, pass rates, experience requirements, etc. These significant differences are outlined below:


  • Fees: $1,300
  • Pass Rate: 45%
  • Experience Requirements: 2 years of Financial Management or Cost Accounting
  • Exam Duration: 2-part exam totaling 8 hours of testing
  • Average Salary: $75,000


  • Fees: $1,500
  • Pass Rate: 50%
  • Experience Requirements: 1-2 years under a licensed CPA
  • Exam Duration: 4-part exam totaling 16 hours of testing
  • Annual Salary: $68,724

CMA vs CPA: Educational Requirements

To become a CMA, you must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, an Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) membership, and two years of relevant work experience in management accounting or financial management. This pathway emphasizes the importance of higher education and practical knowledge in strategic financial roles.

In contrast, the CPA certification requires a bachelor’s degree with a specific number of accounting and business credits, which varies by state. Additionally, CPA candidates must pass the rigorous Uniform CPA Examination and meet particular work experience requirements that also differ by jurisdiction. The CPA path strongly emphasizes formal education in accounting principles and regulatory knowledge, as well as the completion of a comprehensive exam that tests a wide range of accounting skills.

CMA vs CPA: Examination Structure

The CMA exam is divided into two parts: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics, and Strategic Financial Management. Each part is four hours long and includes 100 multiple-choice and two essay questions. This structure tests candidates’ ability to apply management accounting principles to real-world scenarios and strategic decision-making.

Conversely, the CPA exam consists of four parts: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). Each section is four hours long and includes multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations, and written communication tasks. The CPA exam is more comprehensive, covering a broader range of topics, including auditing, taxation, and financial reporting, reflecting a CPA’s diverse responsibilities.

CMA vs CPA: Exam Difficulty

CMA and CPA offer significant benefits but differ in exam difficulty, cost, and time constraints. Let’s compare these aspects to help you decide which certification suits you best.

CPA Exam

The CPA exam consists of four sections, totaling 16 hours. The four sections are:

  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
  • Regulation (REG)

Candidates have 18 months to complete the remaining three sections from passing their first section. The CPA exam has a pass rate of around 50%, indicating a high level of difficulty.

CMA Exam

The CMA exam is shorter, totaling 8 hours, and divided into two parts:

  • Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
  • Part 2: Strategic Financial Management

CMA candidates must pass both parts within three years of entering the program. The CMA exam has a pass rate of about 45%, suggesting it is also quite challenging.

CMA vs CPA: Cost

Obtaining a CPA certification varies by state but typically totals around $1,500. This amount does not include the cost of review courses, which many candidates find essential. If necessary, there are fees for retaking any of the exam sections. You can check details here.

Meanwhile, the total cost for the CMA certification is approximately $1,300, not including review courses. Like the CPA, there are additional fees for retaking exam parts.

CMA vs CPA: Career Opportunities

CMAs primarily find roles within corporate finance and management accounting. Typical positions include Financial Analyst, Controller, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Cost Accountant, and Risk Manager. These roles focus on internal financial management, strategic planning, and performance analysis, making CMAs valuable in corporate settings.

On the other hand, CPAs have a wide array of opportunities in public accounting firms, private industry, government, and non-profits. Typical roles include Auditor, Tax Consultant, Forensic Accountant, Financial Analyst, and Compliance Officer. CPAs often perform external audits, prepare taxes, and provide consulting services, which means they can work with multiple clients and industries, offering greater career flexibility and diversity.

CMA vs CPA: Salary and Job Outlook

CMA and CPA certifications can significantly boost earning potential, but the Salary and job outlook can vary based on factors like location, industry, and experience. CMAs typically earn higher salaries in management positions within corporations, with the IMA’s Global Salary Survey indicating that CMAs earn around 20-24% more than their non-certified peers. This reflects the high value placed on strategic financial expertise in corporate roles.

CPAs also enjoy a significant salary advantage, with the AICPA reporting that CPAs can earn up to 15% more than non-certified accountants. CPAs benefit from various opportunities across various sectors, ensuring a stable and potentially lucrative career path.

You Can Maximize Your Career Potential with Dual CPA and CMA Certifications

The benefits of pursuing both CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certifications are substantial, particularly for accounting students and professionals aiming to distinguish themselves in their field. Dual certification can significantly boost career prospects and earning potential, offering a competitive edge in the job market.

The financial benefits of dual certification are clear. The IMA Global Salary Survey reveals that professionals holding both certifications earn considerably more than their peers. Specifically, dual-certified individuals earn 47% more on average, widening the gap to 58% for those aged 30-39.

Additionally, CMA holders see a 21% increase in median annual compensation compared to non-CMAs. These statistics underscore the long-term return on investment, potentially adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to one’s lifetime earnings.

Beyond financial gains, dual certification offers a broader and deeper understanding of corporate finance. The CMA is often viewed as a cost-effective alternative to an MBA, covering similar general business concepts and financial skills. 

This expanded knowledge base—from compliance and regulation to management accounting—enhances one’s ability to serve clients and contribute to organizational success. It includes critical areas like planning, control, analysis, ethics, and decision support.

The dual certification also signals to employers that the individual possesses a comprehensive skill set and a solid commitment to ongoing professional development. This combination of CPA and CMA designations indicates proficiency beyond traditional auditing and tax roles, extending into strategic financial management.

Adding a CMA certification is a strategic move for CPAs seeking leadership positions. While many CPAs advance to roles like CFO, the CMA credential provides an initial edge due to its focus on management accounting. Dual certification reinforces foundational CPA training and equips professionals with the tools to transition from producing financial reports to overseeing financial strategy. This shift from a reactive to a proactive role can prevent career stagnation and open doors to dynamic leadership opportunities.

Pursuing both CPA and CMA certifications offers a compelling pathway for accounting professionals. It enhances career prospects and earning potential, broadens financial expertise, and paves the way for leadership roles. Dual certification signifies a well-rounded, highly motivated professional ready to excel in today’s competitive and evolving business environment.

CMA vs CPA: Which Career Path is Right for You?

CMA and CPA certifications offer distinct advantages and can significantly enhance your career. The CMA is tailored for those aiming for strategic roles in corporate finance, while the CPA provides a comprehensive foundation for careers in public accounting and regulatory services. You can check Becker’s deals on CPA and CMA here.

Consider your career goals, interests, and the type of work you enjoy to choose the certification that best aligns with your professional aspirations. Both paths offer the potential for substantial career growth, financial rewards, and professional fulfillment.

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